If you have already read Part 1 of this blog, you’ll have a clear understanding of what Production Week is likely to throw at you. This blog gives you some ideas on how to plan for it.
I am an advocate of making plans that are flexible, then you have a starting place to work from. Such plans are easy to adjust as circumstances change or you receive more information. But if you go into a demanding performance scenario with no plans, you are asking so much from your brain and body to keep making a mile of decisions on the go, that your voice will inevitably fatigue from it all.
I also strongly recommend that you keep a journal or notebook of some kind – either hard copy with a pen or pencil, or something digital in your phone.
Write your plans into this notebook and, very importantly, write down what you ended up actually doing. In this way, you will refine your preparation and routines into a model that becomes second nature as the years and shows accumulate in your bio.
Preparing Your Ears
In a recent conversation with local performer Jonathan Rush, he observed “one of the biggest changes with Production Week is the introduction of microphones and a band”. It can be a significantly disconcerting experience as you try to embrace a plethora of adjustments. Nothing sounds like it did in the rehearsal room. You don’t hear your own voice back, you don’t hear other cast members in the same way, the MD might now be conducting from the pit or via a video monitor, and the familiar cues supplied by the rehearsal pianist are now coming from instruments with a wide range of timbral references.
How can you prepare for that? Here are some ideas:
- Learn how the appropriate volume level and technical coordination feels in your body kinaesthetically so that you can rely on those physical sensations as a guide when you can’t clearly hear yourself on the stage.
- Try singing your parts in as many unusual places as possible to practice adapting to changed acoustic environments. Vary the room shapes and sizes, built materials, times of day and temperatures.
- If you are depending on certain musical cues for your entries, make it your business during Sitzprobe to identify which instrument is now playing them. If it helps, ask them to play the cue for you so you can record it and become familiar with the sound.
- Take practical steps to ask for what you need during the Tech rehearsal. That might be a clearer visual cue from the MD or for the instrumentalist to be turned up in the mix. Relay that request in a concise, unemotional and trackable form, such as a written note to the Stage Manager. And then be patient – the production team are attending to a lot of details and your request might not be at the top of their triage list.
- Trust the audio engineer to attend to your microphone volume. Because you can’t hear yourself easily, you might be tempted to over-sing. Nothing will tire you faster than overworking in an attempt to hear yourself. And fatigue will lead to vocal fold injury. Return to your kinaesthetic sense of your reliable technique and deliver that consistently.
- Practice with a microphone so that you grow in familiarity and comfort with the sound of your amplified voice. It is impossible to hear ourselves the way others hear us, so it can be quite confronting to hear your voice through the venue speakers during mic checks and solos. If you can’t access a microphone for this preparation, stand in front of a mirror or wall, cup your hands behind your ears, then speak and sing. The sound will be brighter and lighter than you are used to, and not exactly the same as when amplified with a microphone…but it will help you adapt to hearing yourself in a foreign way and yet maintaining your confident vocal plans.
How many vocal dollars do you have in the bank? Singers are vocal athletes and need to understand:
- What helps your voice
- What limits your voice
- How to manage illness.
Think of it like a budget. You have a limited amount of “vocal dollars” to spend each day or week. There are ways to put some dollars in the banks, and ways to avoid wasting your vocal dollars.
How to boost your budget:
- Practice frequently and efficiently
- Manage medical conditions
- Build good nutrition, sleep and exercise habits
- Understand yourself and your environment
- Take lessons from a qualified singing teacher.
What spends vocal dollars:
- Rehearsing and performing
- Fatigue, injury and illness
- Recreational activities
- Speech habits.
- Uncooked fruit and vegetables
- Home cooked vegetables
- Fruit and vegetable juices (fresh is best)
- Less meat
- Bread, pasta, brown rice
- Daily nutritious meals
- Steamed/grilled fish or chicken
- Peanut butter
- Vegemite/marmite etc.
- Skipping meals
- Dairy products
- Dry-you-out medications
- Chocolate, cakes, processed snacks
- Soft drinks, caffeine, energy drinks.
In between shows, as much as possible:
- Reduce the amount and volume of talking
- If required, total vocal rest (including whispering and talking) for 24 hours
- Avoid noisy places
- Boost your hydration habits
- Sleep, sleep, sleep
- Go outdoors, get some exercise
- If you’re doing a little singing, avoid a rigorous workout
- Try a different genre from the one you’ve been performing. For example, if you’re in a production of Rent, try singing a little jazz or Golden Age theatre instead
- Stretch your body
- Get a massage.
Balancing the day job
- Can you take any time off during Production Week?
- Don’t sacrifice your work mates and deadlines through late night after-parties.
- Try having a moderate sized main meal at lunch time, but not so “main” that you are sleepy all afternoon.
- Try to keep work and theatre lives separate.
I have written a blog with a great list of suggestions on what to keep in your bag ready for performances and rehearsals. Check it out here.
