Practicing Performance

Many singers consider practice and performance to be distinct activities. Gerald Klickstein, author of the new book “The Musician’s Way“, shows how they can be combined into an inclusive creative process.

Suppose that you’re preparing for a concert. How do you bridge the gulf between personal practice and public performance?

I’ve observed that many singers under-perform because they omit a crucial element from their preparatory routines: practice performances.

Here are three ways that any musician can practice performing and thereby become masterful on stage.

1. Assemble a performance-development group

The skills required to perform soulfully in public have to be practiced.

All of us, therefore, need opportunities to try out our material, learn how to manage our nerves, and hone our stage presence; I find that the ideal setting for doing so is within a performance-development group.

To form such a group, you need two or more soloists or ensembles of comparable ability, a defined space such as a classroom, and a mutually supportive attitude.

Your attitude is of utmost importance because your group must provide a safe, non-judgmental setting where you can experiment freely.

For instance, what if a vocalist adopts a new memorization technique and wants to discover whether or not her memory is secure? How does she find out without risking her reputation in a public setting?Enlist concert protocol

A performance-development group supplies her with what she needs; she can sing fearlessly in front of her colleagues and she knows that they’ll cheer her on in her quest for excellence.

To make your practice performances optimally concert-like, enlist concert protocol: enter to applause, perform complete songs, and have listeners applaud afterwards.

In addition, use a recorder so that you can review your work later (information about portable recorders is posted on my blog).

I also recommend that participants comment on each other’s performances, but within strict boundaries:

– Keep your comments brief
– Use courteous “I” statements
– Offer at least three positive observations for every criticism

Here’s an example of how one singer might comment on another’s performance: “I really liked your song choice, the way you conveyed the lyrics, and your stage presence. I also thought that your pitch and memory were right on. Toward the beginning, though, I wondered how it would have sounded if you had stayed with your softer voice a while longer.”

2. Schedule private run-throughs


In a private run-through, you perform without an audience, other than your recorder and maybe the cat

In a private run-through, you perform without an audience, other than your recorder and maybe the cat.

Commit to these run-throughs at set times and implement your standard pre-concert routines – arrange your meals and other preparations exactly as you would for a public show because pre-concert routines need practice, too.

When you perform a run-through, visualize an audience and sing your heart out.

At the same time, rehearse specific skills. For example, if you tend to stiffen on stage, practice releasing tension and transmitting warmth; to enliven your stage presence, employ a video recorder and explore various gestures.

The benefit you derive from any practice performance will hinge on how honestly you evaluate it and the ways in which you practice in response.

Detachment is crucial during your self-assessments: treat glitches as useful information and never as personal shortcomings.

After you run through a song, for instance, you could go over your recording, jot down notes, and rehearse improvements.

A few days later, following additional targeted practice, you might opt to perform the song for your performance-development group.

3. Line up low-stress public shows

The above sorts of practice performances are invaluable, but public shows are going to be more intense, and we want them to be, but in positive ways.

Low-stress public shows give us the chance to present our music in actual performance situations, but where the stakes are low.

So, although we take such performances seriously, we can give ourselves permission to have fun on stage and not worry.

Be primed to excel at high-stakes concerts

As a result, we build our confidence and our artistic prowess ─ we’re then primed to excel at high-stakes concerts.

Suitable sites for such performances include unpretentious coffee shops as well as church or synagogue meeting halls, where we might invite congregants to hear us and donate to a charity.

Such performances enable us to build an audience, serve our communities, and lift our artistry and self-assurance to new heights.


When we integrate these three types of practice performances into our creative process, we can erase any disconnection between our solitary practice and our public presentations.

Of course, it takes time and effort to refine our craft, but let’s remember that performance, at its heart, is an act of beauty and generosity.

© 2009 Gerald Klickstein


Gerald Klickstein is Professor of Music at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and is an active guitarist, author, and arts advocate. His book, “The Musician’s Way” was published in the U.S. in August and became available worldwide in September.

