Friday Practice Tip: Approaching the New Song

When students are given a new piece of music, several ineffective practice habits can sneak in.

Some singers will work only beginning of the song leaving the middle and last parts to languish.

The singer might only start their practice at the beginning of the music.

Some singers may only practice the parts that they like OR that they have already mastered.

Other singers will practice the WHOLE song every time, in effect giving a performance in every practice session.

I grew up on a farm in Peculiar, Missouri, and my mother and father used to show American Saddlebred horses. My young life was spent at horse shows (I was deathly afraid of horses and am still uncomfortable around them). One of the things that always fascinated me with horse shows was that each horse wore blinders. This prevented the horse from becoming ‘spooked’ because it limited the range of eyesight and kept the focused on the ring. So, by limiting the vision of the horse, the animal was able to perform more effectively.

The singer can modify this concept of ‘blinders’ and only work on the music that they can see.

To utilize this concept, the teacher can take a fresh COPY of the music in question, and CUT the piece apart into smaller component parts. The teacher or singer can cut out phrase by phrase and allow the singer ONLY to work on those specific sections. Since the singer can only SEE the particular cutting that they have in front of them, their focus in practice will only be on THOSE measures.

For the more adventurous teacher, an entire song/aria can be cut into small sections (8 measures or so) and given to the student in each lesson, so that the music is slowly being given and digested over time. This allows a REAL microscopic understanding of the aria, and lets the student and teacher CATCH bad habits in smaller sections which might go unnoticed when the music is performed as a WHOLE.

You can also create specific cutting ‘themes’ for each aria or song – for example, intonation, diction concepts, musicality, phrasing, legato, staccato, coloratura, easy phrases to hard phrases, etc. There’s no limit to the functionality of using these cuttings!

Hopefully this practice tip will help focus your practice time and make the most of the invaluable time in every singer’s life!


Friday Practice Tip – Do You Have What You Need?

In an attempt to share more great information on a regular basis, I’ve decided to share practice tips with my readers in a weekly post I’m calling (rather simply) the Friday Practice Tip.

Every Friday, I’ll be posting some help for those of you looking to invigorate your voice and music practicing. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in all my years of music making and teaching, it’s that effective and stimulating PRACTICE is not taught in higher education. When I was an undergraduate, I was given an expectation of the TIME I should practice (2 hours every day at minimum), but no real information on how to effectively SPEND that time.

I joke with my high school singers that they should ALWAYS check out the practice rooms of potential colleges, since that is where they will be spending the majority of their time for the next four years! If the practice rooms are dirty and unkempt, they’re probably not going to be all that motivated to work in those spaces.

So, on to the practice tip of the week:

The first thing is to consider what the word PRACTICE evokes in you: Does it bring to mind images of forced practice when you were a child? A sense of obligation or duty before you could do something more fun? A parent yelling at you or perhaps threatening to ground you if you DIDN’T practice? These negative associations can affect your psychology when approaching music practice.

To help myself, I’ve turned to other usages of the word ‘practice’ that are more friendly, holistic, and self-loving: yoga and meditation. Both of these activities are called ‘practice’ and yet they’re predicated on being friendly and gentle to oneself.  In yoga, practice is about taking your body and spirit from where you are and accepting your limitations with love and grace.

If you’re restarting a music ‘practice’ it’s important to go easy on yourself. Maybe 10 minutes is enough? Most of the Old School teachers of singing didn’t advocate extensive practice sessions – brief practice time well-spent beats the long drudgery of slogging through, and will leave you refreshed and invigorated.

In order to build successful practice habits, it’s vital that the singer have the materials they need. I’m always surprised by students that don’t bring something as simple as a PENCIL to lessons! What’s up with THAT?

So, to begin, here are some things that you should consider adding to your practice space:

  1. A well-tuned piano. Interestingly, MANY voice teachers of the Old Tradition made this priority #1. It is vital that the piano the student is working on be properly and regularly tuned. For some, a digital piano fits the bill and doesn’t require regular tunings. If a digital piano is purchased, please spend the extra money to make sure that you have 88 keys. While a smaller keyboard is less expensive, a quality instrument that will last and has the correct number of keys is vital. On the road, singers can use smartphone Piano apps to find keys and notes quickly.
  2. A suitable chair. I can’t stress how important this is for good posture. Recently I visited a piano store and found these ergonomic benches. If you’re looking for a wonderful solution to sitting at the piano, you can’t do any better than this wonderful bench. If you’re looking for another option, you can search for ergonomic chairs. They are more costly but worth the investment for serious musicians.
  3. A music stand. Singers should practice in seated and standing postures, always aware of their posture in both positions. Hamilton Music Stands are really sturdy, and the company has a variety of add-on products that are useful for tech-savvy singers.
  4. Notebooks and pencils. Every singer needs a good supply of pencils and notebooks for practice work. I prefer automatic pencils because of their fine point, but the choice is the singer’s. As far as notebooks go, one of my favorites is the Musician’s Practice Planner. This journal is thorough and exacting and has a lot of room for lesson notes and practice logs.
  5. Metronome. Checking a tempo is easier than ever now that metronomes can easily be acquired on smartphones. A search of the iTunes or Google Play stores will reveal many options to the singer.
  6. Mirror. A full length mirror is ideal for the singer to self-monitor the posture of the head, neck, torso and legs. This can be easily purchased at Target, Ikea, or some other store at a reasonable price. The mirror should be placed in a way that the singer can observe themselves in seated and standing positions.
  7. Recording Device. This can be as simple as a smartphone app, or as extensive as a Zoom personal recorder. Recording one’s lessons and practice sessions is a terrific way to develop aural skills and discernment of ease and freedom in singing.
  8. Lighting. The practice space should have sufficient lighting, whether through windows or lamps. Who wants to work in total darkness, and struggle to read music in low lighting?
  9. Water Bottle. Water should be at the ready for all singers throughout practice sessions. Just be cautious not to put it on the piano!

Now that we have all the materials we’ll need, next week we’ll look at structuring practice time in an effective and efficient way. This will make the best use of time and focus the singer’s attention.

See you next Friday!