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Why You Couldn't Find Your Starting Note

The Audition

Penny auditioned for a band. The audition was at a gig. She was told to show up and sit in for a couple of songs. She told them she’d done very little “sitting in” in her singing career. They were ok with that. This was new to her, but she’s brave, knows she can sing, and she was game. So she emailed the leader the two songs she was going to sing, and showed up looking pretty.

Penny loves Stevie Wonder, she knows Signed, Sealed, Delivered by heart, and it was on their list. Perfect. Normally Penny sings Signed, Sealed, Delivered in Stevie’s key.

The Incident

The band played the very-familiar intro, Penny tried to come in, but found she couldn’t. She couldn’t discern the starting pitch. She was confused and panicky; that had never happened to her before. Luckily, one of the band’s regular singers got her started after a few beats, and she was fine.

I asked Penny if the song felt a little low to her as she sang it, and she said it did.

Here’s what happened to Penny. This may have happened to you.

The Adrenaline Factor

Adrenaline makes keys lower for singers. Here’s why.

Stevie’s key was probably already too low, but Penny was used to it. Then, when her increased adrenaline levels made that key seem even lower, her brain couldn’t make sense of it. If she started where she knew she had to, it would feel too low; an octave up was definitely too high. So she couldn’t sing anything.

Penny was in a situation that would make even a seasoned singer anxious and afraid. Your body produces adrenaline in response to anxiety and fear, and adrenaline creates a lot of physical responses. One of those responses is that your muscles release stored glycogen (energy). Glycogen causes muscle contractions to be stronger and last longer.

Now, think about your experience as a singer. Higher notes take more muscle effort, right? You’re used to the amount of muscle effort it takes to produce, for instance, an A. Flood your system with glycogen, and all of a sudden your muscles are giving you extra strength for the same work. In other words, you’re putting forth your normal degree of effort for an A,

but your muscles give you more than you were asking for – your muscles give you the amount of effort required for an A# or even a B.

What to do?

There’s no way to give a one-size-fits-all answer to this question, but I can suggest some insurance.

If you think you’re going to be nervous, or will be singing in a high-anxiety situation, practice your song lower than normal. So, if you normally sing The Star Spangled banner in A, but if you feel reasonably certain you’ll be terrified when you’re at the stadium and 30,000 pairs of eyes are on you, practice your song in A♭or even G. You just might beat the Adrenaline Factor.

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