Practicing Efficiently

We’ve all done it. We sing through a piece numerous times only to make the same mistakes, run out of steam in the same places, and generally feel unprepared at performance time. “But I really practiced!” you may protest.

Not all means of practicing are effective, and what may have carried you through in academia may not be focused enough to advance you vocally in the professional world. It is necessary to create a system of efficient practicing that will continually improve your craft and give success to your performances. It is never too early—or late—to build healthy habits for practicing on your own.

Creating Consistency

While practicing does not always make perfect, it does create muscle memory. It is important to use your practice sessions for building the right habits and engraining techniques to autopilot.

Be aware of your body and the way your voice is responding while you practice, particularly while pacing new repertoire into your voice. Learn when it is necessary to take the day off. If fatigue is making you compensate on technique or you are unable to focus due to outside circumstances, it is preferable to rest rather than risk setting bad habits. Recognize the signs for good practicing versus phoning it in.

Taking Apart, Putting Together

Each practice session will vary depending upon how well you know your music, but you should have a general routine in mind to guide you. Singing requires much concentration. Set yourself up for success by allowing your brain to focus on individual tasks rather than multiple layers at once. By breaking down the steps of a piece, you are able to work on sections in a healthy manner, allowing your body to concentrate on each task individually.

Learning notes, rhythms, and foreign words all at the same time is unnecessary. Separate the tasks to ensure that each is correct on its own before putting them together. Only after these pieces are secure should you try to sing the piece, thereby being able to concentrate on your technique without other distractions.

The following practice session can be applied to new or familiar repertoire. This process would occur after the translating and note learning is complete:
1. Warm up your body.
2. Warm up your voice.
3. Speak through the text in rhythm.
4. Sing through the piece on lip trills, humming, alternating vowels. Focus on easy production through phrasing and breathing.
5. Sing through the piece with words, focusing on technique.
6. Sing through the piece with words, focusing on expression/acting.
7. Sing through piece putting together technique and expression/acting.
8. End with “performance.”
9. Warm down.

You may need to repeat certain steps numerous times before moving on to the next step, and you might not work each step in every practice session. When you are first learning a piece, it might feel better to sing through the notes on lip trills alone for a few days, acclimating your muscles to the phrasing before adding actual words. Steps 4 and 5 in particular should take lots of time before moving on. Eventually your finished product should be routine enough for technique and expression to be in muscle memory, leaving you to simply sing and emote.

When you are working on music that is already familiar, you may move faster through the steps or skip some steps altogether. The important thing is to have a system in mind that helps your efficiency in the practice room.

Order Matters

The order in which you practice your pieces is just as important as how you practice them. Run contrasting pieces back to back to help train your muscles for range shifts. In an audition, the panel listening to you will typically want to hear a variety of styles. You need to have your voice ready to sing each piece in succession without problems. If you are used to practicing your most contrasting pieces back to back, you can train your muscles to make an easier and more seamless shift.

Practice your pieces in many different orders to ensure success of each piece regardless of what precedes it. Also practice your pieces starting in places other than the beginning. Expect that you may be requested to start in the middle of a piece or to take a traditional cut, particularly with longer cavatina-cabaletta arias. Practice these options so that it does not throw you on the spot.

Additionally, practice different tempi in case the accompanist plays slower or faster than you are used to singing. Preparation in the practice room leads to confidence in the audition.

Building Your Ears

You must get to a place where you can trust your own instincts and observations, to be empowered in the process of your own improvement. Your body is the singing mechanism—and since you cannot get outside of yourself to listen impartially to your own voice, it is necessary to have outside ears that you can trust (teachers, coaches, or colleagues).

Too often, though, singers become reliant only on outside opinions while in academia and then have a difficult time trusting themselves when they move into a career. You need constant awareness of what healthy vocal sensations feel like so that you can re-create them in various new spaces and situations. Your teacher won’t be onstage with you; it is up to you to know how to create the sound consistently.

Recording yourself can help give you feedback for critical listening purposes. Some singers dislike listening to themselves sing, but it is important to acclimate your ears to your own voice. There is impressive technology available today, as products continue to improve in quality for reasonable prices. Video recording is another option available to critically review your acting skills and complete presentation.