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  • Paco

    In the lasts months I have read on vocal technic, mainly because I think I am losing push with age. What you explain in this article is quite similar to the way I have been rehearsing up to know. I happen to be a little bit timid and I need to have a huge dose of security. I also believe this is the only way to maintain a good stamina level. But, both Mark Baxter and Jaime Vendera suggest practicing in another way, much more relaxed and demanding. They even define “vocalizing” as a way of light singing, opossed to high performance, in order to prevent excesive tiring. I am not a proffesional singer, but I have been doing it for more than 20 years now with certain regularity. After reading you article I am a little bit confused about the way I should approach rehearsing.

  • kennethbjerum

    Very good advice from a practical and academic point of view.
    I can recognise and see the sense in what Klickstein is saying, both mentally and from my own (practical) experience.
    He informs about how to improve your public performance. This through a performance-development group. Klickstein gives advice on how to go about it; to improve your public performance.

  • garymckinney

    Wonderful article. Finding a support group who gives honest positive feedback is so helpful. I think all successful collaborations have one. I'm sure the Beatles had (at least for a time) such a support group. One problem is that so many musicians have this ego thing going where it seems like it's hard for them to give even the tiniest amount of praise to another colleague. Of all the pitfalls in the music business, to me, this is the worst feature of all. Thank goddness not ALL musicians are in this category. If you find a caring positive support group — cherish it!

  • ujiya

    Enlightening words Gerald. I imagine that many new or moderate level vocalists don't or feel they don't have access to all of these resources. Granted, if you do then you MUST go for it…it is your career after all. If you don’t have access to these tactics, try some cheaper alternatives:

    I engaged a series of practices early in my career that helps attend to some of these methods on a budget. If you don't have a performance-development group, try to at least find a vocal coach/teacher that understands you and what you aim to do with that voice of yours…someone who is both tough on you yet open to your thoughts and wishes and shares a personal desire to help you see your goals forward.

    As far as entering and exiting to a vibrant crowd…try to find a sample of applause, or sample the crowd from a pro ball game off of your TV. Simply, using a tool like Cakewalk, Pro Tools, Digital Performer…Etc, you could layer crowd applause before and after your tune, burn a CD or throw an mp3 of it on your iPod and get ready to rock the stadium. Imagination is a key element!!! Each of us as singers must have a fair amount of it, in order to properly don our “frontmanship,” and doll it out before an audience…regardless of its size.

    Something else I always have in my studio is a large mirror. Whether I'm performing Classic, Dance, Electronica, Rock or Metal, each style calls for a different type of character to make the performance authentic and believable. Typically I will get dressed in garb fitting of the style of music, set the mood with colored lighting or candles and sing through my PA with all of my gear set up as it will be during an actuated performance. I also set up a video camera. Vain? Don’t worry about it…you’re a singer…it’s ok as long as that ego of yours stays within its character and not your true, off-stage, personality. This enables you to watch and hear yourself perform. You’ll recognize what looks cool, what looks goofy, and you’ll also notice (visually) when you strain or do things that also may hurt your voice in the long run. Be sure to video every performance you ever do. 1) It will keep you humble, 2) It will instill moments of pride, and 3) it will give you ideas on how to generate a more impactful performance the next time you grace the stage.

    When first warming up, start with a velocity that matches your normal speaking volume and work yourself up over time. Turn a scale into something beautiful. My teacher, Al Kohen, use to slap me on the back of my head if I gave a limp run at warm ups. “Sing those notes as if they were the most dynamic words ever uttered!” he’d challenge. I never forgot that and to this day I give it my all in the private comforts of my own studio as well as on stage. Above all, I agree with Gerald’s take on attitude. No matter how you mask it, your voice seldom conceals the agony or pain you may be feeling. Sing it out…you have a rare gift to be able to laugh and cry with your voice…throw it into your music and be thankful that you have an outlet for your woes, whereas many human beings have not yet developed a way to release that inner struggle. Having a good support group of objective friends/professionals is key in maintaining a positive perspective about you and your vocal career. It is more difficult to be with those who speak the truth, but much less painful in the long run. Remember that those closest to your heart are the only individuals who can really ever hurt you…so, choose them wisely.

