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Pre-performance rituals and backstage secrets

Updated: Jan 30, 2023

Pre-performance rituals and backstage secrets are a fascinating part of concerts and presentations.

Ever wonder what goes on behind the scenes before the performance starts?

By the time the audience arrives and enters the venue, all the equipment is set up and ready to go.

What do the performers do to get ready?

Do speakers and singers have the same routines?

If you’d like to know more – keep reading…

Over the centuries those who perform in the wide range of vocal styles and speech have discovered a few simple rituals that seem to make a huge difference to the way they perform in the event.

The one thing that’s for certain is that everyone has their own set of rituals and strategies.

Here are a few of the many rituals and backstage secrets performers use.


Vocal Warm-ups for singers

One of the most common rituals is that of “warming up” the voice.

The vocal warm-up process can vary depending on what the singer or speaker is about to perform but there will be basic exercises and processes they all use in some form or other.

I guess you could say there are two main processes used by singers.

a) The full warm-up lasting somewhere from 20mins to 45mins – some may warm up for longer but I think that’s a bit unusual.

b) The quickie warm-up which may be as long as 10-15mins and as short as a few seconds.

One of my baritone colleagues who sang music theatre and opera in the USA professionally for decades, did very little warming up. The tenor would spend at least 30mins warming up and was annoyed that while my friend’s voice lasted the performance very easily, he struggled to get to the end of the show. When he wanted to know why. My friend replied “Well I don’t use up all my voice warming up – I save it for the performance.”

The role of Carlotta in Phantom of the Opera is a great example of why some singers need to be thoroughly warmed up before starting the performance. Her role starts with a cadenza that finishes on a high D. It all depends on the individual performer’s situation.

One of my favourite warm up stories is the difference between the way tenors and baritones warm-up.


The tenor dutifully sets out to go through every vocal exercise he’s ever learned and can take up to 35-40mins to go through his routine. The baritone stops briefly to focus, clears his throat, makes a few low baritonal-type sounds usually consisting of some form of “Ha/Ah/ Hmmm” and says “Right! All good!”

Here’s a wonderful and funny little demonstration by baritone David Fleischer



Amazing how often you see something similar to this actually happen!

In a more serious example, the famous Australian Wagnerian soprano Marjorie Lawrence is reported to have also had a very simple and short warm up.

For those who may not be aware, singing the Wagnerian operatic repertoire is one of the most difficult and demanding of all. Each opera is about 5 hours long and most characters sing very long sections of music over 120 piece orchestras acoustically – no microphones of any kind! Their voices must be heard at the back of large opera theatres. It’s a huge ask.

Marjorie Lawrence was one of the very best Wagnerian sopranos of her time.

It’s said her routine consisted of jumping out of bed in the morning and letting fly with a blistering, full throated high C. If it was good, she was right for the performance. If not, then she would consider whether or not she would continue with the performance that night. It was as simple as that for her.

Most singers’ vocal warm-up ritual consists of a few light vocalises for a short time. These may be:

o Lip trills

o Tongue Trills

o Ng sirens up and down

o Variations of three tone, five tone and octave scales on a range of different vowels

o Some kind of exercise for articulating consonants

o Hums

o Tongue exercises (not as exciting as it may sound 😊)

On the other hand, some singers like to stay completely silent right up until the performance starts.


Speakers’ and Actors’ Warmups

Speakers/actors will often go through a ritual of speech exercises that loosen the lips, mouth and jaw as well as the neck and the rest of the body.

They can be similar to the singer’s warmups but will usually include tongue-twisters of some kind and often a line or two from their presentation or script.


Physical Warm-ups

Most performers will do some form of physical warm up. It really depends on what the performance involves. Stretches; loosening up, relaxation-type things.

Those who are not moving a lot as part of their performance might also just do some energising work to wake up their body and have it “switched-on” for the performance.

It also means that the body is ready to support the voice.

Some speakers use motivational music to get energized and focused.


What to eat and drink

Most singers are aware how much what they drink and eat can affect their general health and especially their voice – and even more so just before a performance.

This also varies hugely from one performer to another.

I knew a brilliant tenor who would down a hamburger with the works and a thick shake before every performance. I don’t know many people who would, or could, do that and have a great performance. But it worked for him.

Most eat lightly before a performance so that whatever they’ve eaten has finished digesting by the time they’re on stage.

One reason is if you have a lot of food digesting when you’re performing, your body is preoccupied with the digestion process and doesn’t have a lot of energy left to give to the process of performing.

