Last year, I was asked to take part in some workshops at The Warren in Hull as part of their Female Takeover Scheme, which involved instilling confidence and giving performance tips to young females, most of whom had never done any performing or singing before. It got me thinking about how I got into music and the tips I’ve picked up over the years performing in Sonic Boom Six. I came from a similar background to some of the girls – poor, working class and insecure - so I felt like I could connect with them straight off.
I got into music at an early age as my uncle used to DJ when he was younger. I was pretty much a loner at school and I made up for it by being obsessed with certain bands and albums that I would listen on repeat as well as being fiercely aggressive to anyone that didn’t have the same taste in music as me. I was never encouraged to pursue music by my parents or my school and I never felt like it was something I was good at as I was often told by teachers that I was aiming too high when I would say that I wanted to be a singer.
My first taste of singing came when I joined the school choir. I’ll be honest, I had no interest in singing and I’d heard that it meant that you could get out of a few lessons a week so I suddenly became keen!
Surprisingly, I really enjoyed it and seemed to have a natural talent for harmonies and the choir teacher was a lovely, encouraging (albeit slightly pervy) man by the name of Mr Thorpe. He gave me my first solo when we were performing Les Miserables and it took a lot of convincing by him for me to do it but he didn’t give up on me. I remember being horrendously nervous and getting loads of hassle from the older girls (I was 13 years old), whose toes I’d stepped on by coming in and taking ‘their solo’ away from them. On the night of the performance, I don’t think it could have gone any worse. I was stood up waiting to sing on my own in front of a packed crowd consisting of teachers, parents and pupils (and fully aware of the daggers I was receiving from the older girls) and I felt that all eyes were on me. My mouth dried up, I forgot the words and I was awful. After it, a teacher named Miss Phillips felt the need to come up to me to tell me what a dire performance it was and that I should stick to ‘singing in a group.’ I was completely mortified, and to be honest, I’m surprised I pursued any kind of singing after that.
I know that I’ve never been a naturally gifted singer and I have an usual voice compared to ‘Female Vocal – Exhibit A’. I’ve only had one lesson and I do receive a hell of a lot of criticism about my voice. I am aware that I make lots of mistakes and I’m not technically sound but I really love singing. It gives me an escapism and outlet. I try to take on board some of the constructive criticism, as I would like to better myself and it’s difficult when even my own band think that lack of radio plays comes down to the way I sound. I’ve learnt to be grown up about it, whereas when I was younger, I would deal with things very differently. I had zero confidence at all so I would get drunk and shout, a lot! In my first band - I had no idea. I was a very angry kid so rehearsals would be difficult and I’d take everything personally. Everything felt like it was a personal attack that meant I wasn’t good enough rather than trying to take on constructive criticism - it’s a difficult feeling to shake and I can still be like that sometimes!
However, with all that said, there’s a craft that I have honed, practiced and become great at and that’s performing on stage. Not necessarily singing but handling myself and giving each performance 100%. We’ve played hundreds of gigs around the world and different gigs throw up different problems so I’ve written a list of tips that I’ve picked up and have helped me along the way. Some of the tips are obvious or little things but make such a difference when you’re on stage.
Some of my early mistakes were not concentrating and getting too drunk, which meant I ranted at, rather than addressed, the audience. My band actually nicknamed me Zippy! I constantly sang out of tune, something which I’ve got better at not doing but I’m not quite there yet. I never did any warm ups and had a very ‘fuck you’ attitude to my approach towards singing and the advice I would get from people that were trying to help me. A lack of confidence was replaced by aggression and anger.
- Be prepared for your sound not to be good - 9 times out of 10 it will be very bad. To tune I try and memorise the pitch of the song by practicing at home to a recording – I find this helps.
- Sound people - your gig is in their hands. SO many times (especially male soundmen) have told me I need to sing louder, project myself and its bollocks. It’s their job to make you heard. We have a soundman now that has no problems with getting me heard over a loud rock band in any sized room.
- Saying that though NEVER be rude to a sound person. They will ruin your gig, if they are that way inclined. We were once late for a gig in Glasgow so the soundman was already in a mood. He was rude to me, I was rude back and he ruined the sound for me completely and in the end it was our gig that suffered.
- When sound checking / playing - it’s good to be realistic. Sometimes the sound is what it is and you have to suck it up and get on with it. There are only so many times you can ask for your vocal to be turned up before you start annoying yourself.
- If the sound is really bad on stage and interfering with your show then always finish the song you’re playing, ADDRESS THE AUDIENCE FIRST and then talk to the sound person. I always say ‘Hope you guys are having a good time… Hey Mr/Mrs Sound…..’ Again be realistic, you can’t keep talking to the sound person after each song, the audience are not interested in that AT ALL.
- Get some GOOD ear plugs! They’re worth their weight in gold. I have really sensitive ears so playing without ear plugs is never an option for me. I messed around with foam ones and Doc’s Proplugs for years but without a shadow of a doubt - my stage sound improved by a million times when I got some molded ACS ear plugs. Yes, they were expensive and I’ve already lost the first pair I bought 6 months ago but they’re the best. Unlike other ear plugs which stop the sound getting into your ears so you can only hear yourself in your head, these just turn everything down so you can still pitch and hear the music. I’ve gone for the PRO 20 filter cause of my sensitive ears.
- Always listen back to gigs/performances - there’s so much you do that you won’t remember. It’s shocked me into addressing bad habits, the tone of my voice when talking to a crowd, etc. I still find it horrible listening back to myself and even worse watching performances back, especially when I’m talking lots but it has to be done.
