Posted on June 22, 2023
by Bobby Weinapple
Can you remember a time where you performed at your best, when the music just seemed to flow out of you effortlessly? Your hands and voice seemed to have a life of their own, and you felt completely in the moment. Conversely, can you remember a time where nothing felt right, and the harder you tried, the worse it got? Your breathing almost stopped, your palms got sweaty, and your hands wouldn't stop shaking. We've all been there.
Many people hold the belief that these kinds of events are hit and miss, random chance, and out of our control, but the most consistently successful performers, whether they are musicians, athletes, dancers or tight rope walkers, know that there are reliable ways to get into a great state.
When we are doing something complex, like singing and playing at the same time, we can get overwhelmed. The harder we try, the more we tense up. Perhaps you have been told to "stop trying so hard" or "don't think so much." This advice may be well meaning but not particularly helpful. We need more than just being told what not to think about.
One of the keys to managing your state is to choose where you place your focus, your "mind's eye." The default, if we don't make a choice, is to watch and judge ourselves, to try to avoid mistakes, to try harder. It's how we are built, our ancient survival strategy. Unfortunately, it is also when we tend to go down the rabbit hole of stage fright and self doubt.
Using your imagination, the way actors do, is a great way to learn how to place your focus away from yourself, from trying hard to do well. A few simple choices, like imagining who you are singing to, where you are, and what happened to you right before you started to sing, can help tremendously with your ability to be in the moment, and can help take your focus away from trying to hit all the right notes perfectly.
Find a comfortable place to sit, with your guitar in hand. If it helps, you can close your eyes. Now imagine that you are in front of a crowd of people, all celebrating the life of John Lennon on the anniversary of his upcoming 83rd birthday. As you look out over the crowd, you see friends, families, children playing. Some are smiling, some crying. As you see in your mind's eye that they are gazing at you, strum or pick a D chord and let it ring. Then, directing your voice towards an individual in the imaginary crowd, open your eyes and begin to sing:
Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today
Try not to look at your hands to see if you got the chords right, just focus on connecting with your audience. Keep your strumming or picking pattern as simple as possible.
You may find that strong emotions start to run through you, or not. Let it happen, don't judge or try to control whatever comes up, stay with your imaginary scene as you continue to sing. See where it takes you.
You may find, as many of my students have, that you start to get lost in the scene you have created for yourself, and your hands go where they need to go, without you thinking about it.
There are many great songs that are sung from the point of view of a very specific character. Take for example John Prine’s Angel From Montgomery:
G C G C
I am an old woman named after my mother
G C D C
My old man is another child that’s grown old
G C G C
If dreams were lightning and thunder were desire
G C D G
This old house would have burnt down a long time ago
As you get ready to sing a piece like this, close your eyes and see the beat up floors, smell the food cooking, hear the flies buzzing in the kitchen. See the hat left behind by the cowboy you refer to in the 2nd verse. Maybe you singing to yourself, or maybe to the child he left behind for you to raise. The more you let yourself get lost in the singer’s world, the more you let your fingers and voice do what they’ve been trained to do. Sometimes getting out of your own way is better than working harder.
Try this imaginative exercise with other pieces that you know well and feel strongly connected to. Start with songs that are fairly simple for you to play. If it is a love song, you might imagine you are giving a toast at your best friend's wedding. Or you can pretend you are singing to your partner at your own 25th anniversary celebration, or to your newborn child. Close your eyes, or sing to a spot on the wall, or the sky above you.
This is not only a powerful tool for you as the singer. It has a powerful effect on the audience as well. When you imagine the world of the song when performing, your audience will go on a journey with you. What you see with your eyes is what they will see in their mind’s eye.
If the scenario you have chosen involves you singing to a higher power, or to a long lost loved one, place your gaze just above the audience and imagine that the image you have chosen to sing to is right there, listening, responding, hearing the words you are singing and the music you are playing. You can also look right at people in your audience and pretend that they are the imaginary crowd of people you imagined yourself singing to.
To go even further with this, you can add backstory to these scenarios to make them even richer for you. These scenarios can be completely fictional, you can make up any situation you like. The key is that they stir your imagination, the way a daydream or fantasy might.
It all starts with knowing that your ability to be present and relaxed is not a random chance event that is out of your control. If you develop a strategy for managing your state, and practice it consistently, you will find that you experience far more days where you find yourself truly in the moment and the music flows out of you effortlessly.