I love quotes, I collect them to inspire others and myself; as a teaching tool and to understand the world better. This quote, by the American football coach Vince Lombardi, has been proven to me over and over in my vocal studio. I used to be quite baffled when I encountered singers who were focused, dedicated and hard working when it came to developing their talent and skill but still struggle to improve or achieve their goals. I decided to do some research on talent and practice methods, as I got deeper into these topics I began to understand why these singers where not developing in proportion to the work they put in. These singers were not untalented nor did they lack motivation, what they needed was to understand ‘how’ to practice.
In order to become a highly skilled expert you need to engage in a specific type of practice. One of the leaders in studies on expertise and practice is K.Anders Ericsson. He has identified the common components found in those who reach expert levels in their field whether sports, music, writing, painting, technical or another area. The people he studied all displayed similar approaches to their skill and knowledge development, they did this through what he called ‘deliberate practise’.
10 top tips for practice that will make a difference:
1. Set specific goals for improvement.
This can be for the activity, the session, the week, the month the year etc. Get your teacher to help you design specific activities that target the areas that require development, write these down and review periodically so you can see how you’ve progressed. Goals help to maintain a focus and give you measurable indicators to plot progress. Goals should be SMART in other words
S - specific
M - measurable
A - attainable
R - realistic
T - time-based
2. Set challenging practice tasks
Don’t practice the easy exercises, ones that you can do in your sleep! Pushing the boundaries will ensure you progress with each practice session. By the same token don’t make the tasks so difficult you can never hope to achieve them, this will de-motivate you.
3. Slow it down and chunk it up
Take time with your practice activities and break them down into smaller segments. If you are doing a musical/vocal exercise slow it down to the point where you are in total control of every moment. This will really help the brain to establish the right neural pathways. In my studio I will make singers sing a melody on a suitable sound and without the rhythmic elements, i.e. only using crotchet beats (1/4 note) at around 60bpm. This ensures the singer has an opportunity to prepare for the notes ahead and then once the voice is in the correct place to live in there for some time. Once the singer feels and understands where the voice should be at any given moment we will re introduce the rhythms, and then eventually the lyrics. We work in segments, expanding them gradually a bar or phrase at a time
4. Maintain conscious control
Keep mind focused on the job when practising i.e. don’t go on automatic pilot as you go through your exercises.
Repetition is vital in ensuring the neural pathways in your brain and the relevant muscles are being trained, toned and strengthened. Think back to when you learnt to write, you had to do regular practice to become fluent and now you probably don’t think too much about the processes. The vocal process (made up of the structures involved in sound production) is made up of muscles, ligaments, moving joints and nerves; these structures need to practice the movements particular to singing. Regular practice then builds tone and strength just as you would for the larger muscles of the body if you were learning a new motor skill such as tennis or a musical instrument.
6. Get feedback
This can come from yourself (record/video the practice sessions) or another person. Develop an objective evaluation habit, make sure you’re constructive, don’t just say to yourself “I’m rubbish”. Ask yourself why it wasn’t up to par, what you know you can do about it and then set about addressing the issue in your next practise session. Find an expert or professional to give you feedback. Once again make sure you are getting constructive advice with practice activities to move you to the next level.
7. Limit practice time lengths (up to 4-5 hours max)
Concentrated practice is tiring and therefore cannot be done for extended periods of time. Schedule breaks, and remember short regular practice sessions are far more effective that infrequent long ones. Find the ideal time of the day for you to practice maybe you’re a morning person (rare in the music industry!) or maybe you find focusing easier in the evenings.
Not only does sleep rest the muscles and brain but it can improve creativity and inspiration. Practising motor skills with tired muscles can also lead to increase in wear and tear on the muscles and the risk of developing incorrect technique.
9. Mental practice
The brain does not know the difference between real and mental practice. Studies have shown that the neural pathways can be developed just as strongly from both mental and real practice. This is very useful if you are incapacitated or unable to find a suitable place to practice e.g sore throat or on public transport. Mental practice is not visualisation. When practising this way you need to be imagining every aspect of how it feels, what moves and when as well as the desired result.
10. Make an emotional connection
Passion drives us to do what we need to do to get where we want to go. Make sure you think about and write down your long-term goals and dreams. Add as many details about how it will be and feel when you achieve these goals and live the dream. Studies show that those people with definite long-term goals are more likely to succeed in fulfilling their dreams.
If you start to feel despondent or discouraged remind yourself why it will be worthwhile to get back on track and practice more. Be honest with yourself. If you find nothing is motivating you, not even the dream, then maybe you are heading in the wrong direction and it’s time to re evaluate and discover your true passion.
Here are a couple of highly recommended books which delve deeper into expertise, talent development and practice methods: