WHAT IS PRACTICING?

Last week’s blog centered on research and proven methods of how to become an “expert”, or at least how to be in the top 10% of your profession ~ singing.  For me, the most important information in that blog was that most/many people who engage in the journey of training to become skilled at any physical activity tend to stop their deliberate practice, practice that continues to change patterns and challenge their skills, at about 50 hours of training ~ the point where they become “good enough” to be thought of as skilled, but not in that top tier of performers who are considered “experts” or “elite” performers. 

Those people who DO become experts not only practice more hours, but practice with an intense sense of focus and a deliberate, full attention to “what” they are practicing.   This one element is what separates good from great.

The comments to this blog have been wonderful and very insightful for me as an instructor or coach of young artists finding their way.  What has struck me most strongly is the common thread of thought from each singer, that each of you are trying to “do it right like in my lesson” when you practice on your own. It is understandable that this might be your expectation, but let’s turn the lens of that thought just a little bit to expand your expectations for your own practice.

First, let’s define what role a voice teacher actually plays in the training and development of a singer’s vocal instrument. The singer-voice teacher relationship is an important one, and can often last a lifetime when it is the right fit for both. During the early phases of voice training a voice teacher is working with a student to help them acquire foundational skills like: alignment, breath, onset, tongue/jaw functional separation, vowel work and how to shape resonance. As a singer’s training progresses, these foundational skills become imbedded in a singer’s body and a platform of skills becomes available to a singer when they sing. Of course, this is the general goal. There are many variations on how this can go. Especially, if the foundational skills are addressed quickly and not encouraged and reviewed throughout all of a singer’s training phases. But this is another blog topic!!

During the early phase of training a teacher may be much more directive and hands on when working with a young singer. But there comes a point in time – and the singer and the teacher understand when this occurs, although the singer sometimes knows before the teacher does – when the voice teacher moves into a mentoring role and the singer begins to take on more direct responsibility for their instrument and how the instrument is handled and used. This includes practice! This student/mentor relationship does not diminish the role of the voice teacher, to the contrary! It actually deepens the voice teacher role, but in a less ‘directive’ way because it includes more input from the student making the voice teacher/singer/student relationship a collaboration in training the instrument.

As the singer takes more direct responsibility for how their voices are used some new questions emerge and here is where we “turn the lens” on the idea of practice to a more open position. What if your practice time is not intended to ‘replicate’ the voice lesson, but rather build on it? This might require that you think about what your intentions are in your voice lessons. Are you attending your lessons prepared to share your practice insights with your voice teacher so he/she can conduct a lesson that builds on your practice? Or, are you attending your lesson with the intention of just getting the sound right for the song you need to sing in your musical theatre class? One approach will train your instrument so you can sing anything. The other approach will help you sing one song. When you practice and try to do what you did in your lesson are you focusing on trying to replicate the sound you produced in your lesson, or are you focusing on the process your body/instrument engaged in as you produced the sound?

I think this is the real question everyone – no matter how long you have been singing – has to ask every time they practice. If your answer is not – I am practicing to experience (feel), explore, develop and improve my process – chances are you are going to feel that your vocal progress is stalled. And it will be! Did you know that the word “practice” can be used as either a noun (static) or a verb (action)? Apply that concept to your own practicing and think about it!

So what makes for a ‘productive’ practice session? I think three elements combined create productive practice sessions.

1. Be Present! Create a reasonable length of time (15, 20 to 30 minutes two or three times a day) and place (harder problem, but not impossible) when you can be completely and deliberately focused on what you are practicing.

2. Pay Attention! Practice specifically – two or three specific exercises designed to address specific areas of the voice. When you work on your song material, again, be specific. Are you just learning the music? Are you polishing? Are you exploring dynamics, lyrics, phrasing, high notes, expressivity? Are you at a point with the material where you can address ALL of that? Be intentional about what you are trying to achieve or gain by spending time on a song. This includes your time in taping sessions! Don’t give the responsibility for what happens in taping sessions to the pianist! It is YOUR responsibility to decide what you want from that bit of time.

