A big part of a vocalist's life is the daily practice that becomes such an integral part of the schedule. It has taken me many many years to begin to figure out how I should approach practicing voice. I have stumbled along, trial and error, inefficiently, blindly. I am beginning to understand how it works and am beginning to have the know-how about how to set up a good strategy and plan for my vocal needs.
Practicing is a complicated activity that requires setting up an intelligent plan very similar to what any athlete needs to set up for him/herself. Singing IS an athletic activity, and when I finally understood that, the way I approached practicing became a much different matter.
In the beginning, my first teacher exhorted me to practice, and I ought to have known from having studied piano that practicing creates the muscle memory and facility needed to perform the music. However, I was very confused about practicing voice. I would come home with a piece that I could not sing, and had no idea how to approach it. There were high notes in the piece that were beyond my abilities, and phrases and lines that were so exhausting, created such tension when I attempted them, and left me so dispirited and demoralized that I would put the music aside and just think "How can I be expected to work on this? Practice what?" Should I practice the exercises she gave me in class? I can't remember what we did. How? What?
How like the beginning jogger I was. The aspiring future runner becomes convinced that jogging is going to be so healthy for her. She has watched the healthy people running by on the street for years, and imagines herself out there soaring across the pavement like that, strong and free. So, she decides to go out there and give it a whirl. She digs out an old pair of clumpy sneakers from the closet, donns a baggy Tshirt and a pair of gym shorts and sets out to jog. She starts out cold, with no stretching, warming up. After about a minute, she becomes convinced that this is the hardest thing in the world to do, and why anyone would even try it is insane. It hurts, is very uncomfortable, and is very hard, and there is no sign that anything about it would ever be enjoyable. She gives up immediately, deciding the whole thing is just a big lie.
Once I finally got it into my head that there wasn't going to be any vocal progress without a commitment to regularly scheduled practice, however, I was ready to make that commitment to disciplined vocal training. From there I have gone through various stages and approaches to practice. At one point I thought that "more was more." I just practiced for hours and hours on end, thinking that more could only be better. But vocal problems and hoarseness announced their presence as a warning that I was not approaching things intelligently.
This is like the jogger who decides that there must be some future result that is worth suffering through all the pain for. She is enthusiastic and willing, and has made the commitment, but goes out with unrealistic ideas about how long and fast and often she will jog. She gets injured, and has to stop, and restart so many times which prevents her from achieving progress. She has not learned much about running form, and how to increase in a way that allows her body to adapt to the new physical activity. She's willing to push herself, but pushes herself in the wrong way. She doesn't know she needs recovery time for the muscles to build and that there is a rhythm to what she is trying to accomplish. She has not yet learned how to listen to what her body is telling her and is not in tune with when she should step back and when she should push.
Next, I wasted days and months with a kind of casual voice practice that just maintained what I had, or was more like just warming up, as opposed to actual voice building. It was the same kind of practice all the time, without other types that are needed for the goals I had. My teacher, Susan Eichhorn Young, writes about the difference between warming up the voice and voice building here in her blog, Once More With Feeling - May 25, 2009
This "just warming up" type of vocal practice might be compared to the casual jogger. The person who has made their exercise routine a part of their life, and goes out faithfully every day, running the same route, at the same speed. They don't get their heart rate into "the zone," or challenge themselves with longer distances, or harder courses. They don't cross train with any other kinds of working out. In a way, they are happy, but they don't know that there is more.
Just like an athletic training program, practice must be set up to achieve certain vocal goals that one has laid out for one's self. A knowledge of how the voice is going to respond to each type of practice is important.
A runner training for a marathon uses different types of workouts to accomplish different needs. There are workouts for distance, workouts for speed, workouts for strength, hill workouts, workouts on different types of terrain, assessment-type workouts. Just like the athlete, the vocal training program includes thinking about what you need to do before and after you train. It requires some preparation before a workout, and some cooling down. Certain practice goals will be harder on the voice and require some recovery time before the benefits of the "workout" will be realized. The activities surrounding the training should be taken into account. For example, on the day before a long run, in my half-marathon training program, I am instructed to take the day completely off from exercise. This is needed to get the benefit of the long run, so I have to know ahead of time what I'm doing the day before.
As an example of how this might work with the voice, today I face the issue of wanting to work on a voice-building song very much, but I have to sing the Star Spangled Banner tomorrow at a Kung Fu graduation ceremony, and if I practice the voice building song, I might not be in good shape to sing tomorrow. How many times have I messed up a singing event because I didn't quite realize this. I am happy to have reached a point where I can strategize better.
I am training for my first half-marathon right now. The training plan I have picked is designed for the goal of just finishing the race, since I have never attempted this distance before. I have set up one long run that increases my distance each week, and two maintenance runs a week. I also do some cross training and light walking on my days "off." As far as my form, I am using a walk/run method that will build me. I run a minute/walk a minute. Eventually the run time will become longer. That's all I, the beginner needs. My sister, however, has been a marathoner for many years. She is training for a marathon this fall, but her training plan is far different and more involved than mine. She wants to train for a good time, and must include workouts designed to increase her strength and speed. She has been content for a while to just maintain her marathon distance, but she has made some new goals for herself this time and is stepping things up to build herself to a new level.
A singer needs to tailor her practice in similar ways. A singer really could use a personal trainer who would show her how to practice, set up a customized plan for her needs and goals, and come work with her every day. But this would be an expensive proposition to add on to an already expensive hobby (see my previous blog post on this), so the poor singer is left to her own learning and devices and help and advice from her teacher on setting up a good program.
The beginner singer will have different practice goals and plans than the advanced opera singer. The opera singer, who has achieved some measure of professional success, like my sister, the seasoned marathoner, may coast along some time on her present abilities, but at some point may decide to up the ante and build again to an even higher level, as a kind of personal challenge.
There is always more.
There is so much more to say on this topic that I may continue this subject in future blog posts. If you want more, keep checking back.