Inspirazione : In Favor of Practicing

The singer is a strange animal: part musician, part instrument, part storyteller, and part actor. The violinist, the pianist, the proverbial prodigy who becomes a soloist, begins his or her musical studies early and develops habits (good and bad) around the all-important art of practicing, spending hours a day locked in a room playing scales, scales, and more scales. Singers are different, however. For one thing, we don’t even get our real instrument until after puberty, and even then, especially for dramatic voices, it keeps changing. Also, we can only sing for a few hours a day, give or take.

Many of the professional classical singers I know came to singing late. A broken ankle ended the dream of a tennis career, for example, and led a college student to take up singing. An organ major discovered a genuinely operatic instrument almost by accident. A guy follows a pretty girl to a choir rehearsal and the rest is history. Or, in my case, an actor who has always loved to sing finds herself performing at La Scala in an avant-garde production combining actors and singers, and decides to get more serious about voice lessons.

In any case, you don’t have to study from an early age to become a classical singer, whereas—with a few exceptions (Jean-Pierre Rampall began the flute at the relatively late age of 13)—instrumentalists train in the art of practicing from an early age, just as ballet dancers must train the body as it develops.

As you would expect with such a myriad of backgrounds, the practice habits of singers vary widely. Some seem to be more like actors, who don’t practice much on their own and do best with a role in hand to train for, much as an athlete trains for a specific event. At the other extreme, some singers feel that a day without singing scales is like a day without sunshine.

I was prompted to reflect on practicing, and revisit my own practice habits and beliefs, after reading a new and very lovely book on the subject, Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music, by Glen Kurtz. Kurtz comes to the issue from the perspective of a classical guitarist, but the questions he raises are relevant to anyone living a dedicated musical life. Kurtz quit playing for many years after conservatory, when the possibility of a career path as a concert performer disintegrated and he could not sustain his practice without that goal in sight. Kurtz’s return to playing is a beautiful and inspiring story, and I loved the book, cover to cover.

From the vivid picture “Practicing” paints of life at my alma mater, the New England Conservatory, to the exploration of thoughts and dreams that flit across the mind of a musician during practice, Kurtz looks deeply into the essence of what it means to be a musical performer, and what it means to practice toward a goal or for its own sake.

In the wake of reading this book, I have discussed the subject with some fellow musicians and infused some new ideas and energy into my practice routine. Here are a few of my favorites:

Keep a Practice Log

A sample of my practice log is available to download at www.classicalsinger.com/downloads/practice_log.pdf), or create your own. Mine includes the day, the time I started, and my mood and health, plus observations before I begin, my intention for practicing, a notation of my methods and repertoire, and finally, the time I finished and my mood and observations upon finishing.

The idea of noting how you’re feeling before and after practice can be helpful in deciding if repertoire or methods are helpful to you. Also, some repertoire feels fine in the moment, but then you feel tired vocally the next day. A practice log can help you keep track of this.

As for intention, including it can be very helpful in setting the tone for your practice. If you are likely to rush, or be very hard on yourself, you might set an intention to “find ease” in your singing, or “enjoy the breath.” Or you might be more specific, setting goals such as, “memorize Act I, Scene III.”

Try to make entries as simple and factual as possible. As Kuntz discusses, there is always a difference between our ideal and where we actually are. An honest, nonjudgmental practice log can be an important step to getting a clear picture of the distance between
the two.

Keep a Regular Schedule

Take advantage of “habit energy”—practicing at the same time every day can help you to stay on the ball. Remember Newton’s first law of motion: Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it. When you sing every day, you are in motion, and likely to keep singing. The longer the time between practices, the tougher it can be to get going again. Choosing the time when you have your very best energy (mornings for many) helps to send a message to you that your practicing is important.

