As the house lights go dark, I look up from the program to see the first performer of the evening, a solo singer/songwriter, stride onto the stage. The artist moves to the mic, strums her guitar, and tests her foot-pedal drum sounds. She starts her first number, and suddenly I’m frowning, puzzled. It’s not that I can’t hear her voice; her tone is gutsy, sincere, and adequately balanced with the instruments. A few of the lyrics are clear, but most of the words are mushy or simply missing. The only thing I’m sure of is the hook, which repeats a lot. I figure the sound person will have things cleaned up soon, but the second song is no better.
By now, I’ve gone from relaxed listener to vocal analyst. What’s wrong? The sound engineering? The performance? The hall? I can’t quite peg the problem until the set is over and the next act–a duo–starts in. I’m effortlessly drawn into their stories. Even with their British dialect, every word is audible and understandable.
Getting the Message Across
Maybe you have the best mic in the world, a great P.A. system, and an engineer who knows every nuance of the hall and your material. Still, all of this is useless if your words don’t make it into the mic in the first place. Your mic position, diction, and attitude must all come together so your lyrics fly through the P.A. and into the hearts of your audience.
Unless you’re using a headset microphone, the first challenge is to position the mic so it captures your voice but doesn’t hide your face. Generally, pointing the mic toward you from slightly below your mouth–aiming at your chin–lets you communicate easily over the top of it without sacrificing tone quality.
Placement is easy if you use a handheld mic. But for those of us who play an instrument as we sing, coping with a mic stand might be unavoidable. Don’t place the mic so high that you have to stand unnaturally tall to reach it, but don’t set it so low that you’ll slouch. Instead, adopt your best, most confident onstage posture, with your instrument in place, and then bring the vocal mic in to meet you.
Each mic has its own sensitivity pattern and ideal distance from the sound source. In some situations, you need to “eat” the mic, nearly touching it with your lips. Other gear and environments allow you to be several inches away. It’s most important to be consistent; once you’ve established an effective distance during the sound check, maintain the same position throughout your set.
“But,” you protest, “that’s so boring! How can I communicate my emotions while standing still?” I’ll tell you how: by feeling the truth of every word you sing and making sure that the meaning of the words–as carried by your unique vocal style–is clearly audible and intelligible to listeners. If your lyrics are well-written, sung with honesty and commitment, and easily understood, people will pay attention. Unless it is specified that your job is to dance, to provide visual entertainment, think of stage movement as an accompaniment to the song. It should be an extension of your voice and lyrics, not an excuse for garbled words and sloppiness.
Practice Makes Perfect
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? An excellent way to practice is to set up a mic stand in front of a full-length mirror at home. (Doesn’t every recording star have a childhood memory of holding a hair brush like a microphone and singing in front of the mirror in their parents’ bedroom?) Go through your material and watch yourself from a detached, nonjudgmental point of view. Simply observe and identify what you want to improve step-by-step.
Do you appear comfortable, or awkward? Do you tend to back away from the mic, or sneak up too close as you loosen up? Do you keep your body in a comfortable, close relationship to the mic stand but scatter the lyrics by moving your head a lot as you sing, causing fluctuations no engineer could fix? Do you keep your eyes closed, thus losing visual orientation to the mic and limiting communication with the audience? These habits can be corrected with careful observation and practice.
Once you’ve established a consistent, comfortable posture, you can try variations for different emotional effects: whisper closer to the mic during more intimate phrases, or shift your head so the mic picks up the corner of your mouth for a change of tone or a “throw-away” comment. Most experienced vocalists pull away from the mic at their highest dynamic levels or to help shape a fade-out ending. You can learn to “play” the mic and its surrounding space, just as you play your instruments.
If you have access to a video camera, ask a friend to tape you performing, then critique yourself as you watch the tape. Force yourself to observe your technique, such as your diction and mic placement, instead of focusing on your bad hair day or other distractions. Look out for showcases or karaoke clubs where you can be videotaped with a live audience. This service is rarely free, but it can be a valuable eye-opener. Some voice teachers routinely use video feedback, so ask around. And always do a test video–or several–and work on your weak areas before producing any kind of video demo tape.
If you must dance or move a lot on stage, invest in a wireless headphone mic system. Otherwise, channel that physical energy into the message of the song. Concentrate on sending a clear, crisp, honest vocal signal from your gut, throat, and lips, funneling it through that small mic to reach the full sweep of the sound system. Practicing this type of performance discipline demonstrates your professional attitude. It shows that you’re willing to meet the needs of your listeners in addition to your own needs for spontaneous self-expression.
Back at the music festival, I see the unfortunate soloist after the show, and she looks fidgety and restless. She talks rapidly in short bursts, and darts her head forward and back, bird-like, as she chats with friends. No wonder her lyrics had not come through well. She’d probably spent half of her set off-mic and the other half either rushing or swallowing her words. On a personal level, I’d guess she was nervous and hadn’t had much training. We all start somewhere.
When I was a novice performer, I remember viewing the stage equipment as if I was in the dentist’s office: lots of metal thrust at my mouth and not all of it friendly! So I tip my hat to anyone who dares to sing their own truth in front of strangers. But if you’re going to take on that challenge, you might as well do the extra work to be understood.