Can how you practice actually change whether you get any better?

Anyone who wants to master a skill is taught that “‘practice makes perfect” or “perfect practice makes perfect” or “practice makes permanent”. But practicing one’s singing is uniquely difficult because it’s such an invisible process and it can be challenging to know if you’re succeeding or not. A piano player can see his fingers and a skier can time himself racing down a hill.  Singing though is esthetic and subjective so it’s hard to trust oneself. “For how long should I practice?  Should I do exercises and then songs?  What’s the optimal practice time? How do I know if I’m doing anything right?”

When I began my voice training, in the Dark Ages,  my teacher recommended that I not practice.  She was concerned that I would practice incorrectly (very likely) and that we’d have to redo rather than build.  Made sense to me at the time!  But I realize that new muscle memory takes practice and that if the teaching is clear, there’s less chance of practicing wrong at home. 

Here then, is a list of my suggestions to help make practicing a thing of pleasure and satisfaction.

1) Find a private place to sing.  Not easy for those living in an apartment, I know, but the more private and undisturbed you can be, the less self-conscious you’ll feel.  Singing can sound loud and strange at times and you don’t want to have to worry about people making fun of you by banging on the wall.  Though singing in the car is not ideal, for some, it’s the only reasonable private space.  Just keep your hands on “10 and 2” and eyes straight ahead while driving!

2) Determine exactly what you need to focus on-
    + support exercises?
watching yourself sing in the mirror to eliminate head tilting or chin lifting?
    + getting rid of chest breathing?
holding long notes more comfortably?
having consistently easy, non-strainy high notes?
singing in tune?
    + vocal agility (speed and accuracy ornamental sections)?
    + high belting?
    + memorizing lyrics?
    + creating vocal riffs?
    + figuring out harmonies?
working out performance gestures and moves?

3) Notice I didn’t mention warming-up exercises.  Technical exercises and warm-up exercises can be two different things.  Personally, I think that too many warm-up exercises can be tiring and sometimes less is more when it comes to warming up.  The idea that one must warm-up for 20 minutes (or any exact amount of time) prior to a performance is unnecessary for many singers.  Warm-ups should begin with stretching the body,  creating good posture, reaffirming lower belly breathing then warming up the support jobs: chest up, ribs out, upper belly firming out, lower belly going in.  This whole process should only take about three minutes.

Then it’s time to attach the vocal folds to the picture.  I love the trill patterns: either lip trill or tongue trills.  BUT,  do not make the mistake of doing them loudly and carelessly.  Start on your very lowest note and LIGHTLY do the trills to your highest note with great attention to your breathing and support jobs. I hear so many people doing the trills incorrectly and super-loud.  That will over-pressurize your vocal folds and you’ll be hoarse in no time.  Humming is also a standard first warm-up for the vocal folds. Can’t go wrong with humming. Sirens (smoothing sliding up and down) on hums and on vowels is another great, simple vocal fold warm-up. 

Never sing high and loud until you feel thoroughly warmed-up.

4)  Do you ever accidentally do something amazing when singing and the ‘bell of truth’  rings in your head?  Don’t let luck be your master! Follow what I call ‘the Rule of Five’.  If you get lucky when experimenting and something AWESOME comes out of your mouth, REPEAT the phrase 5 times in a row perfectly.  If you blow it, start over and aim for five perfect ones.  It’s a great method (if a bit obsessive-compulsive!) to make happy accidents into new behaviors. 

5) When working on high, challenging passages, take the phrase down an interval of fourth then gradually take the phrase up in semi-tones.  Take the passage ABOVE where you need to perform it.  That will help trick your brain into thinking that the once-too-high passage is not so high after all.

6) When practicing a new and difficult technique (like belting to high C….with vibrato!), take a break every so often.  Go and make yourself a sandwich, then come back and try again.  Also try your new techniques in as many different locations as possible so your muscle memory remains no matter what the visual input might be.

7) Figure out if you’re primarily a visual learner (reading sheet music, chord charts, or lyrics), a kinesthetic learner (singing by how it feels) or an auditory learner (hear it, sing it, know it). If you have a strong predilection for one type of learning, don’t be too hard on yourself if other styles of learning seem really difficult.  It’s just the way your brain is built.

8) Don’t practice until you get hoarse. Hoarse means swelling and that means it’s time to stop singing.  Pain should NEVER be experienced…nor tickling in the vocal folds. It is incorrect to think that pushing past the pain is ever a technique for strengthening the vocal folds.  There should be no pain, ever.

 

9) The goal of practicing is to sing songs, not to do exercises perfectly.  There are too many people out there who can sing their pants off on exercises but cannot sing a song to save their lives.  Songs filled with feeling and magic are the goal.  Practicing is only the foundation, not the goal.  So include songs or difficult song fragments as part of your practice strategies.

10) Record yourself or consider having a professional ear (like a vocal coach with a lot of experience) monitor your progress every so often.  Just to make sure your practicing does make perfect!

Celebrity voice coach Lisa Popeil, MFA in Voice, is the creator of the Voiceworks® Method and the Total Singer DVD.  www.popeil.com