“Health during the run of a show is a matter of preparation, not luck.”Pat H. Wilson
- Beware of how you use your voice post-show as well as pre-show.
- Get out of bed 3 hours before you need to use your voice – you need time for metabolic rate and temperature to rise so that you have good energy and warmer muscles
“The three-hour rule becomes barbaric when you face a 9am voice-over or a 6am film-set call. There are times when this is not a nice profession.”Pat H. Wilson
- Hydrate yourself silly…aim for at least 2 litres of water a day; and steam 3-4 times a day. (Try warm/hot water with a spritz of lemon juice to enhance the flavour and soothe your throat.) Blog with more detail available here.
- Definitely steam first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Post rehearsal/performance is the most important one so that your larynx has the benefit of that moisture as you sleep.
- Avoid steaming 20-30 minutes before singing.
- Plan your meals and meal times to manage long lasting energy and avoid reflux.
- Avoid foods that disagree with you, are hard work on your digestive system and suck your energy. Eg – what makes you burp? Skip it. What makes you feel heavy in the belly and sleepy? Skip it. What makes your saliva extra gluggy? Skip it.
- Be warm for sound check.
- Tune up your body alignment and release tongue and jaw tension.
- Let the mic do its work – you are not responsible for singing over the top of the amplified band and filling the entire space without its help.
- Do sing using your familiar, efficient vocal technique. The sound engineer can only make louder whatever vocal tone you supply.
- Vocal recovery ideas – straw phonation, no whispering.
- Do NOT clear your throat – ever.
- Learn how to manage your mucus/phlegm.
- Chew gum or suck non-medicated lozenges (e.g. plain old honey/lemon/eucalyptus drops) to generate saliva to soothe the throat. Gum is also good for loosening the tongue and jaw.
- Use mental rehearsal to revise your lines.
Choose your values
Dressing Room Etiquette
The atmosphere of the dressing room influences the atmosphere of the stage. I’m talking about literal and metaphorical atmospheres.
- The air you breathe:
- Avoid aerosols like deodorant or hairspray
- Absolutely don’t use perfume
- Hopefully you don’t smoke, but if you do, then do what you can to leave smokey clothing or personal items in the car (p.s. don’t smoke near the Stage Door!)
- Eat and/or dispose of food only in the green room
- The air in the theatre is VERY dehydrating. So, if you take your steamer into the dressing room, do not spill the hot water.
- The goodwill you share:
- Be the kind of dressing room co-inhabitant that you’d like to be around
- Don’t play loud music – you will strain your voice talking/singing over it, you may annoy others who want it quieter, and you might miss your time calls from the SM
- Practice anonymous random acts of kindness
- When the SM or ASM call you to the stage…go!
Respect the crew
Stage crew have your backs in a way you may never fully realise. So, when you see those superheroes in black – smile at them! Say hello, please, thank you. Ask how their day is going. Don’t treat them like they’re invisible. They may not have been part of the show’s journey for as long as you have, but without them your show will not work. Throw a few random acts of kindness their way.
Few things frustrate the Stage Manager more than people being late for their calls without very good reason. The SM is responsible for the smooth running of the show, so you being late actually reflects badly on them.
Good crews work hard to settle quickly into a predictable routine of time and movement. They are essentially choreographing their moves, so that they can do what they need to do in a way that doesn’t hinder the movement of cast members. They are trying to make your job easier!
“Musical theatre isn’t an art form. It’s 14 art forms smashed together. And when they coalesce in exactly the right way, I believe it is more powerful than pretty much everything…there is this incredible cast, who does the impossible, eight times a week: tells this story and makes it fresh for every new audience. Broadway casts are like chefs: last night’s audience had their meal, and you’ve got to make it just as good every night, from scratch.”Lin Manuel-Miranda, introduction to the Hamilton program
Look at this extraordinary synchronicity! Do your part at the right time, and if everyone else does too…you will make magic! If you start getting argumentative, resentful or rebellious, you will spoil the meal, and probably spoil it for others too.
Side note: it is always better to tell the truth…your production team have heard it all before and can usually spot a lie faster than you can utter it. Show them your respect by being honest.
Do I really even need to explain this? Nothing divides a cast and spoils a show faster. Be a part of diluting gossip by walking away or changing the subject. Be one another’s greatest allies and you will all love arriving at the Stage Door every call.
Theatre Health & Safety
Your hearing is a vital part of your vocal instrument. Damage to it can often lead to loss that is irreparable. So don’t take risks with your hearing.
- Don’t strain your voice over loud noise – anywhere.
- Don’t compete to be the loudest during cast warm-ups.
- Minimise loud car stereo or earbuds/headphones.
- Buy a decent pair of earplugs that reduce the decibel level you’re hearing. Your local music store should stock some. These are for protection when you’re not singing.
