Practicing

I love making serious progress in a lesson and watching a student have an "aha" moment.  You know what's even better?  When that student comes to their next lesson having made a jump from where we left off.  What's not so great is when that student comes to the next lesson struggling to get back to that moment, or has even slipped backwards a bit.  So how do you get that forward momentum?  Practice!  Ugh, I know, it's so boring.  You don't have time: too much homework, a track meet, time with friends, Facebook.  And it can be a little scary:  What do I do if I can't get it right when I'm on my own?  I can't do this without my teacher!  And how do I even go about practicing anyway?!?  Getting started can feel overwhelming, and  even with the best of intentions a strong practice plan can elude us.  So let's break it down...


WHY PRACTICE WORKS

It's all well and good for me to say you must practice; I mean, there's not a more inspiring response to the question "why" than "you have to because I said so..." right?  There are, however, very real "why's," according to science (remember science?).   Annie Bosler and Don Greene created this TED Ed lesson; it explains what practice does in our brains to make us better at things:

 
 

Essentially, they say,  there's practice, and then there's effective practice:

  • "Focus at the task on hand."  No distractions!  
  • "Start out slowly, or in slow motion. Coordination is built with repetitions." Slow it down to get it right, and build it in, then increase speed.  
  • "Frequent repetition with allotted breaks are common practice habits of elite performers."  Practicing for hours at a time just makes you tired.  Break your practice time into intense  Do what many pros do: split your practice time into smaller, super-concentrated chunks, working multiple times a day.
  • "Practice in your brain, in vivid detail."  Visualize yourself performing the piece.  Take each breath.  Hear the song.  Imagine how it resonates in your body.

HOW TO PRACTICE

Ok Susan, you might be saying, now I know why practicing works and what effective practice is, but how do I get started?  It feels like a lot!!!   Fair enough.  Let's break it down:

A Quiet Space

MASON'S MUSIC CORNER

MASON'S MUSIC CORNER

Have a quiet space set aside for practice.  Now I know this is tricky in some homes: you probably don't have a studio like mine and if you have a piano it's most likely in a family-friendly room.  And then there's the issue of who's listening.  If singing while proud parents or curious siblings are around gives you agita, do it when little brother is at soccer, or use the time for practicing in your brain (see above).  Enlist your parents to help you find quiet times, but do your part and get brave.* Make a music corner in your bedroom - my 11 yr old nephew does this!  

Bring Your Tools! 

What do you need in your quiet space for effective practicee?  Your music, obviously.  WATER.  A pencil.  A pencil sharpener.  An eraser.  A practice journal (it can be a little notebook or the voice recorder on your smartphone).  Your phone for recording yourself and listening back; your phone for your piano app and your metronome app (see Fun and Helpful Stuff); your phone to listen back to our lessons for tips and reminders; your phone to use as a timer.  But NOT your phone for social media time.....(remember to "focus on the task at hand!")

Have A Goal

What do you need to accomplish today?  Just jamming through all the music in your book is not effective practice (although it can be fun) and can be tiring.  Do you need to work on an audition cut?  Having trouble with memorization?  Is support eluding you?  Maybe you're struggling with counting a tricky passage, or the end of a song needs attention.  Not sure?  Email or text me and I will give you something to focus on your practice remains specific and therefore more effective.  Write down your goal and keep it where you can see it as you work.  

Always Warm Up!

I can't emphasize this enough; don't just start singing your face off!  You wouldn't run sprints or lift heavy weights without warming up, would you? Your voice requires the same care.  The basic idea is that warm-ups are used to stretch the muscles and prepare them for work without injury, according to the Johns Hopkins Voice Center.  Start with your body - shoulder rolls, gentle (!!) head rolls, deep breaths with an exhale on "SSS," inhaling on counts are all important and effective.  Gentle glides or lip trills across your range is a great way to start to warm your voice.  Easy patterns like 5-4-3-2-1 on multiple vowels, gentle staccato patterns  .  The point is to get blood flow to the folds so they are pliable and responsive.

