Making the jump from the practice room to the stage can be a bit nervewracking. It is common for these jitters to affect your performance in ways you might not be aware of.

In this episode, John discusses some of the most common performance mistakes and how to make your connection with your audience focused and strong.


New Science of Singing 2.0 course

Episode Transcript

Episode 108 – Performance Mistakes

Hey there, this is John Henny. Welcome back to another episode of The Intelligent Vocalist. I do so appreciate you spending your precious listening time with me. Okay, just a little bit of housekeeping here. If you are interested in voice science, if you’re a singer or a voice teacher and you want to delve, do a deep dive into voice science, practical voice science so that you can understand how your voice works and be able to correct your own voice and just end that confusing feeling where you try it one way doesn’t work, you try it another way, it doesn’t work and you’re just out of your mind. You don’t know what to do. Well voice science can give you the answers. And I have put my most popular course, the New Science of Singing on sale for the month of August for just $97.

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Alright, today I want to talk about these performance mistakes that I see teachers making. And not to pick on anyone, and I’m certainly not going to name this person, but I was bopping around YouTube, saw a voice teacher doing some demonstrations with a really nice voice and I thought, “wow, she can really sing” and I was curious. Checked out her website and there was a video of her singing in a performance. So I clicked on that, and low and behold, just about every don’t that I’m going to give you here was present in her video. And nice voice, but there were just ticks and lazy stylistic mistakes all through the song, as well as mistakes in connecting with the audience, and just some basic performance skills that this particular teacher was lacking. However, I do give her a nod for putting it up there. It’s always scary to put stuff up as a voice teacher because you’re going to be judged in a way that singers normally aren’t. And you know, you can go for things in terms of emotion and then people are just looking at everything technically, which is not what makes singing really exciting.

Technical singing, in and of itself, is rather dull. But so I am going to anonymously pick apart this person’s performance for your benefit. All right, so the first thing is there was just an excessive amount of portamento, and that is the sliding between notes as I go from one note to another. And you can use it as a vocal effect, and when used correctly, it can be a beautiful vocal device. But when you listen to great singers, it is used very sparingly, very judiciously. It is used just at the right moments because it is something that the voice will be prone to if we’re a little lazy about singing. And what I mean is the vocal folds stretch like a rubber band for pitch. We’ve got one string on our instrument, this pair of vocal folds. And the only way for us to change pitch is we can change their thickness, their tension, and their length.

And as we start going for high notes, the vocal folds will begin to stretch. And as we go for lower notes, they will begin to– the two points on the ends will come together and the folds will be shorter. So if you’re not really careful, this sliding can naturally begin to happen. Now there is a certain amount of sliding in all singing and if you try and avoid it, if you try and go for a high note without allowing yourself some amount of aah but just very quickly aah, and that little ah, that’s the way muscle works. Muscle has to just– when you throw a ball, you have to wind up for it. And there’s that little bit of a windup, but you do it really quickly. It’s almost imperceptible in great singers. You really can’t hear it. But when left to being lazy, it’s just, it’s too slow.

And this singer was sliding off of the end of every note, and it just became predictable and it actually was rather lazy. And this person with a really nice voice was ultimately avoiding sustains. And sustains are a little harder but we need them. And there was a laziness in this next one. I’ve talked about phrasing and rhythm, just paying attention to how the note ends. You know, we put all this focus on how the note begins, but we don’t pay attention to the ending. And the notes just kind of randomly petered out with no focus through the note, with no artistic intent as to the end of the note. So that was the first one. Other than that, the registration was good, the tone was good, pitch was good, all of those things, but that sliding around just really, really got dull.

Now let’s talk about performing for the audience. The big mistake that I see singers making, and that this singer made, was closing their eyes. Closing her eyes through the whole thing. Now if you watch great singers, they will occasionally close their eyes, and they will close their eyes for effect. If I am in conversation with you, if I am telling you something very important, if I am pouring my heart out to you — and it’s actually interesting, you want to hear me pour my heart out to you — and I close my eyes and just hold my eyes closed for like 30 seconds as I’m talking to you, you’re going to think “what is going on?” because what I’ve done is I’ve effectively shut you out. We communicate so much through our eyes.

If you think about great actors, then, and the performance that just jumped into my mind, as I said, this is Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands. That entire performance I think except for one spoken line is through his eyes and it’s incredibly effective. Great actors have great eyes and they know how to use them. Great performers have great eyes and they express themselves through their eyes, not just their voice. The audience wants to feel connected to you, and there is a voyeuristic element to being an audience member. When you are watching film or a play or a musical performance, you get to look at this person’s face and study them and absorb their emotions in a way that would be kind of creepy if you did it in real life, if you were staring at people this intensely. And what performers do is they allow you to examine them and they allow you to absorb their emotional expression in a profound way, and closing your eyes– it just doesn’t work.

And sometimes it’s nerves and a bit of fear. Sometimes it’s having to over focus on what it is you need to do. When you go to hit a high note, it takes so much concentration or a certain note that the eyes close so you can pay more attention. What I would suggest when you are practicing, be aware if you are closing your eyes on the harder notes. Don’t do this. Now, that doesn’t mean you can never close your eyes. When you get to a really beautiful introspective section of a song that closing your eyes then purposefully shuts the audience out, and now they’re observing you have a more private moment within the song. You use your eyes, open and close, on purpose. And that’s what was happening with this singer. Nothing was on purpose. It was just haphazard.