3. Let Go of the Outcome! Be playful in your practice and explore the limits of what your voice can do that day. Focus on what you are feeling when you sing, NOT what you are hearing!! Just try to let go of the outcome of your singing and see if you don’t feel better about what you are doing and get much better feedback about what other people are hearing!! Your job is to play your instrument, NOT listen to it!

I that’s all for today! I look forward to your thoughts and experiences as you continue to share with our growing Voice Community!

Thought for the week: Play skillfully, work joyfully!

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The 10,000 Hour Rule of Becoming an EXPERT!

The following quotations are credited to Daniel Goldman from his recent book “Focus” The Hidden Driver of Excellence. If you would like to read more, please visit the Harmony Room to take a look at this important new book.

What is the difference between a “good” singer and a “great” singer?  Talent?  Biology?  Training?  Luck?  How about PRACTICE!  But what kind of practice and for how long?  That is the best question.

In his new book, FOCUS The Hidden Driver of Excellence, Daniel Goldman quotes Anders Ericsson, a Florida State University psychologist whose research on expertise created the term “10,000 hour rule of thumb” says:  “You  don’t get benefits from mechanical repetition, but by adjusting your execution over and over to get closer to your goal.  You have to tweak the ‘system’ by pushing, allowing for more errors at first as you increase your limits.”

Dr. Ericsson’s resesarch also shows that “almost anyone can achieve the highest levels of performance with smart practice.

Dr. Ericsson argues that the secret of winning [or achieving expertise] is “deliberate practice” where an expert coach takes you through well-designed training over months or years, and you give it your full concentration.

Hours and hours of practice are necessary for great performance, but not sufficient.  How experts in any domain pay attention while practicing makes a [the] crucial difference. 

Smart practice always includes feedback that lets you recognize errors and correct them — dancers using mirrors.  Ideally, feedback comes from someone with an expert eye.  If you practice without such feedback, you don’t get to the top ranks.  {Hence this BLOG to engage in an ongoing conversation about your practice and performance experiences and observations!}

Learning how to improve any skill requires top-down focus – paying attention…. Paying FULL attention seems to boost the mind’s processing speed, strengthen synaptic connections, and expand or create neural networks for what we are practicing.

As you master how to execute a new skill, repeated practice transfers control of that skill from the “top-down” system for intentional focus to the “bottom-up” circuits that eventually make execution of the skill effortless, routine enough to do automatically.

This is where amateurs and experts part ways. After about fifty hours of training….people get to that “good enough” performance level and go through the motions more or less effortlessly.  They no longer feel the need for concentrated practice, but are content to coast on what they have learned.  No matter how much more they practice in this “bottom-up” mode, their improvement will be negligible. 

Quoting Anders Ericsson again, “The expert performer actively counteracts such tendencies toward automaticity by deliberately constructing and seeking out training in which the goal exceeds their current level of performance.  The more time expert performers are able to invest in deliberate practice with full concentration, the further developed and refined their performance. Optimal practice maintains optimal concentration.

 

A note from Victoria: The practice of singing falls a bit outside the realm of other instruments in that a singer learns most efficiently though deliberate, concentrated practice for shorter, but more frequent practice periods of time. However, the important element remains deliberate, concentrated, full-attention practice.

What are your practice challenges? Successes? Do you have any insights based on your own practice experiences that might help others? Please feel free to share.

Welcome to Spring 2014!!

Welcome to Spring Semester 2014 Individual Voice Class and Vocal and Respiratory Anatomy Class.

This Blog has been created for YOU! I will post something new every Monday and, if you are an Individual Voice student, you are required to leave a comment every week that includes your thoughts and observations relative to your voice lesson that week. Please include any practice or rehearsal experiences you have had, any discoveries, still working hard on something specific? Did you listen to any new or new to you, singers this week? Is there a song you want to learn – why?

Also, please leave your questions!! What do you need help with as you practice? Anything having to do with your voice is appropriate for this blog!

If you are a VOCAL AND RESPIRATORY ANATOMY student – same drill! You must comment on the Weekly Blog and also leave your thoughts and insights as you read about the anatomy and physiology of your vocal mechanism and the miracle of respiration.

I look forward to chatting with every single student via the Weekly Blog! Look for the first Weekly Blog article on Monday, March 3rd!!

Wishing you all beautiful high notes!

Victoria