Exercises and Vocalises

Each student has their own technical goals, but basically you can move on to the exercises we do in lessons when you feel you are warm.  Check back in with your latest lesson.  What was challenging?  What worked?  Depending on your goal for the day, you may do only technical work, or you may need to move on to the nitty gritty.

Tips & Tricks

Approach your work in small increments.   You will accomplish more in short, focused bursts (as we've learned, right?); practicing for hours is a thing of the past, and it's particularly ineffective for singers as we are our own instrument.  We get tired; cellos don't.  Break down one troublesome section and conquer just that.  Remember, effective practice can be achieved in multiple short sessions.

Don't always start at the beginning!  If the beginning of the song already works, why waste capital singing it over and over?  Go straight to the root of the problem.  (If it's the high note, all the more reason to be super-well warmed-up!!)  Some strategies might be:

  • Sing it backwards.  
  • Sing the passage more quietly than the composer indicates.
  • Use different vowels.
  • Walk, do a plank, bend your knees, do something physically unexpected as you work through a tricky spot.   

Visualize what may not be working quite yet.  Perform it silently: if you can dream it, you can do it.

Use practice time for concentrated interpretation work; choose verbs and play with the physicality they inspire; read the script; learn about the composer.  See Song Interpretation......

Know when to walk away.  Again, we are our own instruments and sometimes it just doesn't work.  It's ok!!  Make notes on your session, either on your phone or in your notebook, take a little break and come back to it.  You'll be surprised how a fresh start can make all the difference.

ALWAYS Cool Down!

It's as important to cool down as it is to warm up!  Again, from our friends at Johns Hopkins:  "Although unfortunately and frequently ignored, vocal cool-downs may also be used to prevent damage to the vocal cords.  During speaking and singing, blood flow to the larynx is increased.  Stopping immediately after prolonged speaking or singing may contribute to a pooling of blood in the larynx, weighing the vocal cords down.  Damage may result as one attempts to speak on these potentially swollen folds.  The simple practice of gentle, relaxed humming can serve as an excellent form of cooling-down."

Congrats!  You should be proud of your work and any goals you've reached during your practice session.    There's a thing called the "habit loop"  that essentially says that working consistently and then rewarding that hard work by doing something your brain likes helps you remember to do it in the first place.  Parental guidance here is encouraged! 


HOW TO PRACTICE FOR THE YOUNGEST SET

Getting younger students to practice is either a delight or a chore.  Some students are gung ho and need to be told not to overdo, others need encouragement and parental oversight.  You know where your budding musician is in terms of development, but effective, regular practice will have a long-lasting positive impact on your child's development.  

  • Find a quiet, distraction-free time and space.  Check out Mason's Music Corner above - setting up their own space makes practice time special and gives them ownership.  Deck it out, not only with the right tools, but with inspiration: show posters and memorabilia can be fun.  
  • Have a goal.  Sometimes this is as simple as memorizing the first or last line of the song.
  • Encourage a gentle warm-up.  I can provide individual guidance.
  • Cue up the practice track for their song(s) on their smartphone (or yours).
  • Set a timer. Remember, short chunks as opposed to hours results in fewer tears.  
  • Make it a game!  (Listen below....)
  • Reach out to me with questions, even during practice.  If I'm available I will answer, or get back to you ASAP if I'm not.
 

* Parents - you can help here.  I know it's frustrating when your child doesn't feel comfortable singing in front of you, especially since all you want is to let them know how wonderful you think they are!  (And they are!!)  Give them their space, and help them find relief from siblings as well.  Singing is so personal and subjective and not all students, no matter how much they love the art form, are ready to share and be vulnerable.  Stay patient and open; I promise to do my part to encourage them to let you experience their work.

** A note, and this is IMPORTANT: lessons are NOT for practice.  Do your part; please don't use our time as your or your child's opportunity for repetition.**


So what works for you? What doesn't? Have suggestions for your fellow students (or fellow parents!)?  Comment below, and keep practicing!