In this busy, fast-paced world, every minute counts. Time is money and so on and so on. So people want efficiency or sometimes they are just lazy (that’s ok sometimes, but it’s not a good habit).
“How much can I accomplish in the least amount of time?” So in that spirit, I have a few practice tips that will get you what you want in as little time as necessary.
Practice Tip #1. Consistency is Key
In my 8 years teaching, there is one question that I get asked over and over again. How much do I really need to practice? What they really mean is, “I’m really busy, how much do I really need to practice?”
The answer I gave generally varied depending on the student’s age, but there is one fundamental element of practicing that applies to Everyone: Consistency.
If you wanted to lose weight, you couldn’t just diet for one day and realistically expect results. You’d need to do that everyday for as long as you needed to reach your goal.
Perhaps a better analogy would be if you wanted to strengthen your body. In order to do that, you need to work out- weight lift, exercises classes, yoga, etc.- You would decide which of these activities fit your goals. But you wouldn’t just go to 1 Zumba class or lift weights once. You would hit the gym a few times a week over a period time until you achieved your goal.
Practicing Vocal Warm-ups and repertoire consistently is important because singing is all muscle and sensation memory. You need to train those muscles and memorize the sensations in your vocal tract. You can’t see your instrument, so you have to rely on what it feels like to sing properly. You won’t learn it if you are not consistent.
Practice Tip #2. Set up a Schedule that You Can Actually Follow
So if time isn’t an object (haha), ideally you would practice every day of the week- like all 7- for at least 1 hour.
Ideally, you would practice your breathing techniques and vocalises (depending on how many you are working on at any given time, for argument’s sake, let’s say you have 5) for around 10 minutes. Then would you move onto any repertoire you’re working on.
Again, depending on the number of songs you are working on, say 3, each song deserves a good 15 minutes give or take. Some songs are short, some are long, some are more difficult, some are brand new- you get the picture. You have to make a calculated decision on how much you need to practice each one.
But time IS an object and most of us feel like we never have enough. So you’re not going to be able to practice for an hour every day and that’s okay. Maybe you might have a week here and there that you can do just that!
But most of the time, it’s not going to go that way. You have to set a schedule for practicing that makes sense for your life. Look at each day of a typical week and find places where you can insert a few minutes of practice. Maybe you can find more than one time in the day, even if it’s just for a few minutes.
It is better to practice for 5 minutes a day than to practice for 1 hour once a week. Because consistency. Read Tip #3 and then download and fill out the “Practice Time Finder” printable to help you.
Read my post on how to create a daily practice schedule you can actually follow from scratch.
Practice Tip #3. You Don’t Need a Practice Room to Practice
The voice is unique in that you take your instrument with you wherever you go. I mean, just try to leave home without it!
Anyway, my point is that this gives you the ability to practice just about anywhere, not just in the comfort of your own home.
Some irregular places that I have practiced:
In the Car
This is when I used to practice a lot when I was in college if I didn’t have time to get to the practice room. I did my vocal exercises, then I’d turn on the radio and practice whatever techniques I was working on with whatever song came on. Even if it was stylistically incorrect, it was good practice. My voice teacher had all of us record our lessons on CD’s so I would pop that in and sing along with myself (and criticize myself, of course, because who isn’t their own worst critic?).
In the Shower
Who doesn’t love to sing in the shower? It’s only the best acoustics you can get for free. It’s like your own personal practice room that you don’t have to sign up for a time slot.
In Stairwells and Hallways
This one was really fun! The echo you could get in a stairwell made for really awesome practicing when I was in school. Mostly I did this with my other choir nerds, but once in a while I did it by myself.
While Taking a Nature Walk
Singing in the woods has the complete opposite effect as singing in an echo-y stairwell. I remember singing once in a particularly dense area of forest by my home and my voice just seemed to evaporate into the air, absorbed by the trees and foliage around me. It had a really relaxing factor too, I mean, there are no neighbors or roommates listening or judging. Seriously, if you have access to some public woodlands, give it a try!
Walking to Class, or Down the Block
This one is probably best to use for practicing techniques that do not require making sound, such as jaw and tongue relaxation or breathing exercises. I’ve definitely gotten some strange looks walking down the street singing, particularly if I wasn’t practicing a specific song, but a vocalise.
Download and fill out the “Practice Time Finder” printable to figure out what works for you.
Download your Free Practice Time Finder!
Practice Tip #4. Record and Listen to Yourself
Due to acoustical physics, you don’t sound the same way inside your head as you do out in the world. I’m not a scientist, so I can’t explain it very well. However, you can read this article from the Naked Scientists for more information about how sound and the human ear works.
Just like my teacher in college had us record ourselves on CD’s so that we could hear what we actually sound like, so should you.
Except, you can record your practicing on your smartphone, unlike me who went to school in the dark ages before smartphones were ubiquitous. Also, when you listen to your rehearsal, you’ll catch things that you didn’t while you were going through it the first time.
A word of caution:
If you use your smartphone’s built-in voice recorder, don’t hold the microphone too close or you’ll get an awful lot of windy sound from your plosive consonants (p’s and b’s), not to mention your forte and fortissimo will probably sound pretty terrible. Cell phone microphones are not built for extremes. Every cell phone is different, though, so I can’t speak to yours, maybe it’s better than mine. I have tried a few different free apps, but all of them required me to leave my phone halfway across the room to get decent sound quality.
