A Vocalist's Survival Guide to Touring: Part 3 - Know Your Repertoire

Yes, there is a multitude of external strains on the touring vocalist. I've enumerated some of them in my last two posts. But today I would like to make the case for three VERY important things to consider when getting ready to tour: Preparation, preparation and - yes: preparation.

You gotta know your songs. I am not referring to you mangling your lyrics or messing up the melody, or - heavens forbid - emote insufficiently or overly. I am referring to studying your songs purely on a muscle memory level. You won't have time or head space to focus on that aspect of song presentation when you're on stage.

It's not a very popular notion, that. We all just want to burst onstage and sing our little hearts out, leaving our souls, and possibly a little bit of blood on the floor. And that's all good and dandy if you only have ONE gig and then two weeks to recover from it.
Jazz Vocalist Beat Kaestli

But to acquire consistency in your performance, and to enable you to present your music at its best to a different audience night after night, you've got to dig deeper. I'm going to go ahead and trudge out the well-worn but always useful analogy to the athlete here. Or better yet: the runner. Say, you love running. You do it all the time, in short, joyful spurts. You've got a race coming up, and you've got your little runner's outfit, and your fabulous runners' shoes that will simply make you look fast, even if you're not. And you know you can run 5k at a certain speed, but only once. In the upcoming event you have to run several events for several days in a row. But if you can do it once, surely you can do it again the next day, right? Wrong. If you haven't stopped to analyze your running technique to make sure your body knows how to move with utmost efficiency and the least wear and tear possible on the intricate system of muscles, tendons, joints and skeletal structure that keeps you upright in the first place, you'll be done after the first race. You'll be worn out. And then you'll need a serious recovery plan to even attempt another race the very next day.

What happens when we storm the stage and sing with emotion but, possibly, not with enough of a muscle/structural memory for how that particular song works within our vocal tract? Most of us engage the false vocal folds, which translates into constriction, which in turn results in a heavier load for those tiny tiny vocal folds. Too much effort on the level of our true vocal folds ensues, and we push out more air to keep the vocal folds vibrating, constrict more to make sure the vocal folds close properly, which in turn results in the need for more air etc...you get the picture. In the end the vocal folds are swollen, don't close properly and our beautiful sound, not to mention vocal health, goes out the window.

So here's a tip: take the song out of its emotional context and treat it like an exercise. Use whatever technique you've been working on and strip the song down to it's bare bones. You can either start with just the words, just the rhythm, or just the melody. I tend to focus on the melody and practice it on 'ng' - the one in "sing", not the one in "song", slowly, and progress from there on to shaping the words with my lips, jaw and tongue, adding just the vowels, adding the consonants, going through different voice qualities, in order to have the stylistic repertoire I need to interpret the song afresh every evening, etc. You get the idea.

It's a tedious process, but very worthwhile. Once you're onstage and in the thrall of the sheer energy of a live performance, it's too late to think about these things.

As always, feel free to comment, embellish, add helpful hints of your own below. Happy touring!

A Vocalist's Survival Guide to Touring: Part 2 - The Daily Grind

Just to be clear: I'm not talking about the "I'm flying to Florida to play at a jazz club for three nights" kind of tour. I'm referring to the kind of no frills, back breaking strings of one-nighters that have you totter out of an airplane, get on a bus and roll through a different city every day, every inch of the bus loaded with a full PA and lights, which need to be unloaded, set up, checked, and, at the end of the gig, broken down and loaded back into the bus. That kind of thing...Also, the things I discuss here are based mostly on my own, personal experience. Take what you can use and leave the rest. (But PLEASE DON'T drink alcohol while on tour!)

So how do you stay on top of the juggernaut as a vocalist on the grind? For starters you carve out an hour of prep time (minimum) before the show. You warm up. And ideally you spend a few minutes AFTER the show to warm down, but more on that later.

When you're on the bus for several hours a day (we don't generally do the 8 to 10hour drive to an entirely different corner of Europe, although that HAS happened in the past) watch out for the dreaded car air that'll dry out your vocal folds. Always have lozenges at hand and keep sipping water. Once I have docked on to my hotel room or the backstage area of the club/performance space we're hitting on any given night, I break out my specialized equipment: salt for gargling and a steamer for moisturizing my vocal folds.

If there is time I throw in a few minutes of Yoga just to get a feel for my body again, get some grounding to happen, and focus my mind. Then comes the vocal warm-up, which, as you would imagine, goes from small sounds to bigger sounds, from comfortable range to outer rim - gradually. I will not delve into the details of warming up for a show, as that is a very individual process anyway, but if you don't have a cold, don't overdo it with the warm up. 20 to 30 minutes should be plenty.

If you do have a cold, the warm-up will probably last more like an hour (I have done up to 2.5, depending on the severity of the cold), as you need to take time to get the swelling in the vocal folds down. There are specific exercises for that - again very soft, very, very gentle. Imagine you're an athlete and have a sore muscle but need to participate in an event anyway. What do you do? You try to get the swelling down in that muscle, before you can put it through anything that even remotely resembles the rigorous activity needed for that event. For a vocalist, gargling with salt water is the first stop, followed by steam, and then soft edema reducing exercises. The risk of damage to the vocal folds is just too great if you don't take the time to thin them out.

