I vividly remember my early practice sessions as a young singer. I started my musical endeavors with flute in fourth grade and piano the following year. I did not discover singing until junior high and never took it seriously until high school. Once I started taking voice lessons, I already possessed strong music skills and was an adept sight-reader. Because of my instrumental background, I learned music quickly, and practicing singing consisted of learning the notes and words. That’s it. Frankly, I had very poor practice habits.
As an undergraduate, the majority of my practice sessions consisted of brief spurts where I easily learned my music and then merely repeated it over and over again until I had it memorized. I had no clue there was more to it than that. Not until graduate school, where I tackled more difficult repertoire, did it begin to dawn on me that perhaps my rehearsal methods were lacking.
“Most of us are not taught how to practice, and so we spend our careers trying to figure out how best to work at our playing,” purports Angela Myles Beeching in her highly resourceful book Beyond Talent: Creating a Successful Career in Music. In my teaching I have found that, like my former student self, many voice students do indeed lack the necessary skills for effective practice. Numerous freshmen voice majors begin their college careers without knowing how to read music or how to play the piano. Some students even admit that they learn all their songs exclusively from recordings.
Thankfully, building a rehearsal method that works for you is not difficult. It just takes some careful thought, planning, trial and error, and an open mind. The basic foundation for practicing is threefold: warm-ups, text study, and repertoire. The way you execute each component is highly variable with endless possibilities.
Before you step into the practice room, you need to consider time management and goal setting. One of the most difficult components of practicing is motivation. Many students find it easy to procrastinate or to put practicing at the bottom of a to-do list. If you have a weekly schedule, then make rehearsal time a part of your schedule. Practice sessions are much more efficient if you schedule them at the same time and location each time. And it is better to practice for a shorter amount of time frequently rather than cramming it into one long session. You need to be able to fully concentrate so that you do not learn notes, rhythms, or diction incorrectly. It is much more difficult to unlearn a mistake rather than learning it correctly the first time around.
In terms of goals, you should have long-term and short-term objectives for technique, repertoire, and career. If you are unsure, ask your teacher. I often set technical and repertoire goals with my students at the beginning of each semester. If a student has an upcoming recital, we compile a checklist of what repertoire needs to be learned, memorized, and polished each week, in addition to what repertoire we will review in weekly lessons. This makes voice lessons much more enjoyable for both teacher and student and also helps the student be more prepared.
Devise a plan of action for each practice session. Contemplate what you want to achieve each day and organize your rehearsal times into small increments. Do not try to learn an entire eight-page song in one sitting. Instead, break it down into manageable components—speaking the text, deciphering the overall form of the song, clapping out rhythms, or looking for repeated melodic patterns are but a few examples. “Consistency and efficient rehearsal are the keys to good performance,” says Meribeth Bunch Dayme in her book The Performer’s Voice: Realizing Your Vocal Potential. “A little every day is the best approach.”
You have your action plan in place with a weekly schedule for practicing and a list of goals regarding long-range accomplishments. Now what? The first crucial step is to warm up your voice. Many singers skip this all-important phase as they are too excited to sing their music. However, as Dayme wisely posits, “Vocal muscles need intelligent and varied repetition for you to create healthy voice habits.”
In my early years of practicing, I was often guilty of disregarding vocalises and, as a result, I would be hoarse in about 45 minutes. Thoughtful and productive warm-ups set the tone for the remainder of your practice session. If you record your voice lessons, sometimes warming up with your recording can be helpful as it forces you to slow down, and it is also a helpful reminder of what technical issues you were working on in your voice lesson. It is even advantageous to record your practice sessions so you can later evaluate and contemplate the effectiveness of your rehearsals.
Begin with physical stretches and body relaxation exercises so that you release the tensions that go along with everyday life. As you move into vocalizing, try to concentrate on the task at hand rather than mindlessly singing. What is each scale helping you accomplish? How is your breathing? Posture? Jaw position? The possibilities are endless, so make an effort to focus on one or two technical issues as you warm up. Additionally, try to vary your vocalises. I find that if students do not like a particular exercise, they tend to never use it on their own, despite the fact that they really need that exercise to work through a technical hurdle.