    Alongside booking low-stress public shows sing everywhere. I’m know as “the guy who sings in the halls,” at my day job. I love it and so do they! Sometimes it’s easier to sing to the muddled masses than to stare 2 or 3 people in the eye and give them and all star show. No doubt that Gerald is getting at each of us letting go of inhibition and gaining confidence, but not the false confidence of egoistic pride. I sing in the halls, the mall, grocery store, church, park, the elevator, you name it!!! Heck I’ve even gone as far as to take a boom box with my set list in tow and sing on a street corner for tips…just be careful; I don’t want to be responsible for inspiring someone to go off and get mugged! Take joy in breaking down barriers in others by demolishing them in your own life. Inevitably this will open up social environs for you on a whole new level. As signers we must engage our audience…do anything you can to invite people closer with your voice and to overcome inner fears. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been able acquire fans by simply singing in public. Now, GO ROCK YOUR WORLD!!!

  • Thanks for the positive comments everyone.

    Ujiya – I think your ideas are truly inspired. I hope that all musicians who read your words will carry your enthusiasm into the practice studio and onto the stage.

    Gary – I know what you're saying about how egos can get in the way of artistic growth. Personally, I live by an abundance attitude – there's room for all of us to excel, so let's celebrate each other's successes and support each other through difficulties. In doing so, we help bring more music into the world, we learn from each other, and we build creative communities.

    Kenneth – Thanks for the affirmation. Much appreciated.

    Paco – Maybe this will help: typically, a portion of our practice time is devoted to improving or maintaining basic skills and fitness; another portion focuses on learning new material and preparing music for performance. You can effectively use your voice in various ways during both sorts of practice. So, go ahead and mix it up – trust your instincts, avoid straining, and reinforce healthy vocal habits. No matter how we practice, though, if we intend to perform, then we must also practice performing, gaining fluency with all that performing entails. Still, most of our practice time won't be taken up by practice performances (unless we're doing dress rehearsals of lengthy shows). I encourage all musicians to be imaginative regarding ways to rehearse and prepare. E.g., some busy singers, to conserve their voices, will do private run-throughs in which they sing lightly and drop high passages down an octave but otherwise run complete songs that allow them to test memory, practice staging, etc.

    Best wishes,

  • Paco

    Thank you so much for your input. I have another question which is bothering me since a couple of years. In my repertoire there are some songs which I have been singing for so many time that I am absolutely sick about them. I try as much as I can to leave them out, but people keep asking for them show after show. This is so boring that sometimes while singing them and find myself thinking in something else. I can no longer put any emotions into them. Worst of all is while rehearsing them, which I need to do mainly to avoid forgetting the lyrics. In this case I think of me as an athlete rather than a singer. I can´t imagine what it would be like to rehearse them one octave lower. The only thing that allows me to go for them, though this will sound horribly selfish, is to inflate my ego and try to sign them for the band rehearsing on the other side of the wall. I know this may sound pretty stupid, but I have found no other way to trick myself. The problem with this is that I am rehearsing this songs at the highest possible, and so, I finish quite tired. This is great for stamina, but some mornings I find my throat a bit strained. Could you please suggest another approach for rehearsing these master-boring-pieces? Thank you very much for sharing your pro secrets with me, simple amateur dreamer.

  • Naturegirrrl

    How about just gig out as much as you possibly can. Get out and sing live as much as possible. Go to Gig U — the best education there is!

