Grace's Practicing Strategies: Tips for Fitting Vocal Practicing Into Our Busy Lives
Why? There are numerous aspects involved in learning to express oneself through the art of Singing. There is of course the artistic side, involving both A) learning about different musical styles and modes of expression and B) actual performance presentation of repertoire, including the familiarization and/or memorization of notes, rhythms, texts and the meaning thereof, such that the performer is able to transcend the musical notation on the page and give a performance of unique, individual expression. Many music students readily understand these aspects, and know that while point A can be addressed during lesson time, point B involves devoting time outside of lessons to the process of learning so that the performer is able to achieve that transcendence.
What students of singing must also understand is that there is also a technical, mechanical side to our art form which involves the actual production of vocal sound or, if you will, the discovery and development of one’s vocal instrument, in order to allow the vocal artist greater choice when it comes to range, dynamics, phrase length, timbre and more. Aspects of this more mechanical side include C) experiencing new and better ways of producing vocal sound, and D) habituating these better ways so that they become automatic, thus freeing the singer to focus more on the artistic elements already mentioned.
It is our job as voice teachers to guide our students through point C, the experience of producing sounds in ways that are healthy and sustainable and often, different from the way in which the student has previously been producing sounds. Point D however, must be achieved through regular repetition during the student’s time outside of the studio, in order to reliably reproduce these new, better ways to make sound. Learning to reliably reproduce sounds in different ways involves educating the muscles of the body, much the same as for an athlete learning the skills and coordination involved in a given sport. Just as athletes must engage in drills, so must singers, in order to make the new ways become their “habits” or “default” modes of making sound. We wish there were some way we could wave a magic wand over you once you achieve a technical breakthrough, but so far, no one has invented such a device!
For many of our highly educated, intellectual students, this poses a special challenge. These individuals are accustomed to using brain power to solve problems, so they believe that as soon as they’ve made a sound once and understood the difference intellectually, they should be able to reproduce that same sound forevermore. However, the type of intelligence involved in physical movement activities is vastly different from that involved in being a scientist or a lawyer or an Ivy League-track student. This does not means that the student is unintelligent in any way; rather, for most of us, the body just needs more time to engage its kinesthetic intelligence, and that happens best through thoughtful, frequent exposure to these new patterns of movement and coordination.
How? The ideal vocal practice session would consist of three parts: Initial Warm-up, Technical Work, and Repertoire Work.
- The Initial Warm-up Phase would be at least 10 minutes long. Your goal during this phase is to gently stretch and loosen up and to increase the blood flow – and thus oxygen and nutrient supplies – to muscles you are preparing to engage more intensely. This phase should be approached with a non-judgmental attitude, as current scientific theory on physical training holds that it takes on average 10 minutes for the human body to remember what it already knows how to do. Your teacher will help you determine your specific needs during this warm-up phase.
- The Technical Work Phase is when we start to build on what we already know and what we have experienced in the studio in order to develop, improve, and habituate those new ways of making sound. Exercises performed during this phase should be increasing in challenge, such as exercises demanding greater breath control, use of a wider range, or resonant vowel production.
- The Repertoire Phase of practice is when we work on learning specific pieces of music, generally starting with the basic notes, rhythms, and texts, and eventually working up to adding all the elements of a refined artistic presentation. We strongly advise working in a patient, systematic manner, focusing on isolated elements. Your goal should be to learn all the basic musical elements of a piece flawlessly and to train your body to produce all these elements with your voice as efficiently as possible. You will not then have to go back and “unlearn” mistakes; instead, you will be free to move forward to the next step, developing your artistic expression of the piece.
In an ideal world, self-enrichment singers would have at least an hour each day to devote to these types of vocal practice sessions, with career-minded singers devoting even more time to their daily practice, along with extra time spent researching repertoire, learning languages, stage movement, and other skills. Also in this ideal world, the singer would be in a room dedicated to music practice, free of distractions, equipped with a piano or keyboard for obtaining starting pitches for exercises and a device for listening to the recording of the student’s most recent lesson. While listening to the recording, he or she would repeat the exercises from that lesson, and perhaps even take notes on the exercises and concepts discussed during the lesson.
This being said, we do not live in an ideal world; most students cannot realistically devote 60+ minutes each day purely to vocal studies in the perfect practice setting. So what can we do in order to advance in our vocal skills?
Strategies: First, here are some general principles guiding effective home practice between lessons.