- Watch YouTube videos of yourself - see what you look like and sound like to the crowd.
- Doing this made me realise I had a nervous twitch and I would touch my ear all the time - I dealt with this by wearing a cap and grabbing the peaks to deflect touching my ear. Now I wear a necklace but the same principle applies. Unless you watch live videos of yourself, you’ll have no idea that you do it!
- Be comfortable in what you’re wearing, there’s nothing worse than having to worry about something being too loose/tight and constantly messing with it - it gives off an air of nervousness.
- I’ve always believed that performance is everything - I’ve seen some of my favourite bands and walked away disappointed cause they stood there bored and just played the songs. If you move around a bit then others will move. If you look bored then how our people that have never seen you expect you to enjoy it. Even though my singing isn’t always spot on, when I’m on stage, I believe that what I’m doing is the best. It’s surprising how many people are even listening to the band. Most people listen with their eyes!
- Watch artists/performers that inspire you for tips - don’t copy them outright but try and make some of the moves/audience techniques yours. You should try to adapt them to make them your own. My favourite performers are Benji from Skindred, Gwen Stefani, Deborah Harry, Freddie Mercury and Axl Rose cause they’re mesmerising to watch. They move like they sound!
- Always engage the audience and make them feel special like you’re putting on the show especially for them. A good rule I have is to speak to people every 3 songs or so - I think speaking to them after every song is too much and it’s difficult to keep their focus. Playing live is so important now as music has become so disposable - you need to stand out from everyone else out there. There’s nothing worse than going to see a band that stand there, play the songs and don’t engage/interact with the audience, if I’m in the crowd, I’ll often feel cheated.
- At the same time, don’t rabbit on. When I’m nervous I chat rubbish, it’s always good to make little shorthand notes on your set list when you’re going to speak and what you’re going to say - e.g. when you’re going to introduce yourself, when you’re going to mention the merchandise/your next gig, etc. There’s nothing worse than a band thanking the band they’re playing with after every song. Sometimes nothing is better than that. You don’t have to talk a lot but do engage audience.
- I’m a natural born rabbiter and I find that chewing gum helps me to focus and not chat too much rubbish.
- When dealing with mistakes on stage, unless you/the band makes a HUGE mistake, 9 times out of 10 the audience won’t notice. If it’s a clanger and you have to stop and start again then make a joke of it. That always works.
- I find on stage that I’m playing a character of myself and it’s important to never let that slip. Even when I stop for water/to talk to a band member, I try to stay focused and in ‘on-stage mode’ so that I never let that character slip. It doesn’t have to be anything too extreme - just try to be you but enhanced for on stage.
- Even though you should be comfortable in what you’re wearing and while you should enjoy the show, you should try and push yourself out of your comfort zone when performing . If the gig is going wrong, people are heckling you - try and make a joke of it. Everyone else will appreciate the humour - rather than seeing someone on stage having a strop cause things are going wrong. Even if it seems like everyone dislikes you/what you’re doing, the crowd will respect you. We played a festival in Berlin called Punk and Disorderly, which was a old-school punk festival. If you don’t know my band, we are not old-school punk or disorderly in the slightest and the crowd had beef with there being a girl on stage, so it wasn’t a great mix! As soon as Barney started rapping, we got heckled, bottles thrown at us and people trying to spit on us BUT we stood our ground, got our heads down and played well. I had several people coming up to me after the show saying we’d won them over or that they didn’t like the music but they respected us for going up there and ‘having some balls.’
- Another example is when we encountered a couple of hostile racists at a gig in Holland who were spitting and shouting at us throughout the show. In the end we made everyone give them the thumbs up - a sense of humour always helps - and they stormed off, leaving us to enjoy the rest of the gig. Certain people want attention, making a joke out of them makes you look way better than standing there swearing at them or letting them ruin your gig.
- Never look annoyed or pissed off, everyone is watching your every move on stage. Sometimes you have to grin and bear it and then let rip once you’ve finished - away from any of the crowd!
- Meeting people at the end of a performance is key - in the 10 years I’ve been in bands, I’ve always said to the crowd - when we finish I will be at the merchandise/side of stage so come and say hello. Even if someone hated you, sometimes making yourself approachable helps. If they’re not instantly won over by the music/performance they might at least respect what you do. Numerous times, people have met me and said how nice I am, as they expected me not to be. (I have no idea why!)
- It’s human nature to be nervous, it took me a long time to get to grips with that. I used to have a couple of drinks before I played to ‘ease the nerves’ but I’d never know when to stop! Now I look back at performances and I’m really drunk in some of them - singing badly and chatting absolute nonsense! I find that it’s best to use that nervous tension and apply it to the show to enhance your performance. Once you do a show without drinking any alcohol, you’ll know you can do it.
- Always warm up - it gets you mentally and physically prepared. It took me a long time to not feel weird standing there with my headphones in doing ‘la la las’ but then it clicked, if I warmed up I had a better gig - end of. If I look like a tit then so be it, it’s worth it. I swear by Melissa Cross’ ‘The Zen of Screaming’ Vocal Warm Up CD. To be honest, her DVD is great too if you want to get to grips with the basics of singing. Check her out here.
You’re the one up there and you only get one chance at that moment in time so give it your all and show people what you can do. Do it well and enjoy it!
I know some of these shouldn’t even be classed as tips because they’re so obvious and all bands and performers are different but all of these have helped me in the past and still do today.
I’m off to a singing lesson now. Some might say it’s 10 years too late but it’s NEVER too late to start!
|Thanks to Mark Latham Photography|