I will admit it. Practicing has not always been my favorite activity in the world. Given a totally free choice between singing scales in a practice room for half an hour and doing any one of a dozen other activities (reading a book, having a cup of tea, taking a walk), I’m really not sure how often practicing would have come out the winner. At different points in my career, the reasons why this was so were different as well. As a master’s and doctoral student at Indiana University, going to practice often meant an hour or more of wandering round and round the circular practice building, looking desperately for an empty room while the time until my next class ticked away. When I finally got an apartment that had a piano, practicing meant my neighbors banging back and sometimes yelling not-so-nice things at me through the wall. As a professional singer, my days were often so filled with rehearsals that I felt I had no time or voice left over for my own deliberate practice. (Or I tried to convince myself that my rehearsal time had been “just as good as” my own practice.) And as a young teacher establishing my voice studio, practicing meant either rushing in the mornings to get to the piano in time to do more than just warm up before my teaching day began, or trying to marshal the energy and motivation to practice after my teaching day was done.
As a young singer, I struggled with jaw tension. As I practiced, I would pick up my hand mirror to monitor my jaw, but suddenly notice a stray eyebrow hair and go running for the tweezers. Or I’d notice a plant on the windowsill that needed watering and run for the watering can. Even as I ran, I was aware that my distractions were just attempts to postpone the inevitable—that is, watching my jaw shake (seemingly) uncontrollably as I entered my passaggio. Also, as I had not yet balanced my lower body support system, I would often oversing while practicing my repertoire to the point that I’d experience hoarseness afterwards—and resulting depression. My solution? Just vocalize! That way, I’d keep my spirits up (and hope that the repertoire would magically practice itself in my sleep).
I know I’m not alone. All of us, at one time or another, have experienced an obstacle that has kept us away from our metaphorical practice rooms. Some of these obstacles are external (as my opera-hating neighbors were) and some are internal (as my fear of facing my vocal problems was). But all of these obstacles affect our ability to move forward in our journey of learning how to balance our vocal technique and apply that technique to our music.
What are the obstacles you struggle with in your practice? Take a moment, and reflect on how many of these challenges might affect you.
- Finding enough time to practice. You’ve got rehearsals—or students—or kids—or a day job—or all of the above!—and there don’t seem to be enough hours in the day for practice to be part of your daily routine. How could you carve out the time?
- Finding the motivation to practice. You know you need to practice more. You have the time. But you often find yourself in front of the television or computer, or at the gym, instead of at your piano. Why do you make these choices? How could you shift them?
- Finding an appropriate space to practice in. You’re not in school anymore, so you don’t have access to the practice rooms. And you feel self-conscious practicing in your bedroom or living room with your roommates/family members around, listening in. Or maybe you don’t want to disturb the neighbors. Where can you go to sing instead?
- Knowing what to do during practice time. What exercises should you sing, and in what order? What should you be focusing on technically as you practice your repertoire? The answers seem so clear to in lessons, but when you get to the practice room, you feel at a loss, singing exercises at random as they come to you, and “running through” pieces in your repertoire but not really working at them. How can you get clarity on what needs to be done?
- Self-diagnosing or solving problems that arise during practice. That one phrase just does not feel right. You sing it over and over, but it seems to get worse. You throw up your hands and either quit practicing, or move on to something else. As a result, the next time you get to that phrase in your lesson or coaching, it feels (and sounds) as stuck as it always was. How can you develop your skills of self-diagnosis?
- Balancing vocalizing with repertoire work. You rush through a couple of minutes of cursory scales, and dive headfirst into your book of arias (not fully warmed up, to say nothing of having done any technical work that will make the arias easier to sing). Or, conversely, you vocalize for an hour and—oops!—your time for practicing has run out. That aria will just have to wait. (And wait. And wait.) How can you find a better balance between vocalizing and repertoire work?
- Balancing technical and artistic/dramatic concerns when working on repertoire. You spend all your practice time “getting the notes” of your song, making sure your support feels solid, your registration is correct, you are achieving the “ring” at all times. The first time you ever actually perform the song is at the dress rehearsal for your senior recital. It does not go well. How can you practice your skills of communicating through your music, even when you are alone?
