Are you the kind of person who always goes to the grocery store with a shopping list? Do you keep a piece of paper on the fridge and jot down things that you are running low on as your week progresses? Or do you sit down for a few minutes to make your list right before you head out to the store, to make sure you’ll have the ingredients on hand for recipes you’d like to make that week? Or, maybe, you figure you’ll just buy whatever looks good once you’re already at the store. Wandering through the grocery store aisles, you fill your basket without any clear plan or budget. You choose the same products that you always do, and never look on the high or low shelves. But hey! You get fed.

Which of these three types of shoppers do you think is likely to save the most time and money? Probably Shopper #1. But Shopper #2 has some things going for her, too. Even though fish wasn’t on her list, maybe it looked really fresh that day! It’s good to be flexible.

So what do groceries have to do with a singer’s practice? Well, in my experience, most of us (myself included) can be more like Shopper #3 when it comes to our practice time. We enter the practice room with only the vaguest idea of what we hope to accomplish. “I guess I’ll vocalize for a while,” we might think. We either choose exercises at random, or we stick to familiar exercises that we always sing (and don’t try too many new “recipes”). Then, we might sing through our aria once or twice, see how it “feels”. If something is uncomfortable or not sounding right, we will troubleshoot for a few minutes, then move on. When our allotted time is up, we pat ourselves on the back, and step away from the piano. But what, exactly, have we accomplished?

I believe we’d all be better off in the practice room if we aspired to be more like Shoppers #1 or #2. What if we made a little “grocery list” for our practice sessions before we went to the practice room? What if we thought about the “recipes” (i.e., songs, arias, and roles) we were working on, and wrote down some ingredients we were going to need to sing the best possible versions of those pieces? Even if we were Shopper #2 (the one who just sits down for a few minutes to make her list), might we find our practice sessions more focused and productive if we had sketched out a few ideas about our plan of attack?

What I am advocating, of course, is goal setting, or practice planning. After all, if we don’t know where we are going, how do we know if we’ve gotten there? Ask yourself:

  • Before beginning a practice session, do you have clear mental or written goals for the session?
  • If you do have goals, are they more often associated with time (e.g., “I’m going to practice 30 minutes”) or accomplishments (e.g., “I’m going to learn pages 9-10,” “sing through my aria twice,” “practice that messa di voce”)?
  • How do you measure the success of a given practice session? Is it based more on how you feel or what you’ve done?

If you’d like to take a crack at setting some goals for your next practice session, or—even better—your next week or month of practice sessions, here are some goal categories and examples to inspire you:

 Time: How much time will be spent, how often, on what types of practice.

  • I will practice twice a day for 15 minutes every day this week, except Sunday.
  • Today, I will spend at least half my practice time on this aria focusing on expressing the character.

Vocal exercises: What types of vocal exercises will be included in or added to a daily, weekly, or monthly practice regimen.

  • Several times this week, I will add arpeggios of a 10th, and at least one triplet agility pattern to my exercise routine.
  • Today, I will practice nine-tone scales at three different dynamic levels.

Technical facility: When certain skills will be addressed/improved/mastered at various pitch levels and/or metronome markings.

  • By the end of this year, I will be able to crescendo/diminuendo smoothly on all the notes in my upper passaggio.

Practice postures and body awareness: What types of body positions or physical monitoring will be used during practice.

  • Today, I’ll sing for the first five minutes lying down, face up, so I can monitor my lower body connection differently.
  • Before our next staging rehearsal, I will run through my aria three times at home while walking through my blocking.

Practice feedback tools: What feedback tools (other than ears and hands) will be used in practice, and how.

  • This week, I’ll videotape myself two different times singing “Vision Fugitive”, and make notes regarding technical and dramatic strengths and improvements needed.

Learning repertoire: When parts of a piece will be learned and/or memorized.

  • This month, I will memorize Mimi’s part in the first act of Bohème.

Practicing learned repertoire: When various elements of a piece will be polished or accomplished in some way.

  • By the audition in November, I will be able to sing “Rejoice Greatly” from The Messiah, cleanly and accurately, at all tempi between quarter note = 80 and quarter note = 100.

Reading/listening: What readings or recordings will be consulted to further or inspire vocal progress, a developing interpretation, etc.

  • This week, I will find and listen to five recordings and/or videos of performances of Federico’s Lament from L’Arlesiana.

Joy in practice: How to enjoy practice time more!

  • This week, I will end every practice session with an exercise/aria that I love and already sing well!

So here is today’s practice challenge. Before you begin your next practice session, spend just 60 seconds to jot down three things you’d like to include in the upcoming practice session. “Shop” from your list! At the end of your session, do you feel you have accomplished more of what is really important?

As always, please share your experience or questions. Happy practicing!

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