I used to be quite baffled when I worked with singers who were focused, dedicated and would practise hard to develop their talent and skills, but struggled to improve significantly or achieve their technical goals.
One day I came across this quote somewhere on the internet of things: “Practice does not make perfect, only perfect practice makes perfect.” This quote came from the American (hence the spelling!) football coach, Vince Lombardi. I immediately thought about my experience with talented singers who were not progressing in keeping with the work they were putting in.
I decided to do some research on talent and practise methods, as I got deeper into these topics I began to understand why these singers were 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 practise.
In order to become a highly skilled expert, you need to engage in a specific type of practise. One of the leaders in studies on expertise and practise 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 calls ‘deliberate practise’.
10 top tips for practise 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 coach/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
2. Set challenging practise tasks
Don’t practise the easy exercises, ones that you can do in your sleep! Pushing the boundaries will ensure you progress with each practise 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 practise 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 reintroduce 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 practicing i.e. don’t go on automatic pilot as you go through your exercises. That means multi-tasking whilst practicing is out. I know, what’s that about!
5. Repeat, releat, repeat
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 practise 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 practise the movements particular to singing. Regular practise 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 practise 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 practise activities to move you to the next level.
7. Limit practise time lengths
Concentrated practise is tiring and therefore cannot be done for extended periods of time. Schedule breaks, and remember short regular practise sessions are far more effective than long infrequent ones. Find the ideal time of the day for you to practise maybe you’re a morning person (rare in the music industry!) or maybe you find focusing easier in the evenings. Schedule 15-20 minute practise slots, 3-5 minutes break then back to practice. Experience with practice and rest lengths.
When it comes to vocal practising you need to take into account that the vocal instrument should not be working at maximum levels for hours on end. Consider also how much workload your voice has for day to day use. For instance if you are teaching or on the phone all day you can’t then expect your voice to do hours of practice as well. You will need to factor vocal rest into your practice. Saying this there is plenty of non-vocal practice you can be doing also consider Mental Practice (see point 9)
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 an increase in wear and tear on the muscles and the risk of developing incorrect technique.
9. Mental practise
The brain does not know the difference between real and mental practise. Studies have shown that the neural pathways can be developed just as strongly from both mental and real practise. This is very useful if you are incapacitated or unable to find a suitable place to practise e.g sore throat or on public transport. Mental practise 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 practise 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 practise methods: