"You should have heard it in the practice room!" We've all thought it, said it, and we meant it: we know we can do better, we have done better... So what prevented us from achieving our very best when the "chips were down?" Here are a few strategies for getting to your best performance when it matters.
1. Visualize success. Let's start with the positive: what does it feel like when you perform your best? Notice that sensation in the practice room. What things led to that success? It sounds simplistic, but we need to be mindful of what leads to our successes so that we can repeat those things. If we do "smart singer" things, good things happen! If we do "dumb singer" things, bad things happen. Simple as that. So, visualize singing an excellent audition/performance. Now visualize it again, and again, etc.
It is CRUCIAL to plan for positive outcomes. As Henry Ford said, "whether you think you can or you think you can't, you're right." The vast majority of singers' problems can be helped (if not solved) by an improved mental outlook. Adjust your self-talk--if you hear your self saying "I always screw up the second verse," change it to "I need to think ahead so that I sing the right words in the second verse."
2. Anticipate the negative. I find it helpful to recognize that some things are going to go awry. Releasing myself from the bonds of "perfect" allows me to access "excellent." What happens to you when you get nervous--do your breaths feel a bit shallower, do your palms feel sweaty? Try to really imagine what that will feel like. Expect those things to happen, and then they'll become like old friends come to visit rather than enemies.
3. The Performance Scenario. Visualize (as best you can) the performance scenario. What does the space look like? What will it look like with people in the seats? What will the light look like / feel like?
If it's an audition, who will be there? Where will they be seated? Perhaps you don't know answers to these, but once you've done a few auditions, project from those past experiences what it will feel like. Be prepared to take some negative things in stride: if they never look at you, or eat a Snickers bar while you're singing, or talk to one another--whatever, you just do your thing.
4. Be "BULLETPROOF." There's a point in my preparation when I know my repertoire well enough to sing it through. There's a further point when I can sing it from memory reliably. There's a yet further point when I could roll out of bed and sing it cold--THAT'S "bulletproof," and that's where the FUN of performance happens. I don't practice because I enjoy practicing--I practice because I LOVE performing when I'm bulletproof. The absolute #1 problem I see in students is that they simply don't know their material well enough--they're not bulletproof yet.
5. Manage the "pre-game." Be mindful of what you can do before the performance to set you up best. Hydrate. Stretch out. Eat enough so that you're energized, but not so much that you're full. Sing enough to be well warmed-up, but not so much that you leave your best notes in the practice room. I recommend singing through part or all of the material you're about to sing. "Load it into your memory." I especially do that with performances of song cycles, like Winterreise. If I've "loaded" that on the morning of a performance, it's much more ready for recall than if the last time I sang it was the day before.
With some planning, you can dramatically increase your odds of an excellent performance. Plan your work, then work your plan.