It is often challenging to hear yourself adequately on stage. Perhaps you are not in the right position to hear the foldback that has been installed. Or perhaps the company budget didn’t extend to as many foldback speakers as might be useful.
The sound will change a lot depending on how many people are in the audience as well. A full house will absorb the sound in a different way – so be prepared to have a range of audio experiences across the season of your show.
- Know where the exits of the theatre are.
- Know what your company’s evacuation plans are.
- Be aware of trip hazards, whether your own costume, items in the dressing room or sets in the wings.
- If you see something dangerous, let the Stage Manager know so they can remove the risk.
- Don’t handle props that aren’t yours. Ever.
- If you do break a prop, tell the SM straight away.
- Don’t run up or down stairs.
Don’t get sick or injured
You mightn’t have signed a professional contract with your theatre company, but you have made a commitment that comes with implicit obligations. Your acceptance of a role in the cast now translates to you making choices that put the show first.
You are always a singer – 24/7. So, during the run of a show, don’t do anything that jeopardises your ability to fulfill the work you need to do onstage. For example:
- Don’t share or swap water bottles or inhalers.
- Do take extra precautions to avoid catching a cold, inflaming your allergies or getting food poisoning.
- Take a break from risky sporting activities that could lead to bruising (especially your face) or broken bones.
- Also avoid recreational activities that involve loud vocal use such as yelling, shouting or screaming.
“Try to do nothing which consciously risks your health and safety. This is a large part of what being a reliable performer is all about.”Pat H. Wilson
Depending on the location of your theatre, whether you leave by the rear stage door or the front general entrance, and the time you are leaving the theatre, you might wish to consider having a carpark buddy for personal safety.
Now that the show is open, your attention turns to sustaining your health, energy, camaraderie and show quality for the rest of the run.
“Remember you have to do the show 8 more times, and while we always want lots of energy and passion from you, we also want you to deliver the show evenly and with your own personal satisfaction (and no laryngitis). So, pace yourselves. Your voices aren’t all used to this amount of work, day after day…give them lots of love!”Sharon Tree in an email to a cast
One of the most tempting things to do now will be to warm up in the car on the way to the theatre. Your singing teacher will usually say it is a bad idea. But reality also bites sometimes…so here are some ideas for a safe compromise.
Firstly, there are good reasons why singing in the car is risky for your voice. It is a place of MOSTS and LEASTS, the place where:
- We are the least self-aware
- We are the most distracted
- We are the least mindful
- Our body is the most compromised
- We hear ourselves the least
- We have the least efficient energy for loud or high singing.
In the car your primary job is to get to your desination without injuring yourself or anyone else on the road. But your primary job in a vocal warm up is to prepare your brain and body to sustain hundreds of vocal fold collisions per second. The human brain is AMAZING…but maintaining the focus required to do both of those well simultaneously is untenable.
Now that I’ve rained on that parade a fair bit, here are a few safe things you can try on the way to the theatre:
- Sit tall, lengthen your spine, relax your shoulders and place your hands evenly on the steering wheel between 9 and 3 o’clock
- Notice if your abdominal wall is releasing to inhale and engaging to exhale/sing
- Remain in a narrow vocal range
- Don’t sing loudly
- Do stay calm – road rage and happy vocals can’t co-exist
- Use exercises like lip trills, fricatives (V, Z, ZJH) and nasals (M, N, NG).
Well, there you have my guide to preparing your mind and voice to thrive, not just survive, production week and the run of the show you are busy rehearsing. I would love to hear your ideas of what to add to this guide so that it can be useful to many people. And if you have perspectives on other community theatre practices in your local area, I’d love to hear from you!
Chookas to you and your whole company for your next run. I pray that you walk out of every show with a voice that has quite a bit left in the tank, and a heart full to the brim with the joy of storytelling.
If you enjoyed these tips and ideas, why not sign up for This Week Online –
the Glengrove Studio newsletter that comes out fortnightly and catches you up on all the vocal and musical content I am sharing on a regular basis.
Conversations with Jonathan Rush, Matt Black, Chris Neal and James McPherson
Diaries of Sharon Tree
Endless conversations with Canberran casts and production teams
Hall, K. (2014). So You Want to Sing Music Theater: A Guide for Professionals. (A NATS Project). Rowman & Littlefield, Maryland.
Laster, J. H. (2001). So You’re the New Musical Director! Scarecrow Press, Maryland.
LeBorgne, W. D. & Rosenberg, M. (2014). The Vocal Athlete. Plural Publishing, San Diego
Robinson, D. K. (2016) Improve Vocal Stamina. YouTube clip https://youtu.be/axXBjJil10k
Titze, I.R. (2000). Principles of Voice Production. National Centre for Voice & Speech, Iowa
Wilson, P. H. (2013) The Singing Voice: An Owner’s Manual. (2nd edition). Lazy O’Rhinus Press, Sydney.