No one enjoys giving a bad vocal performance – but it happens to us all.
The aftermath of failing onstage can be devastating, but there are great lessons to be learned from a less than perfect performance.
In this episode, John discusses how to recover and improve from your vocal disasters.
Episode 129 – So You Had a Bad Performance
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. I am pretty excited I released the Beta version of my brand new boldly belting course to the members of my email list and I’m starting to get some really good feedback, but I have to admit it is, it’s nerve wracking pressing that button and launching something. Your taking all your work and now putting it in the hands of others and you really hope that the work is received in the way that you intended it, that you’ve delivered it in the best possible way that you’ve communicated clearly and that moment before I pressed the button to send the email, letting people know that they could now get the course. It’s a very odd feeling and it’s a feeling that is very much like going on stage to do a performance.
And I still get that one, I don’t perform too much anymore. I used to perform a lot in my 20’s into my actually starting in my teens, spent a whole lot of time in my 20’s performing and still performed in my 30’s, but I was teaching pretty solidly then, but that feeling of nervousness, that’s actually if you think about it, a lot like excitement and nervousness and excitement are very much the same in the body and when I think of performers, especially performers that are newer and they’re dealing with this performance anxiety or stage fright, I think if you can re-frame it as excitement and embrace it and not try and fight it, not try and run away from it, but actually accept these sensations and the rush of adrenaline and all of these wonderful things and allowing yourself to take this risk and to let life be exciting, it can have a much better result than having some unrealistic expectation that you’re not going to feel nervous and you’re not going to be a bit scared.
And I know I just talked about this in a recent podcast, but you really got to embrace the experience and which leads me into today’s topic of when your performance goes bad and I have had a wealth of experience in this. I have had all kinds of disasters on stage, some with my voice, some with my performance, some with audience members. Oh my gosh, I remember back and I was standing on stage singing a song and this was in a club and a very drunk woman walked over and pulled my pants down. So I was singing, which was a little disconcerting. I managed to at least grab my undergarments. So that it was not a Jim Morrison event I wasn’t going to be arrested for indecency, but that was a little disconcerting, but I didn’t miss a note, so I’ll give myself that.
Another time I was doing this production and there was dry ice and I was crouched down in the dry ice. Then I had to jump up and sing and I leapt up and I let go of the high note and I fainted. Like I dropped like a rock. So that was quite memorable but the most memorable was the first time that I sang in public and I kind of had a different experience than most singers. As I’ve said before, I was a drummer and I was working as a drummer. I didn’t come to the voice until later. I was in my very early 20’s before I decided to start trying to sing. I really couldn’t sing before that. So I’m completely a taught singer and not a self-taught singer. It’s all been through lessons and I’d been taking voice lessons for a few months and I’d been working on a song that the band I was gigging in happened to also do.
And I asked to be able to sing it just to move the mic over to the drums and I was gonna sing the song while playing. And so the band leader said, sure and the songs started. I opened my mouth and the note that came out was not good. And in my peripheral vision I saw the guitarist and bass player hunch over in laughter and that began three and a half minutes of absolute torture and humiliation. I mean, it was just an awful experience and many singers will experience a bad performance, and in that moment it can seem like the end of the world, but that experience was actually a net positive for me because when the earth did not open up and swallowed me, though I was willing it to and then the next song kicked off and everyone forgot about it.
Even though I was still kind of reeling from it. I just sat back and thought okay, what can I learn from this? Well, number one, I was not experienced in singing on stage. I drummed a lot, obviously. I would attempt some backup vocals here and there, but not much. I was never really good at them. I struggled with pitch because I was an untrained singer. So in this circumstance of suddenly having the limelight and the attention on me, I panicked. But it was perfectly natural to panic. I don’t understand why I would expect I could do this the first time. It’s natural in a completely unfamiliar situation when suddenly there’s stress added to it and everyone’s looking at you to have issues and when you go into stress, into that fight or flight the body’s going to tend to seize up.
The voice is not going to be at its best and it was the outcome I should have expected. But I’ll tell you, if I had expected that outcome, I probably wouldn’t have done it. So there is something good about diluting ourselves into thinking that we’re going to do better than we actually will. But after the delusion and then the reality hit me. This did not go well at all. I had to just do a post-mortem and realize that I needed to work more on my voice. I needed more experience in less high stress situations. I needed to work on this song more. I would be probably better off making the next song that I sang easier. So that would be less stressful. I should probably work on doing more backup vocals so I don’t feel as exposed, get better at those, start working that up.
And by focusing on this, I actually made the move from that first disastrous attempt and then I went into another band as a drummer and in that band I was doing a lot of backup vocals. I really started embracing singing at that point, doing a lot of backup vocals. I would do some songs from behind the drums. I tended to do songs that were easier for me, some kind of shouty, Bruce Springsteen, kinda Americana rock and roll things, not big sustains, not big high notes, but it got me able to start performing and singing and in that band I actually moved the male lead singer left the band and I became the male lead singer and then I got a ton of singing experience. I was singing five nights a week, what four or five sets a night and then from there, an original band, I was the lead singer in that performed a number of places around LA, Hollywood, got the failed record deal, as many of us have.
