We all know that practice makes perfect, but is there a perfect way to practise? Here are my top tips for making the most of every minute you invest in your voice, as well as how to find time in the first place!
Quantity versus Quality
But that doesn’t mean we have to dedicate hours every day to achieve a better voice. It’s a classic case of quality over quantity. How we practice is more important than how long we spend practising. In fact, it can be counterproductive to set a specific timeframe as it is tempting to simply fill the time, rather than achieve a specific goal.
1. Be specific
My number one tip is to know what you want to get out of your practice. Approach every session with a clear goal in mind, even if it’s only 5 minutes long. You can brainstorm ideas with your singing teacher or jot down areas to work on in a notebook.
I like to group singing practice into three areas: technical, musical and memory. You might choose one aspect from each area or focus on one that needs your attention. For example, something technical could be keeping your throat open or working on vowels and consonants. For something musical, you could choose bars 19 to 26 in a song and work on the musical devices such as dynamics or rhythm. Or you might memorise the first half of a song.
One of my students, Brett Kensett-Smith, who plays in a band with other fathers from his children’s school, has taken a similar approach. “I’ve grouped together the exercises I’ve learnt from my singing lessons and I try to do one exercise from each group each time I practise,” he said. “For example, I always do a breathing exercise to start with and sometimes two falsetto exercises, as well as a head voice or vowels and consonants exercise. It helps me stay on track during the session.” He is gradually building up a repertoire of exercises from his singing lessons that he can call on during practice. Falsetto exercises are particularly important for Brett, who is working on strengthening his upper range to help him sing his band’s repertoire of pop rock songs. The vocal strength required was obvious at the band’s first big gig at a school fundraiser last year, where they performed a set of 15 songs. “I was absolutely exhausted at the end of it and my throat was too,” he said. “I thought I can’t rely on band practice every four weeks to give me a resilient voice. It’s like any other muscle, it needs to be trained.”
2. Anywhere anytime
Breathing is the foundation of singing, so it’s wise to incorporate breathing exercises into your practice. The bonus of breathing is that you can practise it just about anywhere, anytime. Sitting at the back of the bus is a great spot because the seating is firm and straight which allows you to feel your ribs opening and your breath dropping lower. Your posture and length of breath control will begin to improve too. Plus it’s the perfect downtime when there is little else to do. Another idea is to practise breathing when you go for a walk during your lunch break or in between classes. Think of something you do every day and combine it with a breathing exercise.
3. Sing in the shower
Talking about something we do every day…shower! You can use this time for breathing exercises, or even as a way to start a whole practice session, which you finish while getting dressed. It’s working for Brett, who says the acoustics are great and it’s somewhere he’s unlikely to be interrupted! “The hardest part of practice is finding a window where you can be completely focussed on your singing,” he said. “In the shower there aren’t kids coming in to ask where their clean socks are. It’s dedicated time.” He also often moves onto scales and finishes with a technical exercise as part of his morning routine.
In fact, the bathroom is a great practice venue at any time of the day. Another student of mine, Steph Ziolkowski uses her bathroom mirror to keep an eye on her breathing technique. She is working on using her diaphragm correctly and uses the mirror to watch her ribs and stomach moving as she breathes. You can also use a mirror to see what your mouth is doing, as well as watch your posture and hand movements.
Like Brett, finding time to practise around a busy schedule is Steph’s biggest challenge. She has the added complication of living with a housemate in a complex with thin walls, as well as a hectic sales job. Steph is due to sing ‘Ave Maria’ at her cousin’s wedding this Saturday, giving her extra incentive to practise. She says she doesn’t sing after 8 o’clock at night to stay in favour with her neighbours, but finds weekends are a good time for her. “I find that I sing a lot better when I’m not worried about annoying my housemate or neighbours. That’s when I’m not scared to really let notes out,” she said.
4. Speak it
As Steph has found, breaking into song isn’t always appropriate or possible, but reading out loud is a good alternative. Reading through a song is a good way to memorise the words and you can also experiment with speaking in different pitches.
5. Play it back
I always encourage my students to record their lessons and practice time, because there is so much to be learnt from listening to your voice (and the advice of your teacher!) Brett uses the half-hour commute to and from work to do just this. As a father of two young children with little time to spare, it’s one of the few quiet moments in his day. “There is so much information in the recording and I find that it really helps with my recall,” he said.
6. Find a practice partner
Maintaining momentum is a stumbling block for many people, so finding a friend who can hold you accountable is a great idea. You might keep in touch via social media and share your practice ups and downs, what you’re working on, as well as your achievements. Think about catching up in person once a month too and listen to each other sing or even sing together. You can learn a lot from a shared singing experience. In fact, Brett has found a practice partner in his daughter who is learning the piano. They sometimes team up to practice together, even though they’re using different instruments.
So there you have it; it’s time to let go of the idea that a solid hour every day is the only way to practise. With a little clever thinking, you can slot in exercises at various times during the day, from your morning ablutions to your bus ride home from work or school. Just be clear on what you want to achieve each time you practice and you’ll be on the way to a better voice.
Kathleen Connell is a Sydney-based singing teacher and vocal coach who trains both aspiring and accomplished singers in technique and vocal skills. She is an active member of ANATS, a writer and PhD candidate at Griffith University.