How To Practice Voice

by Bruce Schoonmaker

Each singer has to develop a practice strategy that leads to success in developing technique, learning repertoire, performing different styles of music, and in memorizing. The following are suggestions that I hope you find helpful.

In order to understand the steps referring to "goals" in this hand-out, refer to "On Becoming a Singer."

Rules for practicing:

1. Always have a goal or several goals when you enter the practice room.

2. Include some of the following as your goals for each practice time:
a. Warm-up the voice
b. Work on technique
c. Learn music
d. Memorize music
e. Work technique in songs that are memorized or already under your belt.
f. Work on musical expression
g. Work on interpretation

3. When you enter the practice room, let all anxieties and problems recede from your mind. Take a break from the rest of your life. Keep working toward this peacefulness.

4. Adopt the following strategy in preparing for your voice lessons: "I will prepare so well for my next lesson that my teacher will have nothing to say about my singing except to praise it." Treat your lessons as performances.

5. Never expect #4 to come true.

6. The most important vocalises are generally the ones you like the most and the ones you dislike the most. Do these often.

7. Break up your time into segments that work for your voice (10 minutes' voice practice, 5 minute break [score study], 15 minutes' voice practice, 5 minute break [work on pronunciation]). Remember that singing is an intermittent activity.

8. Keep yourself hydrated.

9. Maintain a positive mental attitude.

10. Use a mirror to check for extraneous tension.

11. Practice to a tape of your lessons.

12. Always warm up your voice (on your own) before attending choral rehearsals.

13. If you tend to be undisciplined: Set regular times for practicing and keep it a top priority. Don't let things come in the way of these times. Compensate for your weaknesses.

14. If you tend to be overly disciplined: Take creative breaks from your practicing. Find ways to vary your activities while practicing. Don't let yourself be caught unawares in a rut. Compensate for your weaknesses.

18. Don't let yourself spend more than 10% of your practice time seated (at a keyboard).

19. Never hurry while practicing. 10 minutes of unhurried vocalizing is better than 2 hours of rushed practice.

20. Practice six days a week.

Rehearsal strategies:

1. Always warm up the voice when you start your vocal day. Think of this as priming the pump vocally. Learn how to tell when the voice is free and the resonance works, then move on to learn music or to work on technical concepts.

2. What technical concepts are you striving to accomplish? Make sure your teacher defines clearly what she expects you to work on technically. Never leave a lesson without clear technical goals in mind. Know how to accomplish these goals (remember vocalises and songs that evoke the right tendencies).

3. From "On Becoming a Singer," remind yourself of your current intermediate goal. Know how this particular practice session helps you attain that goal.

4. Use a tape of your lesson to practice. For instance: After you warm up the voice, sing along with the tape for the first 3rd of the lesson, then set it aside and try to reinforce on your own the concepts that your teacher was working on. Then memorize for a few minutes. Come back to the tape and sing along for the next 3rd of the lesson. Then work on score study. Translate a song. Then sing along with the last 3rd of the lesson. You do not need state-of-the-art recording equipment. Many of my students have made excellent progress using inexpensive equipment.

5. Another strategy (after warming up):

Work five minutes on the vocalises you dislike the most.
Work a new song (see "How to Learn Vocal Music")
Work a familiar song (what I call an "Old Friend"), one that tends to make you sing well.
Work back and forth between a phrase or two of the Old Friend and the new song. Try to attain the same freedom and quality of tone on the new song.
Practice five minutes on the vocalises you like the most.
Practice five minutes improvising vocalises. Do not let yourself repeat a vocalise. Do not sing familiar melodies. This exercise maintains "the music coming from within you." Use it frequently.

6. Always focus on your current goals or what you want to accomplish before your next lesson.

7. Take a few minutes in the middle of your practice time to reflect on what you are accomplishing. Are you heading in the right direction? Do your musical groups (choirs, ensembles, opera workshops, gigs) aid or hinder your progress? What outside performing can you seek that will enhance your progress?

8. Take time to listen to recordings of great exemplars, singers you wish to emulate. Ask yourself, what does it feel like to sing that way? How does this singer get that color of feeling in his voice?

9. Take a few minutes to work on vocalises with your best vowel. Move from that vowel to weak vowels. Vocalize back and forth, strong vowel, then weak vowel. Practice a song this way. (Use songs as vocalises.)

10. Practice in varied acoustical environments. Practice in performing halls whenever possible. Late nights are good times to find performing halls empty.

11. Get a friend to repetiteur for you. When you have a song 95% memorized, go over it with a repetiteur several times in order to firm up the memorization.

12. Get coaching from a professional voice coach. They listen with different ears from your voice teacher and can add a great deal to your performing ability and to your interpretation of music.

13. Set regular times for practicing and keep it a top priority. Do not let other activities replace these practice times.

14. Try breaking your practice times with breathing exercises.

15. Try cupping one hand behind your ear and listening closely for:
a. Singing in the mask
b. Connecting the breath
c. Sighing the vowels

16. If you tend to be undisciplined, keep a timer with you and only run it when you are actually practicing singing, then insist upon practicing for a specified amount of time (e.g. 2 hours total).

17. If you tend to be obsessive or overly disciplined about practicing, take frequent breaks:
a. Go for drinks of water
b. Talk to another poor soul who is practicing late
c. Take a 20 minute brisk walk
d. Write a letter to your folks

18. Vary how you use your practice time. Always start by warming up the voice, but use imagination in reaching the goals you set for particular practice sessions: a. Practice songs backwards (last section first, then middle, then the beginning)
b. At one session, sing only old favorites.
c. Walk around while practicing.

19. If you still have problems adhering to a successful (and unhurried) practice schedule, see a school counselor for help in modifying your behavior.

20. Practice lying on your back with your knees raised. Make sure you keep the sound forward.

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