Developing an excellent technique is very important. It makes singing easier, gives you more choices, extends the length of your career, and makes you feel capable and confident. I love studying technique, talking about it, applying it, and seeing it in action in others.
However, there is a skill that performers need that is more elusive than acquiring technique. It is the release of technique. When we perform we need to be in the moment with the music, forgetting about technique per se as much as possible. We can do this when the technical practice has resulted in new behaviors that have become automatic.
“Being with the music” can mean different things at different times. Often we can be in an acting mode where we are responding to a dramatic situation with our song. Other times we might be more detached and think “these are the sounds I want to make and the words I want to say”. Sometimes we will connect with a song so strongly that we feel like we are expressing our own thoughts to a group of friends.
There seem to be two main classes of troublesome thinking while we sing: directions and judgements. Directions would be something like “Don’t forget to round that vowel” or “Keep your head up”. Some directions are better than others, but they are best kept to a minimum because they tend to disrupt the flow and magic of the performance.
Judgements hardly need explaining. “That B was a little flat.” “I can’t believe how well this is going!” “This audience is dead tonight.” These also steal your concentration and creation/experience of the moment.
Part of practice and rehearsal time needs to be spent concentrating on the music and/or words themselves and not commentary about them. Spend some time every day singing something “just for fun”. Try being a character. Sing the song “as if” and put yourself in many scenarios. Try on moods and conditions such as: elated, intoxicated, shy, exuberant, histrionic, silly. Emphasize the more uplifting and humorous ones which encourage the body and spirit to be more free. Occasionally, pick some feeling-states that may be strange for you.
No one is perfect at this. Feel the fear and do it anyway! Notice the nagging voices of direction or judgement and quietly dismiss them. Say “I cannot listen to you right now,” and pick an element of the performance to pay attention to.
Practice being outside of the analysis state. Practice abandon and joy! I don’t have all the answers on how to do this, but I know that it is necessary for excellent performances. Experimentation is very helpful. Getting out of practice mode and into performance mode, which for me means being present with the music NOW, is a skill in itself, and it’s something that anyone at any technical or experience level can benefit from.
Practice going back and forth between analysis and performance. Find a gateway that works for you, whether it’s a statement to yourself, a visualization, a physical action, or some other ritual. It’s an important skill for successful musicians.