Create an Inspiring Practice Space

I know of a singer who strings up a line across the wall of her practice space and clips sheets of paper with goals on them. I’m a fan of colored 3×5 index cards. Write down roles you want, venues you want to sing in, and artistic achievements, and make them visible. Put up your performance photos and posters, for those days when you really don’t feel like a performer. Have a couple of well-placed mirrors for checking technique, and the very best keyboard you can afford. Keep the space clean and update it frequently.

Nothing is better than quality time, when you’re rested and in a safe environment you’ve created, setting your intentions carefully. That is the core of your work. Practicing every day—even on days when you have cramps, don’t feel like it, or just had a fight with your girlfriend—is the best preparation you can give yourself for singing well at any given time.

These next forms of practice provide some specific ways to practice that simulate real-world situations. The more you can practice singing under those conditions, the better.

Environmental Practice

String players are taught to carry their instrument into different rooms in the house to get used to the different acoustics. Have you ever been to an audition where the only place to warm up was the bathroom? Or your car? To simulate a dead space, try singing in the closet. For a live space, try the bathroom.

If possible, practice in the actual space in which you’ll be singing. In an audition situation, one way to do this is by signing up for the second day of auditions. Show up on the first day just to check out the space. Maybe you can try out the room a bit while the auditioners are at lunch. If not, you’ve at least gotten familiar with the locale so your brain won’t be firing off all of its “new place” warnings.

Alarm Clock Practicing

Set your alarm clock or egg timer to some random time to go off during your practice. This is to simulate the feeling you get of the knock on the door, or the “you’re up next,” or if you’re lucky, the intercom barking, “Ms. Soprano to the stage please. Ms. Soprano to the stage.”

Something happens to the nervous system when it’s time to go on, and you can simulate that by practicing this way. I also like to listen to a recording of the orchestra part just before my entrance. When I hear it, I get a flutter in the stomach, and I keep replaying that bit until the flutter is gone.

Real-world Practicing

If you have to sing after working all day at a desk job, practice singing after work. If you take half an hour to do your makeup and hair, and have to walk the dog or feed the kids before going to sing, practice singing after doing that. If you’re singing in heels or in a skirt, practice that. If you’re singing at 3 in the afternoon, after you’ve been driving for two hours, when you have your period, with a new pianist, and then walked two blocks in high heels while carrying a shoulder bag full of music, practice singing after doing that, and that, and that. Practice under whatever conditions you will have to sing.

Lastly, as I mentioned in my August recap of the Classical Singer Convention ‘07, I’m a big believer in singers’ forums. These are get-togethers of singers only, to sing in front of each other to try out new repertoire or prepare for auditions. (See sidebar in “Singer’s Hit Fog City,” CS, August 2007.) Having an audience is something you can and should practice, too.

Update Your Story

“Practicing is training; practicing is meditation and therapy,” Kurtz writes in “Practice.” “But before any of these, practicing is a story you tell yourself, a Bildungsroman, a tale of education and self-realization.”

As we age and develop, that story changes. Maybe you’re not practicing to sing at the Met any more. Maybe you’re practicing to be a better teacher, or to challenge yourself, or for a particular audition, or even because you enjoy practicing. If the story dies and you don’t replace it, your practicing will lose energy, so stay in touch with yourself and your reasons for practicing.

I used to think singers couldn’t practice all day, but now I know better. We may not be able to sing all day, but we can practice. (See sidebar for a sample 90-minute practice routine.) Beyond the obvious tasks—strengthening the voice, learning the notes, checking pronunciation, translating, learning about the life of the composer, the librettist, and the history of the time period, and making acting choices—practicing is a time for you to connect with your own, deepest wishes as an artist. Whether you work on your “someday” repertoire, or take some time to enjoy the sheer simplicity of getting to know how your voice feels on a particular day, the time you spend practicing is a time for you to be your own teacher, your own conductor, and your own director. It is a time to ask yourself, without fear of failure, “What am I really capable of? What is it I want to say?”

Practice time is a safety zone, to explore, study, and learn music, a time to discover, refine and even invent your artistic self. Enjoy it!

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at Lisahouston360@gmail.com.