- Self-criticism or getting discouraged. As you practice, you frequently have thoughts like, “I’ll never get this,” or “That sounded terrible,” or “Why am I even trying to sing this aria anyway? I’ll never sing it like Fleming/ Bartoli/ Domingo/ Hampson/fill-in-the-blank.” How can you silence your inner judges long enough to actually get some work done?
- Overconfidence. You think that your voice will always be “there for you”. No need to practice—if you’re “in the moment” and focused on your character, everything will fall into place. Will it? Really?
- Being too rigid. You follow the same vocal routine every day, regardless of your voice’s changing needs (e.g., due to health, hormones, vocal progress, performance demands, etc.) It may have been months or years since you learned a new vocal exercise—or since your teacher introduced one. How can you incorporate appropriate variety into your practice routine?
- Being too flexible. Your practice has little or no routine or consistency. Each day you see how la voce is “feeling” and fly by the seat of your pants from there. How can you find some daily exercises (or types of exercise) that will help you determine the condition of your voice at any given time?
- Experiencing vocal fatigue. You can only practice for a limited number of minutes before your voice gets “tired” and you need to rest, get water, or suck on your favorite lozenge (not that it does any good, really). What do you need to adjust in your technical coordination or your repertoire to build stamina?
- Being interrupted. Your practice sessions are frequently interrupted by the telephone, text messages, family members—all of which you respond to immediately, practice forgotten. How can you prevent or respond differently to interruptions?
- Getting distracted. In my case, I allowed myself to be distracted by stray eyebrow hairs and plants needing to be watered. In your case—who knows? Whatever your favorite distractions may be, how can you find more focus during your practice time?
- Getting bored. These. Same. Exercises. Again? Do I really have to? What will excite you?
- Fear of failure. Perhaps you rationalize (usually subconsciously) something like this: “If I don’t practice, then I won’t need to face all the technical work that still needs to be done on my voice.” Or “If I don’t practice, I’ll never know for sure that I wasn’t good enough to ‘make it’. I can tell myself that I really do have a world-class voice. I just didn’t work hard enough.” How can you face your fears, and connect to the hope and promise of progress?
- Fear of success. Or perhaps you rationalize (again subconsciously) something like this: “If I practice, I might actually get really good. Then, people will want to hire me and I’ll have to make some really difficult decisions about my life, my lifestyle, and my personal relationships. I don’t want to face all that.” How can you come to terms with the possibility of success?
How might you address any of these challenges? A first step might be to discuss them with your voice teacher. Even as I make this suggestion, though, I’m imagining myself at 22 years old, trying to explain to my voice teacher (an imposing, authoritative, ultra-famous voice teacher diva…to put it mildly) how my tendency towards intense self-criticism sometimes made it hard for me to motivate myself to practice. “Well, get over it!” she probably would have snapped.
So, of course, I never brought it up. But what a wasted opportunity, for both of us. If I had felt safe enough or brave enough to start that dialogue, she could have shared with me her approach to practicing that had led to her successful Metropolitan Opera career. She might have facilitated my own understanding of my negative thought processes, and helped me overcome them. And I might, therefore, have progressed faster (and thus reflected better on her studio).
Now, as a teacher myself, I try to initiate these hard conversations with my students, often. I want to help them surface their obstacles, brainstorm ways to overcome them, and help them develop strategies for more conscious, thoughtful, effective, and ultimately joyful practice. Because I know—we all do, really—that information and ideas about vocal technique and repertoire are only useful when they have been systematically worked into the body.
Richard Miller frequently uses a wonderful word in his books to describe this process of establishing healthy coordination: routining. My own teacher and mentor, David Jones, has a wonderful saying that captures the same fundamental concept: “We learn technique to forget about it.” How true. When something is a routine, we can indeed forget about it (at least in certain ways). When we are on stage, we want our technique to be a bedrock, something on which we can rely, even when we are experiencing challenges. We want our technique to be so ingrained in our bodies that the vast majority of our consciousness can be directed to serving the composer, the poet, the conductor, the audience, and the music itself.
We all know that there is only one way to make something routine. Repetition. Which means practice. If we’re not doing it, or not doing it often enough, or productively, or with a sense of hope and optimism, it behooves us to deeply investigate why.
So here is today’s practice challenge. Identify one obstacle to your practice, and brainstorm ways you could address it. If possible, identify trusted colleagues or mentors with whom you might talk openly about this challenge.
Please share your questions or successes with regard to your practice obstacles. Happy practicing!