Practicing with Your Mouth Shut

Practicing with Your Mouth Shut

There is a limit to the amount of time any musician can physically play his or her instrument—and it is, arguably, especially true for singers, whose bodies are their instruments. The length of time one can spend singing varies greatly from person to person and is dependent on a myriad of factors, including level of technical efficiency, the natural robustness of one’s voice, and the state of vocal and overall health on any given day. In general, 90 minutes to two hours, spread throughout the day, is advisable for someone at a moderate to advanced level.

Beyond the time spent in the act of singing, however, there are countless activities that should occupy a singer’s time and should be considered practicing. These activities are vital to the cultivation of both vocal mastery and, as the ultimate goal, artistic integrity.

Perspectives from Voices Past and Present

Geraldine Farrar (1882-1967), among most famous sopranos of the early 20th century, claimed to give “between one and two hours daily to vocalises, scales, and tone study.”1 In sharp contrast was her contemporary, soprano Mary Garden (1874-1967), the vibrant singing actress who will forever hold a place in musical history as Debussy’s first Mélisande. “Three-quarters of an hour a day practice suffices me,” she wrote. “I find it injurious to practice too long.

“But I study for hours,” she continued, giving valuable insight into her regimen. “Such a role as Aphrodite [in Erlanger’s opera Aphrodite], I take it quietly and sing it over mentally time and time again without making a sound. I study the harmonies, the nuances, the phrasing, the breathing, so that when the time for singing it comes I know it and do not waste my voice by going over it time and again, as some singers do. In the end I find that I know it better for this kind of study.”2

Similarly, Christine Brewer, one of today’s most highly acclaimed dramatic sopranos, balances her practice time between singing and study. “I will spend around 20-30 minutes every day vocalizing,” she says. “During this time, I am really just slowly warming up the voice, mostly in my middle register and then moving slowly up and always reminding myself to keep the head voice in the lower parts of my register as I sing scales. Sometimes I will spend a little more time warming up if I have a voice lesson or a coaching later that day—but this is an easy type of thing, not testing my high notes, but just really warming up slowly. And then I will spend time looking over whatever is coming up in my schedule.”

When asked about the amount of time one should spend singing each day, Brewer replies, “I think we all have to figure out what that limit of singing time is per day. Certainly when I was younger, I could sing longer during the day. And if I’m rehearsing an opera, quite often we have six-hour days, so I need to sing more on those days. But I am judicious about the number of hours I sing in a day.”

Brewer, like Garden, was first trained as a violinist and studies her scores as an important part of her daily routine. “I study the piano parts and orchestration to see what harmonies are going on while I’m singing,” she points out. “I scour the scores like an instrumentalist and figure out my part of the fabric of the harmonies!”

Translation and interpretation of the text are endless and ever-evolving components of Brewer’s preparation, and her process could serve as a template for any singer. “I always have a typed copy of my texts whether for a concert performance or opera,” she shares. “I also like to put in a literal translation for the foreign texts and then leave a space for ‘Christine speak.’ In pencil, I will write the texts in my own words and in the margins I will write my thoughts about the character or the poem. These thoughts will quite often change as I study a new piece or revisit a piece that I’ve sung before. I jot those ideas in the margins and begin the process of just reading the words in the original language and then in my own words.

“I spend more time doing this than I do actually singing the words,” Brewer adds. “I find that I need the time to study the texts but can’t spend hours and hours singing. It’s just too demanding on my voice.”

Mental Practice and Miming

Mary Garden’s routine of “sing[ing] it over mentally time and time again without making a sound” exemplifies what many call “mental practice.”

In his book On Piano Playing: Motion, Sound, and Expression, Hungarian pianist and pedagogue Gyorgy Sandor (1912-2005) explains, “As we look at a musical passage we associate it with its technical solution, and thus we can go through the motion mentally; this whole sequence of events can become almost automatic. We can imagine the motion without actually performing it at the piano; you may be surprised to find that it is perfectly feasible to practice and learn a composition in this manner.

“Furthermore,” Sandor writes, expanding upon his assertion, “when we practice mentally, we don’t play wrong notes, we don’t miss notes, we don’t play mechanically, and we waste no time or energy.” 3 We can easily rephrase this for singing: when we practice mentally, we don’t sing out of tune, we don’t sing too heavily, we don’t sing mechanically, and we waste no time or energy.

