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!