Tips for Effective Practice
Did you practice this week? Have you ever heard those words from a teacher? I know my childhood piano teacher often asked me this question. I am sure MY students know the answer to her question. As I became a little older and got deeper into my trumpet and voice studies, practicing became almost a religious experience to me. My dedication to practice over the years has paid great dividends in my work as a student and professional musician. This is a dedication I hope to pass on to my own students.
Contrary to what you might believe, your teachers know when you have not practiced. In fact, if you have been asked the question, your lack of practice has disappointed your teacher beyond the norm. Often times I find that a student has not practiced enough, while at other times I can tell a student has put forward time and effort, but has not practiced in an effective manner leading them to similarly disappointing results. So what can you do to make your practice more productive so that you can continue to grow as an artist and also make your teacher very happy?
The #1 thing that I find prevents students from practicing the most is not prioritizing it. SET ASIDE TIME for practice. I do not mean, "oh I'll practice sometime between lunch and choir." Be specific. Write it down in your planner or program it into your calendar on your phone. "I will practice from 3-4pm on Tuesday!" If you don't assign a specific time and put it in writing, it is a lot easier to go to Starbucks with a friend, lose track of time, and skip that practice time altogether. Even better than planning out individual practice sessions is to block of daily practice times at certain times for the entire semester. Treat it just like a class, so it stays in your calendar and on your mind.
Often times students will ask me how much they should be practicing. My recommendations vary depending on the goals and the level of study for the student. I might recommend something different for a non-major than a voice major preparing for a degree recital. I would also likely recommend something different for someone who studies voice as a secondary instrument than I would for a theater major who is preparing for a lead in a musical. Just as with physical exercise, our best results come from consistent effort. A little bit every day is going to help you accomplish more than practicing three hours the night before your lesson because you neglected your work earlier in the week.
So you committed to a practice time and you made it to your practice room. What now? Do not go into the practice room and aimlessly sing through your repertoire. Similarly to how we start voice lessons with at least a little bit of vocalizing, this should be part of your process for your practice sessions. You wouldn't run a marathon without stretching first. You shouldn't put in practice time without warming up your voice first. Go through some of the exercises you usually work through in your lessons. What are focuses that your teacher has asked you to have in lessons? Keep these things in mind. Even better, is having the recording from your lesson to sing along with so that you can be reminded of the things your teacher asked of you at your last lesson.
Many will suggest that you put away your phone to avoid distraction in practice. While a phone can certainly be a distraction, it can also be an effective tool for growth in working on your pieces. DO put your phone on DO NOT DISTURB or AIRPLANE MODE so that you won't become distracted by notifications. However, do consider pulling up your recording from your previous lessons. Another great use for your phone is using your voice memos or video camera to record yourself as you practice so that you can see and hear for yourself some things you might be doing well or that might need more attention. Lastly, we are fortunate to have some great accompaniment apps now that can aid in practice. You likely won't always have a collaborative pianist to practice with, but by using Virtually Vocal, Appcompanist, or recordings made with your pianist you can grow more comfortable singing with the accompaniment of your pieces.
Be intentional with the way you are working. You don't have to get through all your repertoire in one practice session. You don't even have to get through all of one song. What did your teacher ask you to focus on that week? Sometimes it is more helpful to focus on smaller portions of a piece to solidify confidence instead of trying master a whole song in one session. On the other hand, if you have learned the entire piece well, singing through it so you can start to get an idea of how the piece flows and managing stamina for performance can also be a valuable part of practicing. I encourage you to put some thought into your goals, and perhaps even keep a practice journal where you write down your goals for a session, day, week, and semester. This will keep you focused and make your time in the practice room more productive.
If you have been in rehearsals a lot in any given week, or you are new to college voice study, you may not be used to singing as much as you are now singing. Fatigue, developing technique to avoid fatigue, and learning how to guard against fatigue are all parts of our development. Don't spend your entire practice session relentlessly singing the same high note over and over again. Sometimes we have planned practice sessions and after a few minutes of singing we find that our voice and our body are just too tired to get much accomplished. This is a great opportunity to spend time translating texts, working on acting intention, and memorizing.
One of the biggest lapses I find in students practice is not allowing time for memorization. Don't wait until a week or two before your jury, or the day before you are scheduled to perform in studio class to memorize your piece. This lack of planning will mostly likely end in you forgetting words when the pressure to perform is on. Memorizing small bits at a time and over a period of time will help you to truly commit your texts to memory and will give you greater confidence when it comes time to perform.
Practice is a skill that we continue to develop over time. There is the famous adage that it takes 10,000 hours of practice at a skill to reach a professional level. If you are reading this you are probably in the early stages of your journey with practicing. As you get to know yourself and your voice, your practice habits will continue to develop. The important part is that you are putting forth the effort. I am always happy to watch practice videos for students and offer feedback. I imagine most teachers would be happy to help with this. The more effective you become in your personal practice time, the more effective your lessons will be. Before you know it your hard work and focus will be obvious in your performances!
Happy practicing and good luck!