  • Hi Paco – You ask about two things: artistic renewal and vocal health. First, regarding how to keep longtime repertoire fresh, think about Tony Bennett. He says that whenever he sings his signature song, I Left My Heart in San Francisco, “It always feels like the first time.” How does he maintain that fresh attitude toward a song he has performed for decades? I think that he connects with his listeners, loves music, and he recognizes that performing isn't about us; it's about the music and being generous to our listeners. Maybe feeling more affection for your audiences and giving yourself over to the beauty of music will help. Second, your voice shouldn't feel strained after singing, and straining doesn't improve stamina but can lead to vocal injury. I urge you see a laryngologist and a vocal coach right away. If you're in London, perhaps you could contact Leontine Hass, who writes for this magazine.

    Good luck, and remember to be kind to your voice. Gerald

  • Gerald, thank you very, very much. I will see a laryngologist. But a about a coach, do you know anyone in Madrid? Spain is a dessert when looking for a vocal coach proficient in rock styles. So I have to read and search in the web. This year I hava bought J.Vendera, M.Baxter and M.Cross (I am falling in love with this woman, HAHAHA). Yesterday night I spend some (little though) time digging at your site and found it really interesting. I wil order a “Way” right away, but I would like to find somebody with whom to learn face to face. Some US located coaches have offer on-line sessions via webcam, but first, living in Spain we have different hour, and second, I believe in personal contact, bone and flesh, rather than bytes and megas.

  • ujiya

    Bored?! Say what! C'mon Paco…your job as frontman is to show no mercy, regardless of how you feel…especially in Rock and Metal…there's no room for weakness in those formats or genres. It's all ballz to the wall brother…pedal to the metal!!!

    I'm not singing metal now, but when I was it was definitely a tougher gig than crooning. Also, any avid performer can relate to the feeling of boredome especially when performing covers. We all want the world to accept our originality, even though the muddled masses tend to want something familiar. This aggravates all of us.

    Chew on this for a second…it is a privilege to have great musicians beside you, cool venues to play at, and loving fans. It's unfortunate when we forget what we are there for and why we are in the position of frontman. More often than not we receive the accolades that our band or PR personnel actually deserve. Humility is paramount in becoming a good spokesperson for your music.

    First and foremost we are entertainers, hired by venues to perform a specific duty. Not sure if you have a day job, but if you do and decided to become bored, slack off, or perform less that your capability, you'd most likely find yourself in the unemployment line. The same goes for music only its more subtle…people stop coming to shows, venues won't rebook, and your bandmates seek out another singer. None of us has the right to expect that we're owed all of these things. Remember that you stand a chance of hurting everyone with a bad attitude, temperament, or apathetic view toward what you're doing.

    Gerald is dead on when he asks you to sing in different registers or velocities. Here's why…it shows skill to be able to move around the octaves and offers more color to your sound; It saves your voice and allows you to still perform if your sick or have lost your upper register due to too many shows in a row, it creates dynamics IOW if you sing high all of the time a listener's ear will grow tired of hearing the same thing over and over. AND, even though you may be exhausted from giving it your all, they will never know because you've kept them in the same spot for so long that they begin to suffer from ear fatigue. Switch it up baby! You got it – you know what to do!!! All the love in the world brother!!!



  • Hi Paco – Maybe Leontine Hass could recommend a coach in Madrid. You might also benefit from working with a certified teacher of the Alexander Technique. Either way, I encourage you to keep exploring new possibilities for yourself both musically and technically. We're all so very fortunate to have music in our lives . . .

    Buena suerte, mi amigo – que le vaya bien. Gerald

  • Paco

    Muchas gracias. This little ciberchat has switched on my curiosity. I will sure follow your advice.

  • Paco

    I never before thought about it the way you put it. I mean, I never thought of singing as a kind of responsability towards others. This a really nice way of approaching the subject. I promise to think about it. Your advice in your last paragraph sounds terribly wise. Most of the time I'm singing at the top of my upper range. Most probably that is the main reason of my trouble. Thank you so much.