Top 10 Practice Tips for Vocalists
Updated: Feb 17, 2020
Hello there, fellow musicians and music lovers!
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In November of 2019 I embarked on this journey and I am learning through teaching every single day. One thing I’ve noticed in these first few months is that most of my individual voice students struggle with very similar issues, many of which have everything to do with what is happening (or not happening) in the practice room. I’d like to share what I am seeing from my perspective and see if it is beneficial to students and teachers of vocal music. I would also welcome a lively discussion in the comments!
Think Like an Instrumentalist
This statement isn't a tip, but a general state of mind. As a vocalist, you should expect to be treated like a musician that is equal to an instrumentalist. Likewise, you should approach your practice the same way as any other musician. When I was visiting colleges as a junior in high school, I was sitting in a classroom for a Q&A session with a professor and he made a joke about how vocalists don't practice. This was after I stated that I was a vocalist and an instrumentalist, planning to pursue a double major. And he still said this joke in front of me!!! It's been over a decade since that visit and I'm still offended. Good vocalists understand that their voice is their instrument and they practice the same way as instrumentalists by focusing on technique as they explore repertoire. Needless to say, I did not go to that university and I told my parents, "I plan to go to a school where vocalists practice."
"Good vocalists understand that their voice is their instrument and they practice the same way as instrumentalists."
My Top 10 Tips:
10. Listen to High Quality Professional Recordings
One of the first things most vocalists do when starting a new piece is listen to recordings. In our digital age, it only takes a second to google a song title and get some results. This can be an incredible tool for learning. The only problem is, there's a lot of recordings out there. Some are good and some aren't so good. Some may inspire you, while others confuse you. In particular, I'm thinking about foreign language pieces with multiple pronunciations floating around in YouTube-land. When dealing with foreign languages, it is well worth a few minutes of research to ensure that the recordings you listen to are high quality with a professional-level performer.
9. Make it Your Own
While listening to recordings can be very helpful, it can also box you in creatively. Remember that embellishments and stylizations are not to be copied note for note. The more popular a recording, the more true this is! If you attempt to copy a hit pop song note for note, you will likely always be disappointed that you don't sound exactly like the original artist. So, be creative! Take some time to develop your own unique cadenzas. Make notes in your music and tweak it until you are happy with it.
8. Utilize Memorization Strategies Early in Your Process
I'd love to hear from some readers about their memorization strategies. I find it fascinating how each of our brains works a little differently. Personally, I'm a visual learner, so I tend to picture the written music in my head when I perform. Therefore, visual aids like highlighting work well for me. Some people like to speak the words over and over or perform the text like a monologue. Some people like to write out the text in their own handwriting. I like to divide the music into "chunks" and focus on memorizing one chunk at a time. My point isn't to tell you which strategy to use, but to encourage you to start the process earlier. Too many wait until the last minute to memorize, causing a lot of unnecessary anxiety! So, start early!
7. Know Your Word for Word Translations
For anyone that doesn't already know, there's a BIG difference between a "poetic translation" and a "word for word translation." A poetic translation is basically a translation that was created with the singability in mind. For instance, the translator might choose to use the word "tragic" instead of "a tragedy," because the rhythm only allows for two syllables. While the basic idea is the same, the part of speech is totally different. It's important to look up each word, so that you fully understand what is being said. Not only is it essential for communicating the text effectively, but it also helps with memorization, so start early!
6. Practice Sotto Voce
This one is pretty straightforward. Don't wear out your voice by practicing full voice all the time. Complicated passages should be practiced sotto voce (half voice) until they are accurate, then put back into context.
