Friday, March 8, 2013


Unless you come from an instrumental background where training generally starts at a younger age, you might be confused about practicing.

Let’s start with what practicing is NOT.  Singing in the shower, singing in your car, singing along with your iPod in your bedroom, singing through a song or two – while these are all fine activities, they do not constitute practicing.

Practicing involves setting aside a dedicated chunk of time and working in a focused and systematic way.

Ideally, you have a quiet, private space (bedroom, finished basement, etc.) where there is a piano, keyboard or pitch reference of some sort (pitch pipe, smart phone app) and maybe a mirror.  That’s all you need in terms of environment.

How long should I practice?  If, in our hectic and multi-tasking world, you wait until you have an hour to devote to it, you may never practice!  Twenty minutes twice or even once a day is good for starters – everyone can find twenty minutes!  Even ten minutes is better than nothing.  Know, though, that it is the quality of your practice rather than the quantity that makes a difference.  Going through the motions while watching TV, thinking of your big date or being otherwise distracted is not useful.  Five minutes of focused, intentional practice is better than a half hour of rote, mindless singing.

The brain can only concentrate for a short period of time.  If you find your mind wandering, try to bring your attention back to the work.  If it wanders again, walk away for a minute.  Get a drink of water, eat an apple, stretch your body, look through your music binder.  Then come back with renewed focus.

How frequently?  Every day is ideal.  Work and school schedules, family obligations and other aspects of quotidian life sometimes conspire to make finding time to practice a challenge.  Aim for every day and the inevitable breaks in the schedule won’t be tragic.  Practicing 5 or even 4 days out of 7 is OK – you tip the balance to practicing more days than not! 
How should I practice?  I mentioned “systematic” earlier.  Here’s what I mean:

·         Start with two minutes of physical exercise to get your body warm – running in place, jumping jacks and arms swings are all good. 

·        Begin to vocalize gently and easily – lip or tongue trills, short scales, hums, etc.  Get your vocal folds vibrating and the breathing system activated for singing.  Focus here on relaxation and ease.  Notice your posture and make any small physical adjustments to get rid of excess tensions.  Then start to expand your breathing by singing longer phrases and exhaling more vigorously.  [Side note: unless you are physically disabled, there is no sitting down while practicing!]  Now you're getting warmed up.

·         Next, go to the vocal exercises you did with your teacher in your last lesson.  What were you working on (e.g., strengthening, legato, smooth register transitions, clear vowels, flexibility, extending range, etc.)?  Repeat the lesson exercises and see if you can achieve the desired result, or get closer to it.  This is where you are building your technique.

·         Now you are ready to work on your repertoire.  Singing your piece through from beginning to end is useful – once.  Then the actual practicing begins.  Go back and fix what you didn’t like.  What were you working on in the lesson in this piece (could be the text, phrasing, mastering difficult technical passages, etc.)?  Start sometimes from the last page of your song and work backwards so that the first page isn’t always the most well-rehearsed. 

If you are unsure of what to practice, or how, listen to your lesson recording (what, you didn’t record your lesson?!?!) to refresh your memory.  You can even sing along with the exercises, especially if you are a new singing student or have a new teacher. 

 Why should I practice?  Ah, we might have started with that one, but I wasn’t sure it was necessary.  Your teacher, if you are lucky enough to have one, can only be with you an hour or so per week.  The rest is up to you.  I have to reluctantly admit that I’ve actually seen students improve slightly with very little practicing in between lessons.  HOWEVER, if you want to master something, it takes real practice.  The now-famous 10,000-Hour Rule claims that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours.  This is a guideline based on the work of Dr. K. Anders Ericsson and popularized by author Malcolm Gladwell.  “In a study published in the Harvard Business Review in 2007, Ericsson said excellence is not just based on practice, but deliberative practice: ‘Improving the skills you already have and extending the reach and range of those skills.’ That’s why mastery requires practice, observation, refinement, and more practice. Ericsson recommends hiring coaches and finding mentors to improve your skills.” *

Your teacher is your guide, and a second set of ears.  No one can be inside your body, feeling the sensations when you are singing.  No one, not even a great teacher, can GIVE you the keys to becoming a great artist.  That is up to you and you alone.  Ultimately, we are all our own teachers. Think about that - it is empowering!