A thesis about practice is brewing in me….but you’ll be pleased to know this blog ain’t it…LOL!
Still, I hope you enjoy this collection of concepts and get at least one idea that might make your practice more childlike and satisfying.
WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM HOW KIDS PRACTICE?
“Just like the daredevil on the skateboard, the good practicer tastes the vitality of adventure and the dramatic rewards of risk-taking. When we investigate challenges bravely in the practice room, instead of plodding along like dutiful goody-goodies, we sense the same excitement of discovery that scientists and philosophers know. After all, mastering new things is one of life’s sweetest joys.”
Look at this lad in our hero photo above. You would probably call this “play” not “practice”. But the outcome of his activity IS the same outcome we try to get from music practice…reinforced skill through repetition. Hitting the mark, missing the mark, learning from it, then hitting the mark again.
So, what have we forgotten that this messy, playful chap can teach us?
Do you remember when you were a kid and there was a fad at school? A game that you played with your friends every day during lunch? I remember three. Elastics, knuckles and the yo-yo. I remember practicing them at home on the weekend, by myself and with my neighbours (I am an only child) until I developed the physical and mental dexterity and strength to hold my own amongst my peers. Was it homework? No. Did we make a pact to go home and practice and compare stories the next day? No. Was I as good as everyone else? No. Was I more competitive than some? Perhaps.
The bottom line, though, is that I practiced because it was fun. Because it was within my reach. And because I experienced an internal satisfaction from improving. I wanted to show up. And I got lost in it for long periods of time (today we call that “flow”).
The sheer exhilaration of starting with 5 plastic knuckles in my hand, tossing them into the air and catching ALL of them on the back of my hand. It was momentous and I loved it. No one needed to tell me to keep trying. And I did not get discouraged by the misfires when I dropped them all. I had the prize of physical coordination in my sights, and I just kept trying until I found a way to do it.
Fast forward forty-something years…
Today, I’m going to tell you my biggest secret…the aspect of teaching that makes me feel the most like a fraud is PRACTICE. I don’t think I do it well as a musician myself – and often I don’t teach it well either. But clearly, judging from my childhood memories, I actually know how to do it in a way that I will enjoy…if I can just tap into those secrets again somehow.
Perhaps, then, what I’m really saying is…I don’t know how to practice the way some of my text books teach it. Hmmm….ok…now we’re getting somewhere.
So, with much humility and confessed messiness, I am preparing some ideas for you – a precious singer who is also ricocheting from idea to idea in the hopes of finding practice habits that feed voice – body, mind and soul.
Perhaps, as you consider these golden guidelines*, you will translate them into your own vocabulary and use them to evaluate the zillions of practice ideas that come your way online.
I am a learner in the trenches with you on this one. These are the concepts and tools that I am experimenting with right now. They are new and forgiving and liberating….and they deliver for me! I’d love to hear if they deliver for you to.
*I subscribe to the theory of parlay described in The Pirates of the Caribbean….guidelines are much more useful than rules 😉
WHY DO WE HAVE TO PRACTICE?
I’ve never known a musician who didn’t have to put work in at some point. Even if they find it easy here and there. Funny thing is, some musos find such fun ways to practice that it seems “natural”. That is the holy grail! In fact, there are musicians who might tell you they don’t “practice” at all. Perhaps this is because they don’t recognise that the fun they have playing their instrument as actually practice.
Every single muscle coordination that we repeat enough times turns into muscle memory (yep, even the inefficient ones…sorry about that!). At its basest level, that is what practice is. So, I guess that if wanted to get fancy and create a definition, we would extend this to say that:
When we practice, we are aiming to repeat particular physical coordinations and intentions in order to achieve a desired new level of default musical behaviour….so that we rarely have to practice it again.
LEARNING ISN’T ALWAYS PRACTICE (AND VICE VERSA)
I think it is important to appreciate that learning and practice are not the same thing, although they often overlap. I believe that learning is more cognitive…the brain taking on what it is going to have to do. But practice is more physical….the body taking on what it is going to do. Respecting those differences means that you won’t confuse the two or combine the two unintentionally.
There are lot of things we could delve into that prove and disprove what I’m talking about. But at least teasing out the ideas will help you in your practice time a lot.
An example of what I mean….
- The action of lip trilling is a great breath management tool. Developing the physical coordination for this is a stand-alone PRACTICE activity.
- Melody learning…Working on a new song requires taking time to map out the interval sequences so that my brain can send the right messages to my vocal folds and breath pressure to get the pitches I want in the right order and eventually at the right speed. This is a stand-alone LEARNING activity.