But looking at that first performance, I had to go through that and I’ve had other performances that weren’t great either, but they’ve all been instructive. So when you have that disastrous performance, the worst thing you can do is start beating yourself up. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re not going through something that no other singer hasn’t gone through themselves. Everybody has bad gigs. Nobody is great when they first start. The art form that seems to recognize this is stand up comedy. Stand-up comedy is incredibly hard and every stand-up comic will talk about how terrible they were when they first started and people seem to expect that they’re going to be terrible and they learn how to bomb. They learn how to deal with having bad nights. It’s just part of the art form, but in music it’s not part of the art form. We really put unrealistic expectations on ourselves to be great every night and the one instrument that’s the hardest it’d be great on every night is the voice because it’s a human instrument.
So you’ve got to be kind to yourself. You have to stand back and really just break it down if you have a bad performance, this is a gift in the bigger picture of your singing journey. It really is, but it’s not a gift if you throw it away and if you take this and just beat yourself up about it and you don’t learn from it, then it’s even less than a gift. It could be a detriment and part of being a singer is being able to deal with these disappointments. Not only disappointments in your career, but your voice. Your voice is not going to be wonderful everyday and it’s always a work in progress and you have got to be kind to yourself, but also realistic and fair in your post-mortem. Why did it go bad? Don’t just say it sucked. That’s not learning anything.
What didn’t you like about it? Write it down. Break it down. Was it your nerves that got the best of you? Was it you couldn’t hear yourself and you started shouting? How do you fix that for the next time? It’s like when there’s a major plane crash. They use that horrible, disastrous event to make flying safer in the future. So you can use your vocal crash, which actually when you’re on stage, even your biggest disasters are safe. They really are there’s no physical harm coming to you. You just have to accept that may not always be pleasant, but you’re going to be okay. But you need to take that little vocal wipe out and break it down. Look at all the elements. What was out of your control? What was technical that can be fixed? What was on you?
Did you know the song well enough? Are you able to sing the song when there are instruments? That was one of the big problems on my first performance. I was not used to all the stage noise of instruments when I was singing I was always just singing in my practice room. I was not used to a disembodied voice coming out of a monitor and not being able to hear myself with my own ears. So do you have good monitors? How loud is the stage volume? Do you need to get a little more in touch with the sensations of singing and not just the sound in case you are not able to hear yourself as quickly? Are there areas in your technique that you’ve been neglecting that you need to improve or your transition notes working? Do your sustains work? Do you tend to grab? When you’re nervous, does your breathing tend to go out the window but you’re not taking enough breath or you’re gulping and just shoving too much air at the folds. All of these come into account. Are you able to then as you get better at this, be aware of the space that you’re in and the audience and start communicating to them and include them and be aware of the musicians and reacting to them. There are so many levels to having a great performance. It’s not just hitting the notes, but in the very beginning your nerves will likely get you and these are going to be brand new situations that you haven’t been in before. Even if you set up a PA in your rehearsal space, it’s not the same. It’s not the same as having the audience. The acoustics are going to change from venue to venue. Some nights with the same setup, you’re going to hear yourself great. Other nights it’s like you’re just, you’re singing into a vacuum that’s sucking your voice away, so you have to just be in all of these situations before you know how to respond to them, but use your bad performances.
Don’t waste them. Everything is a gift. It’s only information. It’s information that you can utilize and act upon or it’s information that you can just sulk about and beat yourself up with and look, if it goes particularly bad I’ll give you a day. You can beat yourself up for a day and feel bad about it, and then you got to shake yourself off and say okay, how do I make this better? This is what it’s all about, is getting better. Freddie Mercury would not have been able to do live aid. That legendary performance, as his first performance. He built up through years of experience and becoming a front man and a show man and being polished. It’s just, it wasn’t going to happen. There’s an arc and there’s a natural progression to this. That’s why I encouraged singers to not try and shortcut their careers. Either, just get out there and sing, it’s not about being a star. Certainly not right away and it’s not about paying your dues. It’s more about just learning, getting out there and being in the experience so that you can learn and grow from it.
Hey, if you want to know more about me, please visit my website johnhenny.com. Be sure to sign up for my email list there are special offers and opportunities that I put out only to my email list getting access to my new belting course is one of them and if you’re interested in lessons with me you can fill out the form there. Just click on lessons and if you’re thinking about becoming a voice teacher, if there’s any interest in that. Two things you can do, you can check out my book Teaching Contemporary Singing at Amazon or you can sign up for my Contemporary Voice Teacher Academy, just click on Teacher Training in the upper menu and until next time to a better singing. Thank you so much bye-bye.