Singing involves the whole singer – the physical and nonphysical. It is common advice that we should do the thinking and analysis in the practice room and studio, then on stage, we should have background habits in place so that we can direct our energy toward expression. No argument there, but how to handle the analytical-holistic axis for the practice room? How do we solve specific problems so as to help the big picture of how we sing? How do we eventually practice big-picture singing?
Singers tend to favor either head or heart. “Heart people” who “just sing” are often more comfortable and engaging performers, but don’t always fully respect their voices or prepare as well as they should. “Head people” are more likely to carefully consider details and practice a lot, but may be more inhibited in performance. Heart and head are both needed to sing well. Head in the practice room, heart in performance.
Let’s say that you notice that at a certain point in a song, your tongue-root is stiffening when you choke on the high note. This may or may not be the whole problem, but it’s a starting point. Do you do special tongue exercises? Do you try changing the way you phrase? Do you do something distracting to get your body to arrive differently at that spot, hopefully with less baggage? Do you bring attention to your jaw/ posture/ diction because, in your experience of your body, that is usually the cause of most other problems in the neighborhood? We are now definitely in “head space” – analysis, troubleshooting, thinking, taking out the tools and fixing things.
After a remedial exercise, when you think that the problem is solved, you need to put the exercise right next to the challenging phrase, and alternate them. Get that exercise to teach your performer-self how to connect the dots. “Weird” and “out of control” and “It can’t be so easy” may be positive thoughts on the way to true improvement. That is, moving from head to heart. It takes time and repetition. You can periodically test the progression from head to heart by singing through the entire piece without stopping. It’s important to not stop when you do this test. You don’t want to ingrain a habit of falling out of heart mode and into head mode in the middle of a performance.
This is all predicated on this being appropriate repertoire for you. If the music is something that is suited to your voice, and that you can connect with expressively, then it’s worth fighting for! However, sometimes you just need to put the song away: either this rep isn’t right for you, or the old muscle memory is so hard to remove that you are better off applying your improved ability to something new.
When your voice is working well on the exercise and also in the music, your body-mind can adopt it as “that’s how I sing it now” and it can become part of you, no thinking required. Anything that makes singing easier, should be encouraged. Easier gets you to the “just sing” place. Complicated self-instructions that never become automatic keep you in head mode.
If you really want to work on your singing, you will need to learn how to go between heart and head modes to solve problems. This is one of the great responsibilities of all performers – using craft to raise one’s art.