The warm down after a show doesn't have to be super elaborate, but it helps to simply take a few minutes backstage and "stretch" your vocal folds, allow your whole vocal structure to "cool down" and go back to the much less demanding muscle pattern of regular, every day speech.

Personally I have included steam and gargling with salt water to my post-show routine. It is in my best interest to keep those tiny vocal folds as happy, thinned out and moisturized as possible.

If the room you've played in has been a smoky one and you are, like me, sensitive to that kind of stuff, you absolutely MUST gargle and steam. Cigarette smoke dries out your vocal folds like nobody's business, which means, by the end of the show your folds are very likely not only dry but also swollen. So do yourself a favor and take that time before you collapse into bed (because, of course, you've gone straight to bed shortly after your show, right?)

Make sure you get a good night's sleep - which means: no partying, absolutely NO alcohol, have your eye mask and earplugs ready on the nightstand, because you don't know how noisy the hotel gets once it wakes up in the morning. (I've encountered much enthusiasm for vacuuming the hallway at 6am - which is mind boggling to me.) Oh, and you might want to try a natural sleeping aid, such as Valerian root or Melatonin.

In my next installment I'll talk about all the other little things, such as staying healthy while on the road, food, supplements, medication, physical fitness etc.
Any questions or anything to add? Feel free to post below!

A Vocalist's Survival Guide To Touring: Part 1 - Take To The Skies

Ah, touring! To be on the road! That's what we all dream of, right? The glory, the glamor, the idea of actually being in the mystical land called "out there" and really "doing it". And it is quite an experience, being in a different city, a different room, in front of a different group of people every day for 2 weeks straight.

It is also intensely exhausting, physically and mentally, not to mention vocally. About ten days ago I returned from my most recent tour: 12 shows in 12 days in as many cities, throughout Czech Republic and Slovakia. Me, my body and my voice survived - yet again. But I've built some strategies over the years, learned through trial and error, experience, and good old common sense. So after a month long hiatus from my blog I will dedicate the next few weeks to a few things I've added to my toolbox that help me go onstage every night and do a show, and hopefully do it well.

Today's installment focuses on the first hurdle of touring: Getting to the country that you're touring at. I'm, of course, talking about air travel.

As somebody who tours quite regularly in Europe, and more recently, the Middle East, I've had my share of transatlantic flights that propel you across the ocean and disgorge you bleary eyed and dehydrated nine to twelve hours after take-off. Here's my must list of items I absolutely NEED to have with me in the cabin, ideally within reach, so I don't have to get up, crawl over the person sitting next to me (if I've been unlucky enough to fail in securing an aisle seat - although... that hasn't happened in years), and rummage through my backpack hunting down my re-watering eye drops.

Good quality headphones with an adapter: admittedly not totally crucial for a healthy flight experience, but they help me not go deaf while passing the time before I go into sleep-doze mode

Ear plugs, eye mask, and potentially a mouth mask: the first two items are absolutely essential, if you even want to attempt to sleep on the plane - which you must! Otherwise it's going to take you twice as long to recover on the other end. Plus you'll probably have more liquor than you should, strapped to a chair in a tube with 350 people. The effectiveness of the mouth mask is much disputed on various websites that deal with this issue. It looks enormously stupid and marks the wearer - in this case me - as a paranoid nutso. All I can say is that it might well not keep me from getting sick on the plane, but it warms up the air I breathe in and assists me in warding off dryness in my mouth and nose - both every vocalist's giant enemy. So - use at your discretion. I personally have gotten over the looks the thing garners me. What do I care, as long as I still have a voice when I leave the plane?

Lozenges: ideally sugar free, ideally moisturizing. I like Ricola, Isla Moos, Emser Pastillen. In a pinch I'll use Fisherman's Friend.

Scarf and jacket, possibly with a hood attached: don't be fooled by the cozy temperature when you step on the plane. It can get toe-curlingly cold in there in the blink of an irritated eye, especially when it's a night flight. Plus the little blanket things they dole out tend to either cover your upper or your lower body, but never both.

Water: I always have an extra bottle with me, because, let's face it: you can't really get enough of it from the flight attendants, and you're going to be dehydrated. Might as well stock up a bit.

Melatonin: I don't like sleeping pills. They make me groggy, even the next morning, but they don't really help me sleep. Melatonin is useful once I slip my eye mask on (apparently it only works in darkness), and it doesn't leave me disoriented and drowsy the next day.

Let's quickly address the issue of alcohol on the plane. Fact of the matter is: you shouldn't drink while flying. It exacerbates the dehydration. Truth is: I have a glass of wine on the plane, because it helps me sleep. Be your own judge on that one, but be aware of the effects of alcohol, and use with caution.

So there it is. I'll address the issues of physical health, vocal prep and recovery and other issues that come to mind for the touring vocalist in the upcoming weeks. If there is a particular issue relating to this topic that you would like to know about, comment below or message me on facebook.

Happy touring!