Two of the first things I usually ask my students when they walk into my studio for a voice lesson are: 1) How was your week? (Because I care about my students as human beings.) And, 2) How did your voice practicing go this past week? (Because I care about their vocal development.)
We usually don’t spend too much time on the first question because they’re not really there for therapy, although it’s important to establish a good rapport and feel relaxed before singing (our voice is a very personal part of us), and sometimes people do just need to talk things out before starting to sing. And like good counselors, voice teachers need to be empathetic and effective listeners.
I get varying answers to the second question, but what my most productive and quickly progressing students share is how they applied the principles I’m about to discuss. The reasons for these principles are simple: as singers we want to maximize the results for the efforts we put forth, and we want to enjoy our practice as much as possible, so that we will be more likely to repeat it and make it a daily part of our lives, remembering that it takes about 21 days to make something we do a habit.
So, what are the principles of mindful daily practice? Three of the basic principles are contained in the phrase, “mindful daily practice.” That is: 1) being in touch (mindful, focused, intentional); 2) daily (every day, regular, as opposed to sporadic, or only once or twice a week); and 3) practice (as opposed to just singing through music without taking it apart, analyzing and working on the details of what’s happening; the development of any performance skill requires technical drills and specific exercises designed for improving the skill)
So, in a nutshell, what will help voice students progress most efficiently and effectively are doing the following:
- Practicing daily (skipping one day a week is okay, but practice should be consistent and regular)
- Practicing mindfully (with focused attention and intention on the task, not mindlessly, or while multitasking)
- Practicing technical skills (as opposed to just running through songs)
To elaborate further on these three basic powerful concepts for optimizing results for vocal progress, let me start with the first one:
- Practicing Daily.Daily routines can be powerful, especially when it’s something as life-giving and enjoyable as the act of singing, or in this case, practicing skills in singing. Breathing for singing helps us feel better; voice exercises help regulate our breath; activating our vocal cords help us prepare for the day both with our speaking and singing voice; I know of no better way to start the day than to vocalize (practice some vocal exercises to both warm up and develop vocal skill). It’s invigorating both physically and in other ways.
- Practicing mindfully.As in meditation, we focus deliberately on the breath and on slowing down to observe what’s happening. In singing, we are able to affect change best when we slow down and deliberately and objectively observe what’s happening with our voices, in all the areas that impact fine singing: posture/breath, tone production as the breath vibrates the vocal cords, tone enhancement as the tone is amplified in the resonators, clear articulation of vowels and consonants for effective understanding, and applying expressive choices based on our understanding of the music and text for authentic interpretation. Singers make much faster progress when they look at EXACTLY what is happening in each of these areas and focus 100% on the task at hand. In a multi-tasking world, this can be an opportunity for slowing down and doing quality work on a single task. Vocalizing with intention and mindfulness (daily) can be a wonderful way to center one’s voice, mind, and body.
- Practicing Technical Skills.Along with mindfulness, it’s important to “vocalize,” that is: do specific vocal exercises, daily. Not only just to warm up, but to develop the voice so it can handle all the musical demands that a song or aria require. I usually vocalize my students, especially beginning and developing singers, for at least half the time of the lesson before we start applying it to a song. You can think of vocalizing like thoroughly studying and practicing your golf swing (or hitting balls on a driving range mindfully aware of what you’re doing and what needs to improve) prior to playing a round of golf, or doing lots of specific weight training exercises before entering a body building contest. As developing singers (until we reach our performance level goals), we spend MOST of our time developing our instrument so that when we do apply these skills to singing a piece of music, we are able to perform it at the highest level with all the technical and interpretive choices that a trained singer can make. One of the signs of a great singer is that it appears effortless and sounds consistent in quality and delivery. It’s a fallacy to think of singers as “just natural” (as someone who was just “born to sing like that” and “who doesn’t think about it or work on it”). Natural sounding singers who perform at a high level are singers who have developed technique over years of practice. The best athletes make it look easy, but it represents years of repetition of drills and skill practice, trial an error, and mindful daily practice.
One of the goals of exceptional singing is to make the difficult feel and sound easy. This can only happen when we do the simple things well first, build on that, practicing daily, mindfully, and with attention to technical and musical details!
And lastly, for optimal development, it is imperative that singers study voice (take regular voice lessons) with a highly skilled and knowledgeable voice teacher. Singers need a voice teacher/coach who is both effective and with whom they can connect well. This voice teacher should be one who guides them in building technical and musical skills, and to grow more confident and knowledgeable as singers. Mindful daily practice can be far more productive with professional guidance!