5. Pay Attention to the Piano Part!
If you are lucky enough to have a voice teacher that can accompany you, then you have the advantage of hearing the accompaniment often and adjusting for accuracy and cohesion. So pay attention to what is going on and make the most of that time. Record your practice sessions so you can go back and listen to how your part fits with the accompaniment. Most of us don't have an accompanist to work with every week, so we have to be even more diligent about using the full score to our advantage. Get in the habit of reading your score vertically, noticing what is going on in the piano at all times. Side note: This technique of reading is also very helpful for choristers who need to be aware of the other parts in an SATB score. Listen to recordings and follow the piano part through the entire piece. Count aloud or speak the text while listening to the accompaniment. Whatever you do, don't ignore the piano part!
4. Never Beginning to End
This suggestion might be controversial, but I'm going to throw it out there anyway. For those singers working with private instructors, especially young singers, the only time you should be singing your piece beginning to end is in your lessons with your teacher. When you practice at home, you should be chunking, isolating trouble spots, and refining technique. When you start by singing a piece beginning to end, you are likely just reinforcing poor habits or blowing past moments that could be much more musical and meaningful. Focus on one page. Heck, focus on one measure! Just focus your practice and make it work for you.
3. Speak the Text in Rhythm
"If you can't speak it, you can't sing it." I say that phrase a lot. I'm not sure there's much else to say after that. Just be sure to speak your wordy text over and over until it is really solid and then when you add pitches it will magically come together so much easier!
2. Vocalize Daily
I recently had a student (who will remain anonymous) that admitted he'd just recently started vocalizing daily in the shower and that he previously did not vocalize every day. "What should I be doing?" he asked. No offense to my student, whom I adore, but this was a palm to forehead moment. The answer is simple: do all the things we do in lessons! All the vocalises that we utilize in lessons are great tools for daily vocalizing. Bring a recording device if you like, and repeat parts of your lesson all week! Also, while there's nothing wrong with singing in the shower, let's not count that as our vocalizing for the day. Have you ever heard of an instrumentalist doing his warm ups in the shower? No, you haven't. Remember, think like an instrumentalist.
1. The "shout" technique
My students will immediately recognize what I'm talking about here, as will my own teacher Catherine McDaniel, who taught it to me! Other readers likely have no idea what this means, so I'm going to make my best effort to explain it verbally and also post an audio clip demonstrating it (once I figure out how to do that). James C. McKinney tells us in his popular text, "The Diagnosis and Correction of Vocal Faults" (also known as the bible) that one of the most common vocal faults is "hypofunctional phonation" or "the failure to demand enough appropriate activity of the laryngeal mechanism" (p.82). I have certainly found this to be the case and this is partially why I start nearly every lesson with humming. Humming helps to bring the voice placement forward and close the glottis adequately to eliminate breathy tone. However, our humming exercises are not enough to alleviate breathy tone when moving into the upper register and singing larger melodic leaps. For this, we have to address what McKinney calls "energy, space, and depth" (p.181). Whenever we come to an ascending line that we aren't totally happy with, we have to stop and do a "shout," "slippery slide-y sound," or "siren" to remind ourselves of how much energy, space, and depth are required. In our practice notes I usually draw a curvy line that represents the path of the shout, along with phrases that help to describe the approach. We use whatever vowel we need to sing the passage and slide up, using a lifted pallet, much like a loud yawn. If you are using an "ooh" vowel then it sounds a lot like the "woo girls" from How I Met Your Mother. It takes a lot of air, energy, space, and depth, but it's actually not hard to do! Once you find the placement, all you do is put it back into context of the music. If you are isolating these spots daily (following tips #4 and #2) then your body will quickly start to remember how to sing these passages!
Now it's about that time we all put down our phones, tablets, computers (or whatever you are using to read this) and get back to practicing. Hopefully, this has inspired or motivated you in some way. Maybe this has sparked some ideas or questions. If that's the case, I'd love to hear from you. What are YOUR favorite tried and true practice strategies?
Perhaps I will continue to write on topics that come up in lessons, or maybe this will be a one-time thing. Who knows? If YOU have ideas for topics you’d like me to discuss, feel free to send me your ideas and we will see where it takes us! Just email firstname.lastname@example.org