Five Tips for Better Vocal Practice

5 Tips For Better Vocal Practice
 Adapted from an article by Pamela B. Gaston

Regular practice is essential for improvement in most activities involving muscle memory. Athletes, dancers, and musicians must commit to daily practice sessions, but with tight schedules and big demands to show improvement, they need to use practice time effectively. A few musicians overdo practice: Russian pianist Alexander Scriabin strained his right hand practicing the Listzt Don Juan fantasy, and the German Composer Robert Schumann devoted seven hours a day to rehearsing, eventually injuring his middle finger.

Most singers, however, never cross the line into obsessive rehearsal habits. Singers are more likely to make practice a hit-or-miss endeavor, with little concentration going into the time given to prepare for performances.
Consider these five elements when practicing any music:

1. Warm up the whole body, not just the voice. This is essential to make sure all technical aspects of singing are working. Singers depend on breathing for good phrasing and tone. Stretching muscles and getting the feel of the flow of breath can help practice the repetition of correct technique instead of mistakes. The warm-up routine should be fixed in your mind so habit consistently controls technique. Muscles have memory, and once a correct position or response is learned it becomes easier to duplicate a good sound.

Singers should start with warm-ups in the middle of the voice and in a limited range. A five tone ascending and descending pattern is a good example of a beginning warm-up. Sometimes a single note exercise can be used as well. As the voice becomes accustomed to singing, you can move on to more involved exercises incorporating arpeggios and wider scale patterns. You should start practicing at a mezzo forte dynamic level, and later progress to singing both more loudly and more softely. Many singers become tense when singing at loud levels. Loud singing is best saved for after the voice is fully warmed up.

2. Practice with a purpose. Each practice session should have a goal. One day, you can work on breath control, the next day, on articulation or language. Everything does not have to be perfected at once. Some things can wait until the next practice session so you don’t feel pressured to work on too many different things at the same time.

You may find it helpful to keep a practice log. I suggest you record how well you accomplish each goal you are working on each day. Your goal may be your own, or your choral directors, or your private teachers. Some days, a certain skill level can be attained 100 percent; other days, it may be only 25 percent mastered. Areas where you consistently fall short of your goal may need to be reexamined and broken into smaller parts for practice. A passage may need to be practiced without words. A difficult rhythm may need to be counted and then the text recited in rhythm. Sometimes a small portion of the music can be your only goal that day.

3. Don’t waste time on what you already know. Go immediately to the section of your piece where the demands are greatest or the skill you are having the most difficulty with. Cadenzas, runs, and chromatic work often improve dramatically with slow practice. Try learning difficult passages backward; that is, start with the last note of the phrase and sing it several times with a good full tone. Then, the last two notes several times, then the last three notes, and so on. After reaching the first note of the passage, you will find that the phrase becomes easier as you progress through it, since the later notes have had more practice then the earlier and are more familiar. Often, the difficult phrase is memorized by the end of this drill.

Before practicing your sections of a longer work, mark entrances in the score. Find the first entrance, and, at the end of that section, write down the page or measure number of your next entrance. Skip to that place and repeat the process. You will then be able to quickly flip through the score and practice all the music you are responsible for without wasting time hunting for it. Of course, you should eventually become familiar with the entire score.

4. Stay organized. When finishing up a practice, put your music back in order. I suggest you keep a small case for tools like pencils and erasers.  Fold all your skill sheets inside out so you can see what they are and keep them organized by level. Too much time is wasted trying to locate lost or misplaced items. A small metronome is a valuable tool and it can fit into a small case easily. A pitch pipe is also a good thing to carry, particularly if you may need to practice where a piano is not available.  A dictionary of music terms in a pocket-size edition will also be helpful.

5. Form habits by doing things in order. Everything is smoother and takes less time when you know what to expect. Practice a set amount of time each week, no matter what. A small amount of time every day is better than a large amount once aor twice a week.  I suggest fifteen minutes a day.  Do not make excuses. Resist the urge to skip practice “just this once”. One day turns into two days and then a week of missed practice. You do not have to feel inspired to work on music. You just need to do it anyway. You are a skilled person who needs to put in a certain amount of work whether you feel like it or not.

The best musicians not only have the gift, but apply themselves to their art regularly. They form good habits that serve them for a lifetime. The discipline it takes for productive practice is good training for other tasks in life and will pay off in may ways in the future.

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This page updated by Ken Westerman 1/9/04