Practice Makes Perfect

One of the biggest challenges I face with my students is getting them to practice regularly.  Consistent, focused practice is a necessary part of developing good vocal (or any other instrument) technique.   Students with good practice habits progress much more rapidly than those who only practice occasionally or not at all.

The goal is not to practice for hours every day, but instead to practice carefully and deliberately, reinforcing what was learned in your lesson and practicing those skills so that they become comfortable.   Pay close attention to what you are doing, how you are singing, and how it feels.  Focus your attention on practicing difficult sections and trouble spots.  Don’t just sing through the same song over and over and expect the problems to fix themselves.

For more on how to practice effectively, see this excellent post on Bulletproof Musician: How Many Hours a Day Should You Practice?

Finding time to practice regularly is something I struggle with myself as well.  Besides teaching, I work an office job, and I don’t have a lot of free time.  I also live in an apartment building with thin walls, so I try to be considerate of my neighbors by not practicing too early or too late.  I’ve been trying different methods of scheduling my practice sessions, and have yet to find the perfect solution.  I usually do some basic warm-ups and vocalizes during my 20-minute morning commute, but it’s pretty much impossible to accomplish any productive practice while driving.

One thing that has helped for me is finding small chunks of time for practice, and setting a timer so I am not distracted by the clock or all the other things on my To-Do list.  Fifteen minutes is a good place to start when it seems like there is no time for practice.  Even with a crazy schedule, you can always find 15 minutes for singing, and you might be surprised how much you can accomplish in that short amount of time.  If I have a little more time, I’ll sing scales and exercises for 15 minutes, then work on a song for 15 more.  I am often more productive during these short practice sessions than I am when I have more time.

As a coloratura soprano, a lot of the repertoire I sing is very vocally demanding.  Repeatedly singing through some of these arias is tiring, and not the most effective way to practice.  This is where mental practice comes in– a technique I first learned about at the OperaWorks summer intensive program.    Especially with difficult coloratura passages, being able to hear the notes in your head (sung in your voice, the way you want it to sound) is crucial.  While mental practice is not the same as physical practice, really visualizing yourself singing (or playing) the way that you want to sound can be very helpful.  For more on mental practice, see this post, also from Bulletproof Musician: Does Mental Practice Work? 

For many musicians, keeping a practice journal also helps.  I’ve found that writing down goals (repertoire to learn, technical concepts to focus on, etc) can really help me focus my practice time.  Also, keeping a record of what was accomplished can help me track my progress toward those goals.

What do you think?  I’d love to hear from you in the comments.  Thanks for reading, and happy practicing!

Big Decisions – Part 3

Part 3: My advice

Should you major in music at a conservatory?

If you are certain that all you want to do with your life is music, if you have an abundance of raw talent and potential, and if you understand the challenges that come with a music career, then going to a conservatory as an undergraduate might work well for you.  It is inspiring and motivating to be surrounded by talented musicians and instructors.  However, the more competitive the school, the fewer performance opportunities the undergraduate students get, and it’s easy to end up blending in with the scenery.  For some students it might be better to major in music at a university with a strong music program, and then go to a conservatory for your master’s degree.

If you’re not sure, and if music is not the only thing you can imagine doing with your life, don’t limit yourself.  There are plenty of universities that have great academics as well as wonderful music programs.  If you do decide on a music career, where you earned your Master’s Degree is more important than your Bachelor’s.   (More info here:  What does an Operatic career look like?)

You’ll have plenty of time to focus solely on music in graduate school, if you decide that’s the path you want to take.  Especially for opera singers, there is no need to rush!!  Your voice won’t even be mature until your mid- to late-twenties, so there is plenty of time to get a solid education before focusing on music.  Trying to do too much before you are ready will only lead to frustration and rejection.

Finally, understand that a career as a musician takes a while to establish, and you’re probably going to need some kind of day job to get you there.  While you are in college, try to get some work experience that will be helpful.  A part-time office job on campus is a great place to start.  Try to work your way toward a steady day job that will pay enough to support your budding music career.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that going to a conservatory as an undergraduate is a bad idea.  For a lot of young musicians, it’s the right choice.  It’s just not the best idea for everyone.   Consider all of your options and choose what feels right for you.