At the heart of the matter is concentration, which, as Sandor writes, is “an activity that is strenuous but efficient and fast working. In mental practice the mind engraves these immediate, clear associations and processes (reading the score and associating the visual material with motoric activities) with great ease, and the ‘replay’ will occur without interference.”4

As singers, we are able to take Sandor’s concept of mental practice one step further through miming. By miming our repertoire, we engage the conscious mind, which Sandor states “establishes the correct mental concept of the motions and controls the practice methods in which we apply and assimilate the motion patterns.”5 For Sandor, this relates to five basic motion patterns of piano playing. Likewise, we can mime virtually all the basic motor patterns of singing without phonating, thus using the conscious mind to establish them firmly and securely. These motor patterns include (but are not limited to) the following:

Alignment. Paying attention to your alignment while miming, particularly to the position of the head and freedom of the neck, can help to establish it as a consistent part of your approach to singing.

Breath. Without uttering a sound, you can rehearse the timing of your breath and reinforce your breath technique, thus making it habitual. This includes preparing the vocal tract upon inhalation.

Jaw. By simply placing your index finger on your jaw while miming your text, you can train your jaw to drop down and back freely. This will help to release any tensions in the jaw muscles that have become associated with singing.

Tongue. As with the jaw, miming your text while being attentive to the position of the tongue and the speed with which it moves can assist in reducing chronic tongue tension, which impedes free vocalism.

Stage deportment. The act of being on the stage should appear spontaneous rather than choreographed or planned. Miming your repertoire while incorporating all of the various aspects of acting and communication, however, can keep you from being distracted by it when the time for performance arrives. Visualizing your performance environment can also have residual benefit of calming the mind and combating stage fright.

Miming should always involve an active mind that intensely “hears” and imagines the desired pitch and tone color. As a form of mental practice, miming allows us to practice for many more hours per day than the physical nature of our instruments would otherwise allow. In turn, we establish and retain good habits for singing in a much shorter amount of time, which is something we all seek.

Recordings and Comparative Listening

Unprecedented access to the vast array of video and audio recordings by more than a century’s worth of high-level artists is one of the distinct advantages of our tech-oriented world. Recordings are not a substitute for learning the music on your own but, when used properly, they can be effective tools in the quest for a personal sense of artistic expression and should be considered part of one’s practice routine.

Of course, most serious musicians want to establish their own personal “takes” on their songs, arias, and roles, but having a grasp on the established traditions of performance fosters artistic decisions that are well informed. Repeated listening to a single recording can lead to a pale copy of the original, but a sampling from a broad spectrum of recordings can offer an almost limitless supply of interpretive options. Naturally, coaches, conductors, and directors play a part in this process, too, but gleaning insight directly from truly great singers is its own reward.

Of the utmost importance when listening to recordings is to look beyond the voice and to analyze what the artist is doing with the material. We must train ourselves to ask questions such as these:

• What is the overall tempo of a particular performance?
• How are the dynamics varied and the phrases shaped?
• Where does the performer move the tempo ahead or pull it back?
• How is the text delivered? How does the performer use diction to convey meaning and dramatic intent? What words are emphasized?
• How does the orchestration or piano part affect what is happening in the vocal line?

To each answer, ask yourself “Why?” for therein lies the most important information. Take note of how a range of singers answers these questions artistically. The results can be surprising, enlightening, and inspiring.

Concluding Thoughts

In our never-ending quest for improved vocal mastery and deeper artistic expression, we must learn to be intelligent, effective, and efficient in our practice habits. Non-singing practice is not a substitute for conventional practice but, in its various forms, it is a valuable tool to train the brain to finely control the muscles required for singing. Ultimately, it is the brain’s capacity to send the proper signals at the conscious, subconscious, and unconscious levels that determines freedom and success in performance.


1 Geraldine Farrar, “The Will to Succeed—a Compelling Force,” in Great Singers on the Art of Singing, Harriette Brower and James Francis Cooke (Mineola, NY: Dover, 1996), 53.
2 Mary Garden, “The Know-How in the Art of Singing,” in Great Singers on the Art of Singing, Harriette Brower and James Francis Cooke (Mineola, NY: Dover, 1996), 65.
3 Gyorgy Sandor, On Piano Playing: Motion, Sound, and Expression (New York: Schirmer Books, 1981), 190.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid, 188.

Dean Southern

Dean Southern, DMA, is on the voice faculties of the Cleveland Institute of Music and the American Institute of Musical Studies (AIMS) in Graz, Austria.