New York Vocal Coaching Podcast Ep. 30: Tips and Tricks for Practicing
Posted Friday, April 17th 2020 by Greg Kefalas
You’ve heard the saying, “Practice makes perfect!” Andy shares his expertise on how you can get the most out of your practice sessions. With tips, tricks, and food for thought on how to structure practice time and what to work on, you’ll notice faster improvement with singing, or any skill you’ve been training!
Hello everyone. I'm Andy King and this is the New York Vocal Coaching Podcast. I'm on my lonesome for this episode due to the current health situation, but I think I've got a great topic for you all today. Practicing. How do I practice? How often should I practice? When should I practice? Why should I practice? What do I practice? These are all questions I get asked, and questions I've asked when I was younger. Today, I'm going to try to answer them all and give you some tips on how to make your practice sessions more efficient and fruitful. Let's start with, how often should I practice? The unsatisfying answer is: it depends. It depends on the person, the skill, the song, the goal, et cetera. I encourage all of my students to practice five to six days a week, if possible, but we're all human and we have busy lives. I tell folks to look at their overall weekly practice time versus daily practice time.
How much you practiced during the week, overall, is more important than sweating over the daily time. You might have 15 minutes to practice today, but you've got 60 minutes tomorrow. At the end of the week, are you putting in enough time to reach your goals? That's the real question. The next big question is, how much time per day? Again, it depends. Sometimes, we've got a 60-minute chunk of time, sometimes you've got 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the afternoon. There's no right or wrong. It's all about figuring out what works best for you, your schedule, and your goals. If you're working on a new skill, new song, prepping a role, or preparing for a performance, I always suggest putting in extra time. The more you practice, the more progress you make.
My final bit of advice for part one is this: always look at your week ahead and schedule your practice sessions. If you take it day by day, it won't be a priority and it will always be pushed aside. Put it in your calendar and stick to it. Seriously. If that means 15 minutes, that's fine. That's great. Half the battle is getting into the practice room, plan it, stick to it, and just do it. Seriously, I can't emphasize that enough. Coming from a music student who, sometimes, would not practice, put the time in now, stick to it, I promise you, you'll thank me later.
The second part of this episode is, what do I practice when I'm even in the practice room or in my apartment or in my room? First, you always want to have targets and goals. And yes, there's a difference here. Smaller targets lead to smaller goals, which lead to larger goals. If your goals are too large, in your practice session, you're just going to get frustrated. Take my word for it. In a 20 minute session, you're not going to accomplish some huge Herculean task. It's just not going to happen, and then you're going to feel like a failure and that's certainly not true. A target during a practice session might be, "I'm going to clean up my E vowel on the held-out note in the song, or I'm going to make sure my breathing system is steady during this really fast passage."
See what I mean? Just very small little targets. That way, we can feel accomplished. A weekly goal might be, "I'm going to get a song fully memorized, or I'm going to make sure I have consistent resonance during this entire song." Again, not Herculean tasks, but those are bigger tasks instead of just small little targets. The idea here is to make sure you're setting a reasonable and realistic, again, reasonable and realistic targets, and goals during the week and month. By setting smaller targets and goals, you're going to see the specific progress you're making, which is going to inspire you to continue your work. Makes sense, right? Another big part of your vocal work should be vocal exercises. Seemed silly, but again, I'm speaking from experience, they can get boring sometimes, or we just do them without thinking about them but they are important.
Exercises allow you to focus on very specific aspects of your voice. For instance, your breath, registration, lining up vowels, articulations, so on and so forth. So, the question you need to ask yourself is this, what's the purpose of a particular vocal exercise? Are you paying attention to the feeling? Are you making adjustments as you go? Are you writing down questions for your teacher or for yourself? Or, are you just going through the motions? Again, vocal exercises need to be done consistently and they need to be done thoughtfully. You also need to know what and why you're practicing in a session. What is the overall goal for the session? Is it to get a song memorized, learn new audition cuts, nail down the rhythms of a song? When we're specific, it helps us stay focused. I'll say it again. Having smaller targets helps us stay motivated so we can reach the bigger goals.
And if you know what those targets and smaller goals are, the progress is going to be great. Again, setting time aside and knowing exactly what you're practicing and why you are practicing it. In your sessions, you should be working both vocal exercises and repertoire, and both should have targets and goals. Here's something else that I want to talk to you all about. Interleaved practice or interleaving practice, versus block practice. Some of you may have heard of this before. It's been around for a long time, but let's talk about it a little bit. Let's say you've got six things to practice in a session. It's an arbitrary number. You've got two options for your session, block practice or interleaved practice. In block practice, you work on one thing, and you do not move on from that one thing until it is mastered, until it is perfect. So, you just get down in the weeds, you get bogged down in it, you really sink time and energy into it.
