Playing music is physical as well as emotional, so much of
my preparation for a show involves readying both of those departments.
In addition to the following musical tips, I can’t stress enough the
importance of working out four to five days a week. This kind of raw,
sweat-inducing activity helps build up your immune system and release
endorphins, while also relieving stress and relaxing your voice and
body. Here are five more strategies I still use when preparing for a
1. Keep a Routine
In addition to getting in good physical shape, keep a
daily routine of warm-up exercises. As a singer, the most effective
method I’ve found is to begin by humming scales and arpeggios in the
shower for a solid ten minutes—the steam really opens up my voice. Then I
move on to the piano to practice scales and arpeggios, singing along
using closed vowels like “ee” and “oo” and taking breaks every two
minutes. I then very slowly move on to more open vowels like “eh” and
“ah.” This kind of consistent practice regimen works both your voice and
keyboard skills into shape.
2. Mind Your Set List
I usually begin practicing alone and working out a set
list two to three weeks before I start rehearsing with my band. I really
need that time to feel which songs I’m most emotionally connected to.
This might mean going back to a song from my first album, or playing a
completely new song. Your audience can sense the authenticity and
conviction, or lack thereof, when you’re playing, so always choose the
songs you feel you can infuse with the most soul. That being said, it’s
also important to balance your set list with both old and new material.
I’ve learned over the years that you can create a “free spot” in your
set, where you can play a new song right after a familiar one.
3. Hit the Stage Relaxed
Your show day really begins the night before, so make sure
to get some sleep. I usually follow a morning routine of having coffee
and breakfast, writing in my journal, and then hitting the gym. But if
I’m exhausted from being on the road, I don’t hesitate for a second to
put earplugs in and take a nap. Then I do a thorough warm-up before
sound check with the band. I schedule dinner for three hours before the
show so that I’ll feel physically comfortable onstage.
4. Know Your Gear
Whether you play a myriad of electronic instruments or a
simple acoustic one, it’s important to find and use the gear that best
gets your sound across to your audience. For instance, I’ve designed a
very specific technical rider so that no matter where I am in the world, I always sound like myself. These days, I even carry my own piano microphone (the Earthworks
PM40T system), which is easy to set up, sounds totally natural, and
reduces leakage from outside the piano significantly.
5. Seize the Moment
You don’t have to adhere to your pre-determined set list,
stage banter, or choreography. Being spontaneous and open onstage is a
gift to both your audience and yourself—though it’s always good to have a
few funny lines and a couple of great stories in your arsenal to break
the ice. When I used to play keyboards and sing with Al Jarreau in the
1980s, I learned so much from watching him try out a new rhythmic
pattern with his voice in front of 16,000 people. He allowed himself to
be in the moment, where the magic truly is. Now when I’m singing a song,
I try to sink deeply into it. I push away distracting thoughts and
really dig in, even if I’ve played that song 5,000 times.
Known the world over for her role and music on the TV series Ally McBeal, singer, songwriter, and pianist Vonda Shepard
has played keyboards and sung with Rickie Lee Jones, Al Jarreau, and
Jackson Browne; sold over 12 million albums; and won two Golden Globes
and two Emmy Awards. Find out more at vondashepard.com.