Are you a singer who vocalizes on the same handful of exercises day after day, week after week, maybe even for years on end? Or are you a singer who approaches daily vocalization with a completely blank slate, choosing different exercises daily, depending on your mood and your physical condition? Or are you a singer who rarely vocalizes at all, preferring to dive head-first into repertoire, ready or not?
Finding a balance between variety and consistency is crucial in our daily vocalization. But how? In researching the path to greater physical fitness, trainers are constantly advising us to “change up” our workout routines, to avoid “plateaus” by introducing “muscle confusion”, and to our keep motivation high by trying new forms of exercise. However, the same trainers who preach “muscle confusion” would also agree that to see gains in strength, flexibility, or agility, one must perform the same movement or type of movement on a regular basis for a certain period of time.
In my own vocalization, I have found that a very small handful of exercises, performed daily in the exact same way over the same range, can provide me with an instant assessment of how my voice is performing that day. I am so intimately familiar with how my voice responds to these exercises in its “normal” condition that I am instantly alerted to issues that may involve hydration, mucous, edema, stiffness, etc. (I also occasionally get the message that I am in exceptionally good voice that day!)
When I only have a short time to vocalize, I turn to these exercises exclusively. But most days, when I am able to devote 30-40 minutes to vocalizing (apart from repertoire), I will choose from a varied menu of vocal exercises, with several different goals in mind:
1. Maintaining current levels of coordination, strength, flexibility, and agility
2. Training new skills (e.g., perfecting the messa di voce on pitches above the upper passaggio, singing fast scales cleanly at specific metronome markings, etc.)
3. Specifically preparing skills I will need for the repertoire I plan to work on that day (e.g., working on specific melodic or agility patterns, practicing challenging melodic phrases, studying bits of the text I will be singing)
In my experience, more singers are challenged to find appropriate variety in their vocalizing than to find enough consistency. If you are one of these singers, try starting with the exercises you already use, and changing a parameter or two. Here are some ideas on How to Transform Any Exercise into Ten Others:
1. Change the vowel(s). (Do you usually sing this scale while alternating [i] and [o] vowels? Try [ε] and [α] instead.)
2. Add consonants or actual words. (Instead of singing a vowel series [α ε i o u], try [bα bε bi bo bu].)
3. Change the rhythm. (Instead of singing your agility exercises using straight sixteenth notes, try a dotted eighth + sixteenth note rhythm.)
4. Change the tempo. (Get out the metronome and play!)
5. Change the articulation. (If you usually sing the arpeggio legato, try staccato instead.)
6. Change the dynamic level. (If you always vocalize forte or mezzo forte, try mezzo piano instead.)
7. Repeat it, one or more times, on a single breath.
8. Sing it on the cuperto (for higher-range exercises). For those not familiar with this term/vocal function, learn more at http://www.voiceteacher.com/cuperto.html.
9. Change your body posture or add body movement.
10. Sing it with a dramatic intent. Joseph Hislop, a central figure in the Swedish Italian School, would have his students sing exercises with three different intents: joy, anger, and sorrow.
Here are two different practice challenges. First, if you struggle to find sufficient variety in your vocalizing, take just one exercise that you usually sing and try transforming it by using just two or three of the suggestions above. Are you challenged by the new dimension? More motivated? Second, if you struggle to find sufficient consistency in your vocalizing, reflect on the exercises that seem to help you align your voice the most quickly. Commit to performing two of these exercises every day for one week. Do you notice daily variations in the way your voice responds to these exercises? Is that awareness helpful in preparing your voice for repertoire work?
Please share your questions and observations. Happy practicing!