- But if I already have the lip trill coordination under my belt, I could use lip trilling on my new song melody so that learning is enriched by the process of informing the brain of what sort of airflow demands are going to occur across that interval sequence. This activity combines PRACTICE and LEARNING together. And I choose that set up intentionally so the brain is cognisant of its aim.
SOME GOLDEN GUIDELINES FOR PRACTICE
1.MAKE IT FUN
“You play like you practice and practice how you play.”
How often do we admire a performer who looks comfortable, at ease, joyful in their music making? They shake off little mistakes so well that we rarely notice them. Do you think they arrive at this by turning their practice sessions into some form of torture that they dread? No – they practice with the ease that they use in performing.
Not only does this make it easier to show up regularly and do some ‘work’….but your brain actually learns better when you are having fun. So it won’t feel like work!
“The only way a kid is going to practice is if it’s total fun for him… and it was for me.”
Curiosity and joyfulness can be generated easily. Here are a few fun ways to kick off your FUN generator:
- Use gadgets like dice, names in a jar or wheelofnames.com to choose what order you will do some of your practice elements in.
- Start every practice session by dancing (insert link to movement blog)
- Include things that motivate you, eg rewards, checklists, veto powers…
- Find a practice buddy and plan to practice at the same time. Maybe even compare the fun you had in your session with each other.
- Find a muso to jam with. Muso comes alive when we play together and can feed the way we play alone in our practice room.
2. SHOW UP OFTEN
It doesn’t matter if you practice for 5 minutes or 50. There is genuine science to support the efficacy of frequent practice from day to day. If you want long term gain, show up and sing 5-6 days per week.
There is extensive neurological research that demonstrates that in between practices, your nervous system continues quiet work which reinforces what we are repeating. This understanding proves two things:
- We want to keep feeding that fire with little bits of kindling – so don’t miss more than two days in a row.
- The benefit of a day of rest from practice (either completely or just from one aspect of your instrument) is that the nervous system has extra time for consolidation and calibration.
So, a fun way to practice might also be to mix up what you do from day to day. You might find an initial primer that is identical day to day useful (sure…we can call this a warm up 😉) but then get creative and use variety to spice up what aspects of ear training, technique, artistry, research and performance you play around with.
3. BE INTENTIONAL
“Practice puts brains in your muscles.”
Whether your intention is joy, a welfare check or audition preparation – knowing your WHY will guide you to healthy and maximising decisions. Without intentionality, you are less likely to treat your vocal instrument well and more likely to revert to defaults that you’re trying to change.
Obviously, the long term pay-off of your singing practice is that your unintentional and intentional singing are the same. Eventually you will have so much built-in muscle memory that gives you the sounds you want, that you can sing with less intention and it still comes out well. Be patient and persevere…. you’ll build up the hours that lead to this in no time if you keep showing up.
“Practice makes permanent.”
The benefits of specificity are also worth mentioning here. When you pair a particular outcome with strategies that are designed to achieve that outcome, the gains are much more pronounced.
For example, let’s say your desired outcome is to feel confident with your upper range. You could practice that by pushing your voice to sing high notes every day, maybe joining in with your favourite wailing RnB artist. Repeating it over and over again. But without understanding how the mechanism is functioning to get those notes, and then choosing ways to sing that support that function, you could be practicing strain and dangerous vocal loading instead.
4. BE MINDFUL & BODYFUL
“For me, one of the important things about keeping vocally healthy is warming up and making sure I’m aware where my voice is at, drinking lots of water and getting plenty of sleep, and just taking care of myself with exercise and eating healthy.”
Stay present, don’t let your mind or your body check out of the process. The past and the future can be parked for a little while and you can rest from their ghosts.
Mindful practice …takes practice! So be compassionate towards yourself and grant yourself permission to notice that you started to think about something outside of your practice moment, and gently bring your attention back to the here and now.
I advocate for a daily check-in with your mind, body and emotions to acknowledge that your vocal instrument is slightly different every day. This respect for yourself will give you information to steer your practice.
This is worth doing even if you are only showing up for ten minutes. If your instrument is impaired by fatigue or illness, you can’t power through ten minutes of belting. That sort of mindless singing is sure to lead to injury, self-doubt and performance problems.
5. MAKE YOUR AIM CLEAR
“It takes a long time to sound like yourself”
Let practice be messy. It is not a rehearsal (practicing with others) nor a performance. So, find ways to give yourself permission to be in that curious, unpolished, discovery mode. Even if you are preparing for a serious deadline.