- Practice must be frequent, as the body learns through regular exposure to new patterns of muscular use and coordination. Particularly when it comes to the technical side, you will make more progress through practicing 15 minutes per day, 6 days a week than if you practice only once a week but practice 90 minutes that day.
- Practice must be mindful and deliberate; you must be “checked in”. We’ve all heard the old adage, “Practice makes perfect”, but in fact, the more truthful adage states, “Practice makes permanent”. When practice consists of mindless repetition, not only are we not applying new ideas learned during the lesson time, but we may in fact be reinforcing the very habits we are trying to replace. For a singer to be mindful during practice means that he or she is focused and aware of the sensations of singing in the body and is engaged in a process of conscious experimentation, constantly comparing and contrasting his or her singing with sounds made during lessons, as well as his or her old singing habits. An added bit of good news: because mindful practice is more effective, you can achieve better results in less practice time.
With these principles in mind, a more realistic daily practice schedule for many students might look like this:
- 10 minutes of Initial Warm-up, so that you can maintain the progress you have already made.
- 10 - 15 minutes of Technical Work, in order to advance your skills.
- 10 -15 minutes of Repertoire Work, so that you systematically build pieces “into your voice”.
If you cannot find 30 – 40 minutes of uninterrupted practice time, you can break your daily practice into two shorter sessions, the first focusing on the Initial Warm-up and Technical Work/Vocalises, the second consisting of a more abbreviated warm-up – being mindful of course of whether your voice feels “warm” and ready to go – followed by Repertoire Work. Students who are pursuing a career in music or who are considering doing so, i.e., auditioning for college music or musical theater programs, should plan on much more Technical and Repertoire Work time, in order to prepare for this extremely competitive field.
How to find that 30 minutes of time in your day? Here are some ideas:
- Listen to and mindfully sing along with your lesson recording while engaging in activities which do not otherwise involve a lot of brain power, such as while performing household chores or while driving a long commute. [Important note on singing while driving: Please be safe! Do not attempt to practice while in complex driving situations such as high-speed heavy traffic or poor weather conditions! Not everyone is set up for this kind of multitasking: if singing a fully supported forte makes your foot grow heavier on the accelerator, please leave your practicing for time spent stopped at traffic lights or better yet, out of the car entirely!]
- If you can find a few free minutes and a room or office to yourself during your work or school day, see if you can slip in a few minutes of vocalizing. You can transfer exercises from your lesson recordings to your smartphone or MP3 player, or use a piano app on your smartphone for obtaining starting pitches. Some schools may even have sound-proofed practice rooms available, but if you are in a situation where volume would be an issue, you can perform breathing exercises and low volume exercises such as hums or vocal function drills. Fitting in a few minutes of beneficial vocalizing could even help re-energize you to face the rest of your day!
- There are ways of practicing repertoire which do not involve actual singing in the real key of the piece. These include speaking through texts, listening to recordings of advanced singers singing the piece, translating foreign language texts, and “intoning” your texts with the correct rhythms. If you run out of practice time at your piano or with your recording, you can still work on learning your repertoire later in the day using these methods.
- If nothing else, per the old cliché, sing in the shower…or rather vocalize in the shower. The risk here is that you may not vocalize through your range as completely as you would during your lesson, unless there is a way to play back lesson recordings in your bathroom. (Since good quality electronics usually do not fare well in high humidity situations, we will assume your shower singing will be a capella.) In this situation, it is especially important to sing mindfully, noticing your sensations, so that you will perform your warm-ups in an appropriate range and maintain good tuning, singing your intervals cleanly.
Caveats: Here are some examples of activities which do not count as “practice” for your lessons.
- Singing along with your favorite popular or even classical artist. Sorry, it doesn’t matter whether it’s Enya, Eileen Farrell or Ezio Pinza, while this is fun, it isn’t “practicing”.
- Singing in choir practice, even if your choir director does “warm-ups”. There are several reasons why this is not a substitute for your own practice. First, you are singing in a group situation, so it is more difficult to monitor your sound and sensations created by just your sound. Second, the exercises are not tailored to your needs. Your choir director is trying to help the greatest number of choir members in as little time as possible, and what best serves the majority may not be what is best for your instrument. Third, many choral warm-ups have as their goal ear training and achieving a blended choral sound…and the latter may be the antithesis of a good solo sound! Many of our students come to us with the goal of getting into and staying in an auditioned chorus, so please understand: we’re not telling you to disobey your director. But depending upon the aesthetic goals of a given choir director, you may need to develop one type of voice for your choral work and another for your solo singing.
Now, go out there and practice!