Software is available for use on a personal laptop to help you work on technical issues while giving you real-time feedback. Systems such as Voce Vista (www.vocevista.com) and Voice Print (www.estillvoice.com/products) show images relating to legato, onsets, pitch, etc., that may aid in faster learning through awareness. Most systems are available online or sold with useful pedagogical texts. Scott McCoy’s vocal pedagogy text, Your Voice: An Inside View, provides a useful description of the software, as well as the software itself.

Coaches

There are specialty coaches you can work with if you need particular attention in an area. Breathing coaches, such as Deborah Birnbaum in NYC (www.breathsupport.com), help you train more efficient breathing for your singing. Dramatic coaches, such as Josh Shaw in Los Angeles (www.joshshaw.org) and Gary Briggle in Minnesota (www.facebook.com/GaryLeeBriggle/info/), can help you stage your audition arias and hone your characterization. Health instructors and body therapists, such as Melissa Muguruza in Ohio (www.melissamuguruza.com), strive to teach body awareness and tension release. Yoga and Alexander Technique are two useful practices for body awareness and breathing, and some therapists even specialize their practice specifically for singers, such as Sarah Whitten (www.sarahwhitten.com) in Massachusetts, who teaches yoga for singers.

Be discerning with your money and your trust, but know these coaches are available.

Setting Goals

Set one or two goals or focus points for each practice session. This will help your mind stay focused on a task and will give you an opportunity to work toward long-term improvement during short-term sessions. Be specific, but not complicated; you do not want to overload your concentration.
Setting goals keeps your practice session fresh and your mind interested. Some example goals are as follows:
• Balanced onsets
• Legato
• Less tension
• Energy
• Efficient breaths
• Expression
• Dynamics
• Diction

End with a Performance

Regardless of what steps you take in your practice sessions, it is helpful to end each session with a “performance.” Nerves can drastically change your singing by tensing the body and altering the airflow. You can simulate an anxious environment just by imagining it and then practice working through these nerves.

Once you are finished working through a piece, stopping and starting to change things, take a moment to focus for your final sing-through performance. This can be one piece or a number of pieces. In your mind, set up where the audience is sitting and who may be there—possibly the judges or panel at your next audition. Take note of how you are feeling, take a moment to focus, and then begin your performance. Do not stop if you make a mistake, just continue as if you were in front of people. Be as expressive as possible and look around the room as if you were engaging the people in attendance.

This process may feel forced in the beginning, but it is an important step to efficient practicing. It is amazing how nervous you may feel simply by pretending to sing a performance. The more you do this, the more relaxed you will become. Soon you should be able to tackle your nerves even when the people listening to you are real.

Vocal Health

After your “performance,” take a few moments to warm down. This step is commonly skipped, but it is a necessary part of a practice session, particularly if you have been singing in the extremes of your range. You want to bring your voice back to a more moderate range and comfort zone before leaving the practice room. Try not to overdue the talking directly after a singing session. Remember that you are using the same vocal cords to talk as you did to sing, and they deserve a rest!

Learn your limits and do not push your voice past them. Some days you may tire immediately, and other days you may feel like you could sing for hours. Be aware of how your body feels as well as your voice and know when it is time to quit for the day. Typically, a good hour of singing should be enough at one time, but it may vary depending on what you are singing. Be extra cautious on days when you have to sing multiple times—running from a coaching to a voice lesson or a practice session to a three-hour rehearsal—this can take its toll and should require extra rest.

Be wary of any sensations of pushing, straining, or pain while singing. Ending a practice session hoarse could be a sign you overdid it or that you are singing with improper technique. New repertoire may take a few practice sessions before feeling adjusted in the voice, but it should not leave you hurting. Listen to your body and be extra cautious if you feel you need extra healing time for your voice. Talk to your teachers or a health professional if problems persist.

Remember that every time you practice, you are training your body to sing in a particular way. Make your practice sessions work toward the voice you want!

Laura Portune

Soprano Laura Portune is a singer, teacher, stage director, writer, and mom. She has performed regionally and internationally in over 60 opera and concert productions, including world premieres in the Czech Republic, Italy, and San Diego. A frequent guest clinician and stage director, Portune is a Senior Lecturer of Voice at The Ohio State University School of Music. For more, go to www.lauraportune.com.