- What should I practice?
- When should I practice?
- How much should I practice?
WHEN AND HOW MUCH
I often use sports skills as an analogy to singing. To improve, you should practice regularly. Five or six days per week is good. Shinichi Suzuki, the great pedagogue, said “Only practice on the days you eat.” I generally follow that advice.
As for duration, that varies a lot according to the singer’s technical level, health, and performance demands. In the beginning, I think a half hour of actual phonation (making sound with your larynx) is fine. Sometimes there are other non-phonation things that can be practiced in addition to that, such as stretches, breathing exercises, body movement and posture checking. For advancing or advanced singers, a lot of work can be done on learning texts, memorizing, and checking notes and rhythms at a keyboard without making vocal sound.
If there has been a day with an unusually large amount of time singing, then singing less the next day is probably a good idea. Skipping a day at these times is OK, but unless there is a vocal injury, skipping more than one day can sometimes lead to the singer feeling like they have lost a little ground.
As you are able to practice for longer periods of time, remember to take breaks of at least a few minutes every 20 or 30 minutes – longer breaks for longer practice times.
WHAT TO PRACTICE
A practice session should ideally have at least three parts:
- Warm-up (always)
- Technical Issues (optional)
- Repertoire (optional)
- Cool-down (always)
This is where you do whatever you need to do to get mind and body started. Exercises should get your body ready to sing in a gentle way. Many singers incorporate body movement and stretches into their warm-up. Some need to wake their bodies up, others need to calm them down. There are many, many possibilities for vocal warm-up exercises. Some good ones are here. All warm-ups should be learned from a competent person. It is hard to do them as well as possible on your own. Some people can warm up in 2 minutes, others need longer. 10 minutes or so should get you ready to sing. A good teacher will give you ideas about specific exercises for you.
In this portion we work on exercises designed to help us build or maintain technique. Technical issues might include:
- cleaning up coloratura/riffs
- tailoring resonance to the style of music to be sung
- matching vowels to each other
- solving diction problems
- building coordination in the passaggio and other transition points
- building dynamic control
- range extension
This is where you sing material that you want to be able to perform. As with the other parts of the session, there are a lot of possible activities here:
- Sing through the whole song. Sadly, many singers only practice this. It’s necessary, but incomplete.
- Plot the pace of loud and soft, and where to take breaths.
- Examine and experiment. Are your musical choices working? Have you MADE any choices? Are they resulting in what you want to give?
- Check between memory and the score or practice track to make sure you are singing the rhythms and notes you intend.
- Record and listen back. Audio and/or video.
- Practice rhythms without pitch and pitch without rhythms if there are difficulties.
- Physical presentation. Does the material require acting, movement, or singing in an unusual position? Make sure you practice with your whole body doing what it will be doing at the performance!
The same exercises used for warm-ups can be used for cooling down. There has been more writing and study of warm-ups than cool-downs. I recently heard of a study in progress of the effects of cool-down exercises. That should be interesting. For now, I advise them because many singers like them and they make sense. Just a minute or two of easy glides, humming, “vvv”, “zzz”, or “ng”, etc. ending in the middle or lower part of your pitch range can feel good and help your voice come back to earth.
Singers who are doing a lot of performing may not need to “practice” for long periods of time, and will just warm-up to get ready to perform. It is generally not advisable to do a complete practice session on the day of a performance where you are singing a demanding show or concert.
People recovering from injuries may need to have whole practice sessions that resemble warm-up exercises. There are hundreds of ways to vary your practice routine even while you are healing or coming from a place of vocal weakness.
And lastly, you will run into exceptions to the general rules – in music, in sports, and in most other areas of life. Some people seem to always be “warmed up” and can sing anytime anywhere and appear to have it all together. Some people seem to need lots of practice, and others don’t. This I can guarantee, however. If you are trying to do something you haven’t been able to do before, you will have to practice. No pill, concussion, or blessing from a master will make it happen for you until YOU make it happen for you!