Do me a favor- if you have a cell phone (or an app!) that has really awesome sound recording capability, could you please shoot me an email and tell me about it? I would really love to know, and so would my students!!
Practice Tip #5. Break it Up
When you are learning a new vocalise, warm-up, technique, or piece of music, it’s best to take the whole-part-whole approach. Try it once all the way through. You will make mistakes, so expect that and don’t despair, even if you think it should be easy. Take note of those places where you made mistakes or had a hard time.
Next, take it apart. Break it up (especially songs) into manageable pieces. I don’t mean a whole verse or the entire chorus, either. Break those up, too. Start from the beginning and practice 1 small musical phrase at a time.
OR you can start with the hard parts that you noted in your first go-round. But, don’t only focus on those hard places the first time you rehearse it. Practice easier places as well. You want to have lots of small successes. Remember that sometimes the smallest thing you practice will literally be one word or one note.
Once you have all the phrases of a verse or a chorus rehearsed, then put that verse or chorus together. Once you have all the verses, choruses, bridges, recitatives, cadenzas, etc., then string them all together to form the Whole song.
For more information on repertoire learning and to get my Exact Step-by-Step Rehearsal Process, read my post How to Learn a Song.
Download your Free Practice Time Finder!
Practice Tip #6. When You Can Stop Practicing
I once read a poster on the band room door of the middle school I worked at that said, “Don’t practice until you get it right, practice until you can’t get it wrong.”
That doesn’t mean that the first time you learn something, you don’t stop until you can’t get it wrong, it means that you haven’t learned something until that point. A good rule of thumb here would be to practice something until you get it right, then do it 3 more times correctly. You might have to slow it down, you might have to break it up.
Practice Tip #7.
When You Just Can’t Seem to Get it Right
You may find a phrase that just keeps eluding you. No matter how many times you try, you just aren’t getting it right. Don’t get down on yourself.
Here are some things to try:
Slow the tempo WAAAAY down.
Sometimes the tempo at which something is to be performed is NOT the tempo you should be learning it at. Melismas are a great example of one of these times.
Take the words out. Two times you might want to do this:
Are you having trouble with singing the correct pitches? Try singing it on a neutral syllable like “ta,” or “la.”
If it is a rhythm you are having trouble with, use “ta” because the placement of the “t” is much more precise.
Take the consonants out.
Having trouble with the intonation? Remove the consonants and make sure that you are singing all the right vowels.
Take it down the octave.
If a rather high passage is troubling you, don’t sing it over and over in the stratosphere, taxing your vocal cords unnecessarily. Take it down the octave, and when you have it correct, take it back up the octave.
Modify the vowels.
Having trouble with the intonation in a passage that challenges your tessitura (at the bottom or top of your range)? Modify your vowel. If you are female, then high notes need to be more open and possibly more forward. If you are male, then high notes need to be more closed. Notes at the bottom of your range need to be approached more lightly- definitely avoid depressing your larynx to artificially lower your pitches.
Change the key.
If you try all the tips about modification and you still have tension or intonation issues, change the key. There is no harm in taking it up or down a few semi-tones to make the song more accessible to you. You might even be able to find the song published in the key you need so you (and your accompanist) don’t have to transpose on sight.
Download your Free Practice Time Finder!
Practice Tip #8: Sometimes Today is Not Your Day
There will be days that when you rehearse something, you are not going to be able to fix it today. No matter how many times you try it, the stars are just not aligned. You might keep making the same (or even different) mistakes. Don’t sweat it. Sometimes, today is not your day and that’s okay! Try again tomorrow (or your next scheduled practice session).
Think about it this way, if you keep making the same mistake, now you are practicing the mistake. So, if that starts happening, MOVE ON! And come back fresh on another day.
Practice Tip #9.
Yes, You CAN Practice When You Are Sick…
Sometimes, we use being sick as an excuse to avoid rehearsal. When I was a freshman in college, I would give myself migraines when I was anxious about going to my voice lesson. I don’t think I’ve ever admitted that to anyone before, but there it is!
Unless you really feel like you’ve been hit by a Mac Truck, there is no need to COMPLETELY skip your practice session. Here are some things you can work on, even if you have a sore throat or cold and would prefer not to sing:
Speak your words in rhythm with proper vowels and diction- including any modifications you may need
Speak your words in rhythm, while breathing (or pausing) at the proper times
Imagine yourself singing the song with all the proper techniques you have been working on, including those techniques that you have yet to attain. Imagine what you sound like doing all those things, even if you can’t do them all, yet. There have been studies on mental practice in sports- those who mental practiced when they were unable to physically practice were better when they returned to the sport than those who did not practice at all.
Practice Tip #10: Write it Down!!!
It’s really helpful to write down your practicing in a log of some kind. I require my students to keep a practice log to keep them accountable. For my younger students, I required them to turn it into me. If you don’t have a voice teacher doing that for you, all you have is yourself. If you’re not accountable to you, then are you accountable to?
It’s also really helpful to keep track of your progress. What sections of each piece did you already work on? Which sections still need attention? Which songs are performance ready?
Take notes on what worked and what didn’t for each section that you rehearse every time you practice so you don’t forget anything. It’s annoying to doing something over again that you’ve already done, just because you forgot you already figured out a solution. And it’s a waste of time. So keep a practice log.
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