Practing Singing: Stuck inside? Why not #SING?

January 27, 2013


In Chicago, January has been … well… challenging. Let’s just say most of us have spent an exceptional amount of time inside this month and given the tradition of the Midwestern winter, that is saying a lot.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably beaten yourself up a few times over the fact that you haven’t used all of that inside time in a productive way. I did organize my closet, but my receipts for the accountant? Those still are sitting unorganized at the bottom of my drawer. Since I’ve got a month or so for those, I was thinking we could discuss something a bit more relevant to singing. Something that is really the perfect use of inside time: Practice.

I know!

You want to become a better singer, right? I hate to break it to you… it requires some of the stuff.  In singing, this can seem especially vague and intimidating. “I mean, don’t I just need to sing a lot?” Well, no, not exactly.

I remember when I was a kid and taking piano lessons, my parents used to set a timer atop of the piano. I was to sit there until the timer had completed its 30 minute cycle. It was pure torture. I of course did what any smart kid would; I inched it ahead. 30 minutes magically became 24. No one noticed and I was pretty happy.

That story sounds kind of cute and ok, but the thing is, I’m a lousy piano player! My dedication was lacking, let alone my time commitment.

Things got even more complicated when I found myself as a voice performance major at the Oberlin Conservatory and faculty began assigning me art songs and arias to learn in like, a week. Uh oh! I had to figure out how to do this practice thing and fast. It seemed so confusing to me because the violinists would spend hours -literally hours - in the practice room. Same for the piano players and the oboe players and the tubas etc.

We singers? We can’t. I know the instrumentalists think this is an excuse, but seriously, we can’t physically withstand hours of singing.

So how are we supposed to get good? How should we practice?

Through some trial and error, I realized that practice looks a little bit different for you and me. Although the time commitment and dedication is important, we are tasked with the challenge of having to be a bit more strategic about how we do it. So what might that strategy look like? Although there may be a variation that is different and better for you, consider the following:

1) Warm up. No, seriously. Warm up!

It’s easy to just sing songs. I get it. I want to do it, too. But here’s the thing… you will be able to sing songs longer if you warm up. Don’t believe me?

Try an experiment: Set a timer and practice cold. Just sing your song. Over and over. See how long you can sing until you feel vocally tired. Do the same the next day, but go through your warm ups. Notice any difference? If you’re a student at Davin Youngs Voice, you have an audio file of warm ups to work with. These are not the only warm ups or exercises you could or should do, but they are designed strategically to get the voice going, from the top to the bottom. 

Don’t have time for the exercises? Consider humming in the shower. Humm in the car. Anywhere, really. Humming is one of the best things we can do for the voice, even before speaking and if you really are committed to taking care of you instrument and longevity of singing… you’ll make some sounds before ya MAKE SOME SOUNDS, you know what I mean?

1a) Before you sing your song, don’t sing your song. Watch and listen.

How do you learn songs? There is no right or wrong way to do it, but I’ll tell you one way that will not be nearly as effective as you may hope. Listening to a song over and over again. I know it seems convenient to put your headphones on and just play the tune again and again with the hope that through osmosis you would somehow end up knowing it, but it doesn’t quite work like that. Observationally speaking, people who come into my studio, telling me they have listened to their song “a million” times, often have learned some of the notes and words incorrectly at best. Not everyone, but almost everyone?

So what’s the alternative? Start with getting some sheet music. Don’t read sheet music? Get it anyway! Sheet music provides a visual context for the notes you are going to be singing. Whether or not you know the specifics, you can see the way in which the notes move and how they line up with the lyrics. Your eye will help you where your ears may fail you.

Once you’ve got the sheet music, try actively listening and watching. Don’t sing! You’ll want to sing, but let yourself just watch and listen. Done? Do it again. I challenge you to do it three times. I can almost guarantee you will glean more from those three watch and listens then you did passively listening “a million times.”

Already know the song? Consider starting practice with a watch and listen each time. Thinking about it as a warm up from the brain.

You’ve warmed up.
You have some context for what you’re doing.

Now comes you time to #SING! Sorta. It’s often tempting to just get singing a song right away, but quality practice time may require something a bit different. Something like I like to call…

2) Pick a spot.

When learning a song, we often know right away the spot that is going to be a problem. Do us both a favor. Don’t start with that one. Start with a spot that feels like it should be easy. Sing it through a couple of times and ask yourself the following:

1. How did that feel?
2. How did that sound?
3. How do these things relate?

Once you can answer these questions, move on to your next spot and the next and the next, working you’re way up to that tough spot.

This isn’t about sounding good; it’s about learning how our voice fits into the tune.

Which raises another essential point: Don’t worry about sounding good! Not yet, anyway. Save that for step number three.

You’ve warmed up.
You have context for what you’re doing.
You’ve picked through every spot.
Now it’s time to…

3) #SING

The notes and the words, they are fundamental, but what makes us really want to listen to people #SING? It’s the unique way the artist (you) puts each component together. It’s truly the art of it all and I guarantee it will be the most work of your practice journey and require the most patience. Here are some questions to ask while doing so:

Where am I breathing? Is this appropriate of the musical phrase and the story?
Where should the energy grow?
Where should energy become less?
How do these things apply to volume?
What about quality of sound?
How do my vowel shapes relate to this?
What is this story, anyway?
Am I #SINGing it or are there parts where I’m just singing along?

This list could go on for an infinite number of blog posts but hopefully this gives you a starting point. Ultimately, the art will be at it’s best when you spend your time asking as many questions of yourself as you can and then forget the answers and just sing.

Oh, one last thing.

I understand that you may be annoyed that I haven’t told you how long to practice. If this were a real “how to” I’d be all “You need to practice for 1.5 hours 5 days a week.” Friends, I don’t know how long you should practice. I really don’t! And any voice teacher who tells you they do, should not be trusted.  Why? Since it’s your instrument and all, you have to listen to your body. I can’t do it for you. Trust me, if I could it would make my job easier. But here’s the deal, if you feel vocally tired, don’t keep singing. Wait until tomorrow. Feel hoarse? STOP SINGING NOW. Wait for a couple of days. Simple, right?

Depending on where you are in your singing journey how you can/should practice may mean 15 minutes or it may mean an hour… but concern yourself less with quantity and consider quality.

Hopefully you’re skills a singer will far exceed mine as a pianist!

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