Now let’s talk about your body when you are singing. The singer didn’t know what to do with her hands. And when you first start performing, your hands are going to feel like this foreign object that you do not know what to do with it. It’s rather uncanny. It’s hard to explain until you’re up in front of people and you’re public speaking or singing, acting. Suddenly your hands become these appendages like, “Uh oh, these feel really clumsy, I’m not sure what to do.” And we’ll tend to just lock them behind our back or lock them to our sides. And the best piece of advice I was ever given was, leave your hands alone. I got this from the great acting teacher, Carole D’Andrea, who teaches a music performance class here in Los Angeles and she also teaches actors, from superstars down to people like me.

But she told me, “John, just leave your hands alone.” As I’m talking to you right now, my hands are moving. When you are talking to your best friend and you’re excitedly telling them about something, your hands are moving. You’re not thinking about it. Just let it be natural. This person, they had their hands very stiff, afraid to move them. The next thing they did was how they held their body. They kind of spread their feet a little too far apart, like they’ve just planted themselves, like you’re not going to move them. And then they did that sway back and forth, and it wasn’t this swaying to the music kind of thing. It was almost that nervous way that you see people do that really can be annoying. It annoys my wife like crazy, and if she catches me doing it, if I’m a little bored somewhere and I start swaying, she’ll give me that little kick under the table or shoot me a glance to stop because it is, it’s distracting.

And so they had their stiff hands. They had the feet planted like they were an obstruction on the stage. Then the body starts nervously swaying. And then they didn’t own the stage. They just stayed there in this one position rather than moving around the stage. And when you are moving on the stage, essentially when you move back you are pulling back power. You are creating a sense of more vulnerability or more weakness. And when you move forward you are giving more strength, you are giving more power, and you need to understand how that works. You don’t just randomly wander around the stage and you don’t just stand there.

You utilize body movement in order to accentuate what it is that you’re saying and feeling emotionally. Alright? If you are very upset with somebody and you’re having a rather heated discussion, you don’t start walking back. Sometimes you’ll feel your body come forward a little bit. Now you move a little too forward a little too fast, people will read that as aggression and you risk getting into a physical altercation, right? We instinctively know that our body moving is something that we have to be careful with. We read people’s body language. I mean we are hardwired to read other human beings on a very deep level. The way they use their eyes, the way that their body moves, the way they hold themselves, just the general emotional energy we are getting from them. And yet we get on stage and we forget that.

And all of that is available to us with an audience that wants to be emotionally moved. They want to be connected with, unless they’ve been drugged there and they’re being held captive. They are watching you because they want to experience something. They want you. You’re almost like the class clown. They want you to experience this emotion and put this emotion out there and communicate all of these feelings that they themselves are rather uncomfortable dealing with. So they get to experience it in a safe way. It’s like getting on a roller coaster to experience fear in a safe way. Feeling that feeling of falling and losing control on a roller coaster makes people scream and laugh. If it happens in real life, it’s terrifying. So what it allows them to do is to touch it in a safe way. You’re allowing people to touch heartbreak and anger and abandonment and love and passion and all of these human emotions that are very, very strong.

And they get to sit there in the dark and experience them vicariously through you. And it’s about them connecting with you. The audience has to connect with you, and then they will have their own emotional experience through your performance. And if you have your eyes closed and your hands jam to your side and your legs just rock solid and you’re not moving except for this nervous sway, what do you expect them to get from that? What connection is there? What are they supposed to feel?

So very, very simple things that you can do. Number one, don’t slide around on the notes. Be very deliberate in how you are singing. Number two, keep your eyes open. Now it can get kind of creepy if you’re just staring at people too long in the audience. Not that you can’t glance at them and make a quick connection, but they want to be a voyeur, right?

They’re a fly on the wall watching you. So if you’re staring at them, they’re just in this awkward position of having to smile back at you and you’re breaking the spell. So you can give little quick glances, but essentially look just over the top of their heads. Look to the back wall and project a little film starring the person or situation you’re singing about and intensely watch that film. Let your eyes experience that film of the mind, and they’ll feel it. They’ll know. When you see a great performer and you see it in their eyes, it’s magic. So use your eyes, leave your hands alone. Let them move around. They’re gonna move. Don’t worry about them. Number three, you basically just want to hold your stance kind of at shoulders’ width, or you can place one foot in front of the other.

Don’t be static and move a little bit. You can move to the music, but not a nervous sway. And then what you can do is play two different sides of the stage, even a small stage. As the song builds, you can step forward. And then on a certain count as you come to the chorus, you can take a couple of steps over to the right side and change where you’re looking on the wall, redirecting your energy. And then on the next section as a musical change happens, take a couple of steps the other way. Change your focus. Give people new energy. It’s about constant, new, updated energy. Just like the updates I did in my New Science of Singing 2.0… Wait, the commercial’s over. But it’s that you need to keep giving new information, reawakening their attention. You need to grab them.

You need them to be so spellbound that they can’t wait to hear what you are going to say/sing next. So those are the mistakes I don’t want you to make. I want you to be compelling. I want you to move people. I want the joy that you find in singing to be infectious and that just beautiful experience of making people feel emotion and touch their emotion in a way that’s OK. There’s nothing like it.

Hey, I want to thank you so much for listening. If you want to know more about me, just go to my website, Again, you can get access to my science course, just Also, if you’re interested in learning to be a voice teacher and how you do this sort of thing I’ve got a course that’ll take you from beginner to quite a good experienced voice teacher. Just click on teacher training upon the top. And until next time, to better singing. Thank you so much. Bye-bye.