Some prefer light proteins such as egg or vegetable protein like a nut paste or food combinations that create the whole protein but are easily digested.

Some performers like to eat fruit and others salads. Again, everyone is different.

Raw honey is now considered invaluable in pre-performance. It can be a wonderful soother of inflamed throats. Remember in order for raw honey to maintain it’s healing properties it can’t be heated. If you want to put some into a hot drink, wait till you can sip the drink before adding honey.

A lot of performers like to drink a hot tea; some like a squeeze of lemon in it to break up any possible mucus on the vocal folds. These days some prefer a green tea, lemon tea or chai.

Most agree it’s a good idea to avoid any form of dairy. It’s not that dairy products create mucus but they do attach to mucosal tissue and can create congestion on the vocal folds. Again, everyone is different.

Some like to drink pineapple juice or just eat pineapple. I’ve never found that a good idea as it can be very abrasive on the throat.


Hydration!!

The body is 75% water and the vocal folds need to be lubricated (not with alcohol 😊) to work at their best.

Anyone using their voice a lot needs to be well hydrated up to 4 hours before a performance. Of course it’s also a good idea to stay hydrated throughout the performance.

Some performers have water provided as part of their rider requests.


Riders

A rider is usually part of the agreement or contract set up when you are booked for the event. It sets out anything you require as part of your appearance. It can include sound and lighting requirements but mostly involves things such as:

· Bottles of water

· Tea/coffee facilities

· A dress rack for costumes/stage clothes

Properties needed for your performance such as:

§ A small table

§ Two chairs

§ A black medium height stool

§ A lectern with a mic attached

§ A whiteboard and whiteboard pens

§ Air conditioning in the dressing room

… that sort of thing

There are plenty of examples of riders that list more unusual things such as:

§ Green M&Ms

§ Blue Jellybeans

§ Toast and Vegemite

§ A bed with non-allergenic pillows

§ A jug of freshly juiced green vegetables

§ Cigarettes

§ Hire cars to and from the theatre

§ Access to a gym


… there are lots of these and so many more – but you get the idea.

I’m told that sometimes the more unusual riders are included to make sure the admin at the venue have actually read the necessary rider requirements. Who knows?


Superstitions

This is a biggy!

There’s a whole range of theatre superstitions that some performers take very seriously. Some have created their own superstitions.

Here’s just a few of the theatre superstitions:

o Never mention the name Macbeth in the theatre

o Never use real flowers on stage

o Never whistle back stage

o Never use peacock feathers or mirrors on stage

o A bad dress rehearsal means the performance will be great

o Turn on the ghost light (now usually the emergency or safety light) before leaving the theatre.

o Do not wish a performer “good luck”. Hence theatre people will use terms such as “break a leg”, “in bocca del lupo”, “toi, toi, toi”, “chookas” etc.

o Never wear blue on stage (not sure anyone really follows this one any more).

o Don’t give flowers before the performance.


Ghosts

It’s amazing how often the theatre/venue has a resident ghost. It’s a good idea to check and definitely not offend the ectoplasmic patron. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, many others do and that can impact on the performance in a big way.


Health routines

These days there’s wide range of health routines performers go through before a performance.

This can include:

o Meditation – to help focus.

o Using a Neti Pot to help clear any mucus

o Personalised Steamer to sooth the throat before the performance starts

o Hot tea and lemon with honey

o Yoga – light workout to stretch the body and help focus

o Short walks in nature to help ground their energy

o Listening to motivational tracks.


Tech stuff – this applies to singers and speakers.

It’s vital to work with the tech guys to make sure:

a) The mic works and has the right balance for you

b) The foldback speakers work and are set so you can hear them when you’re singing/speaking

c) Check to see where your entrances and exists will be – every venue is different.

d) Check the lights to see where the light pools fall and any specials that are set up for you.

e) Check any steps/stairs you may need to use during your performance.

f) Check props and sets to make sure they work as they should

Some performers have their own techies who set up everything but even so, it’s good to make sure everything is as it should be for you to be able to perform at your best.


Costumes/Outfits

If you have changes of clothes for any performance/platform presentation, make sure everything is laid out so you can make those fast changes without stress. Great, if you have someone who can help but that’s not always possible.


Summary

There are as many different rituals and backstage secrets to great performances and presentations as there are individual performers.

Some are centuries old and their origins certainly made sense in their time but are somewhat irrelevant today. However, the superstitions are quite often still observed.

Anything that will help you feel confident and fully prepared for your performance or presentations is definitely worthwhile.

Chookas!!


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