The aim of vocal exercises is to warm up your voice and to free your sound of tension so that the remainder of your rehearsal time is productive. If you just go through the motions in warm-ups, then you are doing a disservice to yourself and to your vocal potential. In fact, you might be doing more harm than good if you are just repeating bad habits over and over.
Your Text Message
Text study is an integral part of becoming a vocal athlete, yet many young singers skip this step entirely. It is vitally important to know what the lyrics in your repertoire truly mean so you can convey that to an audience. A positive aspect of text study is that initially it does not necessarily have to be done in the practice room. You can do this virtually anywhere—on the subway, at Starbucks, or in your dorm room. “Begin by reading the text silently for pronunciation, inflection, articulation, phrasing, and meaning,” suggests Clifton Ware in his book Adventures in Singing.
Resources abound to aid the young singer in becoming more comfortable and proficient at deciphering poetry. Carol Kimball’s newly published book, Art Song: Linking Poetry and Music, is an invaluable resource in providing ideas for understanding poetry and its relation to art song. Her best advice? Reading the poetry aloud in order to discover the musicality of the words. “How can we hope to sing a poem well unless we can first read it well?” Kimball asks.
This initial legwork becomes even more imperative if the song is in a foreign language. Not only do you need to be intimately familiar with the translation, you also have to be able to pronounce the original language accurately with the exact inflection. Once you can speak the text correctly, then read the poetry aloud until you find the inherent musicality and natural inflection of the spoken text. Before you put words with music, speak the text in rhythm—you should not put words with music until you can chant the words in rhythm aloud without errors.
Additionally, spend time researching your song. Do you know what all the words mean? Do you know when the composer and poet lived? Have you written in an accurate translation of your song if it is in a foreign language? Have you written in the IPA to aide with pronunciation? All of this should be done before learning the notes.
Once you are ready to look at your music, Dayme recommends, “Vary the remaining time between learning new text or music and rehearsing what you know already. It is important vocally and mentally to practice pieces that are at the learning stage, the development stage, and the performance stage.”
I find that I am more productive if I first review familiar repertoire. Learning new repertoire is more taxing on the voice, and if I do that first, my voice tires more quickly. However, if I always wait until the end of a practice session to learn new repertoire, then I am not at my peak concentration, so it can be less productive. The solution? Vary the order from day to day. You might find that on some days you look at only new music, while on other days you focus on songs you are already familiar with.
When tackling a new song, always break it down into small components—and never learn words, rhythms, and melody all at once. That can be a recipe for disaster as your brain struggles to deal with too many disparate tasks at once, and it greatly increases the chances of learning something incorrectly. Your best bet is to study rhythm, melody, form, harmony, dynamics, and musical articulation separately. Write in specific counts for tricky rhythmic passages. Chanting or clapping rhythms is also extremely helpful. The melody is best learned in small increments using nonsense syllables. Make sure you can speak the text in rhythm and sing the melody with nonsense syllables accurately for the entire song before you meld text, rhythm, and melody.
Once you have a song learned fairly well, then you want to have fun with it. Many teachers suggest dramatizing or “acting out” the song. I often move around when I practice in order to kinesthetically integrate words, music, and technique. Try to approach this step with a sense of experimentation and creativity.
If you are working through technical and musical considerations, Beeching gives some further food for thought. As you rehearse a specific musical passage consider the following: “How do you want this phrase to sound? How does it feel as you sing it? If a passage isn’t working as desired, do you have the patience and creativity to take it apart, find the specific stumbling blocks, and build it back up again?”
The possibilities and choices for building a solid foundation for effective practice are limitless. Try to approach it as an experiment. Seek advice, refer to the many wonderful resources available and, above all, try to maintain a sense of creativity and curiosity. It takes patience and an open mind—but if you are willing, it can certainly be enjoyable and fulfilling, not to mention essential for building the solid technique and polished repertoire that are crucial for a career as a singer.
This article was originally published in the September 2013 issue of Classical Singer magazine.