Lynn Helding describes it well – different parts of our brain are activated for practice compared with performance. Messy learning (practice) is vital and generates far greater creativity and confidence than always being in performance mode.
I urge you to discover and make friends with your own vocal identity. Then – in your practice, choose whether you are working on that identity or whether you are purposefully using imitation to learn from another singer.
There is a time and a place for using imitation as a practice tool. But I urge you to be discerning about it because it can lead you to habits that are hard to shift.
6. MAKE IT EASY TO DO
Are you adding to the difficulty of showing up regularly to practice singing by making it hard to start?
Find the obstacles that impair your access to singing and make the changes you need to remove them.
- Make a plan for transitioning from other activities into your singing practice.
- Have a dedicated space for practice.
- Leave your practice notes and equipment out ready to return to the next day.
- Make notes about what you’re in the middle of playing around with so you can come back to it next time.
- Create a collection of useful digital files in one place.
- Add it to your digital planners and reminders so that it is as important to you as other activities you do.
Basically, ask yourself how you can make practice more important to you and more achievable.
Then prioritise getting those things solved. Most people I talk to already know what is stopping them. But they procrastinate about removing the obstacles.
Everyone I teach knows the change they want. They ask me to help them achieve that change. I wish I could say that your weekly singing lesson is enough for you to get that change. But it simply isn’t.
7. RESPECT YOUR INSTRUMENT’S BOUNDARIES
Learn to read your mind, body and voice cues that show you where the limits of sustainable function are.
This overlaps with #3, 4 and 5.
As a beginner singer, take time to grasp these facts:
- Your vocal instrument has limitations
- Your vocal instrument is unique to you
- Its capacity will change over time as you strengthen it and learn to play it
Let’s say it’s 5 am Saturday morning and you have 5 minutes to sing before you start an early shift….there will probably be boundaries around flexibility, alertness and agility at the very least…so belting Defying Gravity or Living on a Prayer is likely disrespectful to your instrument.
Or perhaps you want to sing a song by an artist who has a higher range than you. Respecting your boundaries would include changing the key of the song to suit your vocal range. This is not a cop-out. This is like recognising that your shoe size is different from theirs. Imagine how uncomfortable and even dangerous it would be to go jogging in shoes that were a couple of sizes too small or big for you. Even one size can be ruinous! And yet we often try to sing a song that is many “sizes” out of whack for us.
You know what I really admire about children? Their body knows when they’ve reached their limit! Sometimes that looks like a tantrum, sometimes it’s falling asleep in the car on the way home from the playground. Somewhere along the way we learn how to over-ride our body and push and push and push…we even push through exhaustion and deny ourselves the luxury of a tantrum. But just between you and me…. our voices really don’t like this.
8. LEARN TO RECOGNISE YOUR PROGRESS
Talent is a pursued interest. Anything that you’re willing to practice, you can do. Bob Ross
Finally, can you tell when you’re practice is paying off? Do you know that there is improvement? Or do you only clock the problems?
Here are some things you can try out:
- Learn to trust the passage of time. Rerouting muscle memory that is well established takes time. Creating neural pathways where there are none takes time. So give it time. How much time? This depends on the stage you’re at, the life you’re living, and the habit you’re changing.
- Avoid comparing your rate of development to someone else. You are you. Do you.
- Reprogram your self-talk so you can coach yourself more than criticise yourself.
- Try journaling about parts of your practice so that you can track what does and doesn’t work for you on different days and times.
- Learn the art of realistic, chunked-down goal setting. This will give you regular satisfaction that you are moving through stages towards the outcome you want. And it will teach you just how much time to give to a goal.
- Record yourself. There is no greater revealer than recordings spread out over time. Like photographs, you will hear the change that is occurring.
- Return to a song you haven’t sung for 6 months or more. That old section that used to give you trouble will probably be easier now.
I hope there was an idea or two here that you can take away and try in your singing practice today. If you are tempted to try every idea immediately, I would instead counsel you to pick just one to try first. Then another. If you change everything at once, you won’t know what works and what doesn’t.
Have a great time honouring your inner child as you discover messy practice! And don’t forget to let me know how it goes for you.
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Helding, L. (2020). The Musician’s Mind: teaching, learning and performance in the age of brain science. Rowman & Littlefield, Maryland
Westney, W. (2006). The Perfect Wrong Note: Learning to Trust Your Musical Self. Amadeus Press, New Jersey