Time and again, it is obvious to me that many singers are spinning in circles when it comes to working in the practice room. Intelligent people with every intention of spending time to improve technique and gain self-confidence are doing nothing more than grinding in old habits. And we wonder why we don’t like to practice? If you’re not spending a good bit of time practicing to DISCOVER–to redefine what you’re learning in lessons and classes so that it becomes your very own–you are not progressing very much. Learning accuracy of rhythm and pitches is completely necessary and recommended–but this is a very separate type of practice session and shouldn’t exclude sessions where you try to find your own core technique. Worst of all is time spent “running through the music”. This indeed, is not practicing at all, but a game that singers play with themselves. A game that only trains the muscles and brain yet one more time to tap into old patterns and weaknesses–indeed, the very opposite of making improvement.
I recommend three different types of practice sessions as outlined below: 1. Layered Learning. In the interest of being succinct, the following points are a slimmed-down version of what I hand my students:
- Find background info for the composer / writer of the text
- Do a “translation” of the text using your own style of speaking AND
- If English is not your mother tongue—be sure to translate it into your own language first. THEN, change the translation into the style with which YOU would say the same words or express the same feelings.
- Know “who” you are singing to
- Know what you are reacting to when you start the song.
- Choose an overall “verb” of the song (be sure to have a VERB—not an adjective or adverb!)—what are you trying to accomplish by singing these words?
- Recite the original text with the same feelings that occur when you speak in your own style.
- MEMORIZE the text in its original language as a monologue–find and feel the natural rhythm of the language by reciting it over and over as closely as possible to the manner in which a native speaker would recite it.
- Learn the rhythm of the piece thoroughly—be able to clap the rhythm or speak it on a syllable.
- Learn the melody on “bah” now that the rhythm of the piece is secure. Find a trumpet-like tone quality to heighten awareness of an optimal resonance for each pitch.
- Speak the text in rhythm without the melody.
- Marry the text to the melody. At this point, you should have worked through all technical difficulties that are not diction-related.
2. Put on your “lab coat”–you’re going to be “experimenting”. For an example of “practicing to discover”: Find a mirror (a full-length one if possible) and get out your recorder. Watch yourself as you sing a particular passage that’s problematic. Do you look as if you are having a regular conversation as you sing–or are you making “special” faces or head and arm movements because you are singing? Can you sing without them? Can you sacrifice what you want to hear as for how you know it should feel?
3. Lift the music off of the page. At this point, you are technically secure. It is time to find the natural momentum within the phrases of your selection and to infuse the text with a character by experiencing the situation that you are singing about. Use opposites to open up a song you’ve worked on for awhile to new ideas. If your verb is “to mourn”–sing it once with the verb “to accuse” or “to rejoice”. Examine your commitment to the energy of the piece and keep anything that works for you when going back to the original verb. Polish the selection–not by seeking to make it the same “perfect” version every time you sing it–but by feeling your way through the piece and spontaneously choosing what is right for the piece this time as you are singing it.
Process not Results
Having a carefully executed system for learning and executing a song means being able to rely on what you’ve experienced in the practice room to come through for you on the stage. As you perform–focusing on setting up and delivering the sound in the same way that you’ve known it to work for you again and again in the practice room means that you are focused on the process (the journey) and not the results (the reward). This is singing in the moment and this is what will set your authentic voice free to assemble the very best of your skills and experiences when you are preforming for an audience.