How do you practice? – Vocal Edu Series (2)
by Katja Maria Slotte, The Netherlands
Set a focus for your practice session. Know what you want to work on, and don’t try to work on too many things at the same time. For singers this means knowing what the ‘problem areas’ in your songs are. A singing teacher can help you find out what the cause of your issue is, give you suggestions and tools on how to solve it, and assign you exercises to practice new skills.
Let’s say, that you are experiencing wobbly endings on notes and phrases, and your singing teacher has presented you with solutions and exercises for this problem. You could start your practice session by setting ‘endings’ as a theme for your session. Set the following intention: ‘I will focus on how I finish my notes and phrases’. Then, using the tools your singing teacher has taught you, work on your endings in a focused way. Setting an intention or a focus for your session is like zooming in on a specific detail on a photo. You are aware of the whole picture, but choose for a while to look at only one part of it.
Choir directors and coaches can also choose a theme for the session or rehearsal. Examples of technique themes are: vibrato, volume, twang, raising the larynx, etc. Setting a focus also means that we are aware of not introducing too many tools or tasks at the same time. It is not effective practice to ask the singers to focus on a technique related issue, while also expecting them to focus on timing, or choir choreography.
2. Quality, not quantity
In order to get quality out of our exercises, we need to set clear goals for our practice. Whatever it is that we practice, it is better to perform simple exercises with a clear goal, than to perform many (complicated) exercises without a clear goal. This means avoiding automated “la-la-la-la exercises”, and having a look at what the intention with the exercise is.
Especially when we are introduced to a new technique or sound, it is better to sing simple exercises with less notes than to sing complicated arpeggios, intervals or scales. We need to be able to master singing one note with the new technique, before we can move on to scales, interval leaps, and so on.
3. Keep it short enough
In order to stay focused throughout your practice session, make sure the length of the session is allowing you to stay focused. Shorter and focused practice sessions with clear goals are far more effective than mindless, long practice or endless repetition of the same song or phrase. Also, when possible, try to focus your practice sessions to times of day when you have the most energy.
4. Keep track
Another way to practice effectively is to keep track of your goals and findings. If something works out, make a note of what it is that you did, so that you can return to it another time. Your “clues” are depending on your individual learning style. Some people might focus on the position of their tongue, while others focus on a mental image. Auditive learners benefit from recording their practice sessions and voice lessons, so that they can hear the difference between what works and what doesn’t.
5. Bring the exercises back to the song
Singing is not about being able to perform exercises well. Exercises are not useful, unless we are able to put the skills we learn into practice within the context of the songs we sing. Choose your exercises based on the issues you encounter in your songs, and always try out if the skills you have learned through an exercise stand the test of putting it back into the context of the song. When things don’t go like you want them to, keep track of what it is that you did or did not do. That way you can go back and correct the problem. Sometimes you might have to adjust your exercise, or the way you perform the exercise.
6. Vary practice with making music
Finally, it is important that we vary practice sessions with making music.
This is how I like to think about it: singers have a split personality of some sorts! There is a singer or an ‘artist’ in us, that wants to sing and make music because we have something to express, because it makes us feel good, because we love music, and so on. There is also another part in us – let’s call it the ‘technician’. The technician wants to practice, learn new skills and develop. It is focused on details like technique, sound, timing, intonation, and so on. These two parts need to co-exist, but they cannot be equally present all the time. Can you identify yourself in this “split personality description”?
A common reason for ineffective practice, next to not having clear enough goals, is mixing the desire to practice with the desire to make music. It might help to make a deal with yourself, and choose to say either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to practice. Being focused when you practice means saying ‘yes’ to practice, and telling the ‘singer inside ourselves’ that it needs to step aside and allow the ‘technician’ to operate for a while.
On the other hand, give yourself permission to sometimes say a clear ‘no’ to practice. Saying ‘no’ to practice means you allow yourself to sing and make music without focusing on technique or other details. It means singing songs because you feel like singing, singing for the sake of expression. Saying ‘no’ to practice means telling the ‘technician’ inside ourselves that it has to step to the side for a while.
Also, be aware of when it is that you are saying ‘maybe’ to practice. This might happen more often than you think. ‘Maybe’ is when you are not quite clear about our intentions. It is an in-between state where a part of you ‘just wants to sing’, and a part of you wants to practice. ‘Maybe’ results in an unhappy singer, an unhappy ‘technician’, and ineffective practice. So satisfy your inner ‘technician’ with focused practice, and make your inner singer happy by making music and regularly singing your heart out!
Katja Maria Slotte is a Finnish-born vocal coach, singer and music education consultant. She currently lives in The Netherlands and works as a vocal coach throughout Europe. Katja holds a MMus degree in music education and contemporary singing from the Sibelius-Academy in Helsinki, studied Brazilian music and Jazz at Rotterdam’s Conservatory, and graduated as an Authorized Complete Vocal Technique (CVT) Teacher from Complete Vocal Institute in Copenhagen.