In interleaved practice, you switch up the different targets even if you haven't mastered the goal. For instance, you spend four minutes on target one, then six minutes on target two, then two minutes on target three, then seven minutes on target one, then five minutes on target four, so on and so forth, et cetera. You get the idea. In interleaved practice, we don't allow ourselves to get bogged down on one thing. Set a timer for that one target, and then move on. It's not about perfection. Always interleave challenging tasks with easier tasks. For instance, you can start your practice session off, say, you're doing song work today, start by singing a song that you can just nail every single time. All the vowels are lined up, the resonance is lined up, it feels very easy in the voice, it stretches you, but not too terribly hard. And then go on to something a little more challenging, and then go to something a little more easy and then really, really challenging, et cetera. You understand.
Interleaving also helps us break down our goals in a more specific way, thus, helping us to feel more accomplished. Interleaved practice is also researched and proven to be more effective for students of all kinds, athletes, musicians, studying, all those sorts of things. You can obviously look up. There's been lots of research on it. Lots of writing. You can go on YouTube, hear people talk about it, so it's interesting. And it's not necessarily that interleaved is the best thing for every single person, but it's something to think about. I also want to talk to you quickly about the importance of recording your lessons. First, if you record your lesson, then you've basically got a free voice lesson in your pocket that you can do, again and again. I still have some lessons from when I was in grad school, and that feels like ages and ages ago. Why? Because some of those lessons were amazing. And my teacher, Kevin Wilson, at the Boston Conservatory, amazing, always had awesome exercises and I love going back to them because it really lines me up.
Second. You have to get used to what you sound like. It's hard to listen to ourselves. It's a fact. I have yet to meet a person who walks around listening to their voice lessons as if it was the latest bop. You just have to do it. You truly can't improve without knowing what you sound like. Here's the thing. When you listen back, you'll hear what you sound like in the moment, what you say you're feeling in the moment, and any adjustments or explanations your teacher is making. This is when we really start to connect the dots. Also, keep a practice journal for yourself. Write down your questions and thoughts. Finally, sometimes we don't have the luxury of being able to practice in the comfort of our own homes. Say for instance, here in New York City, we're crammed on top of one another and were separated by thin walls. Maybe you've got roommates, whatever your situation, here's some ideas for you. And again, speaking from experience, I get nervous that my fellow neighbors will be annoyed at, even, my teaching or if I'm singing or anything like that.
So, I get it, and something that my students struggle with sometimes too. So here's some ideas for you. Grab a straw, do some straw phonation. So, if you've never heard of it, there's thousands, thousands, and thousands of resources on it, just type, straw, excuse me, phonation into Google, or into YouTube, and you're going to find countless videos on it. It's fantastic. I'm sure Matt and I have talked about it in the past, as well. It's very quiet. It's amazing for your voice. And you can make some nice progress by doing this, a little bit, every day. Again, it's not going to replace a 45-minute, 60-minute full singing session, but when push comes to shove, you're going to make some progress by doing this. I promise.
Another thing that you can do is get a BELTBOX. It's not something that I endorse. I love it, but I'm not paid by them or anything like that, but it's basically this silicone and foam thing that goes over your mouth and your nose. If you're a Batman fan, think of Bane. And I'm sure Matt and I've talked about this too, before, but basically you place it over your mouth and nose and it greatly dampens your sound. You can do your regular singing while lowering the decibels, significantly. Again, this doesn't change anything, the straw phonation does. You're not going to be able to really sing out with that, but with this, you will be able to, and it's going to greatly dampen the decibels. It's going to really help. I recommend it for everybody.
Another thing, study your music. Read your music. See if you can figure out the shape of the notes. Even if you aren't sure exactly what's going on, see if you can figure out what's going on. Memorize lyrics. This is a huge one. Take the time, do the emotional and intentional work of your song. So, study those lyrics, see what's going on there, how do you feel about it? Are you connecting to them emotionally? Can you create a story for yourself? What is the song actually talking about? All that kind of stuff. Read a script. You can go online and read scripts. You can find a PDF of them there. You can actually buy them really cheaply, but just immerse yourself in something different or interesting. Could be from musical, from a play, anything like that. Research a show. It can be a play, a musical, anything like that, just say, "I don't really know that much about Into the Woods, so, I'm going to look up everything about that, or Ragtime or whatever the case may be."
Another thing, read about music in general, you can read about the history of music, history of rock and roll. You can read... There are countless biographies of tons of artists and bands out there. Find your favorite artist or trace... Say, you love singing rock music, trace the history of it and see if you can find some interesting tidbits about it. Knowing your history of the thing you love is really important because it informs all of your choices. Finally, perhaps, you can find a space in your area that you can use for free or rent cheaply. Maybe, there's a church near you or another place of worship, maybe a VFW, a community center. In New York City, we have tons of rehearsal studios that you can rent out pretty cheaply. Don't give up and just ask.
Call a place and say, "Hey, I would love to... Do you have a space I could be in for 45 minutes or for half an hour?" And go do it. Don't make excuses, just go there, plan it, like I said at the very beginning, make a plan for yourself, you can do it, I promise. So, as you can see, there are a ton of great options for you. Finally. Please, don't allow lack of practice to get in the way of your ambitions and goals. Seriously, I'm going to say that again, because it's really, really important. Don't allow lack of practice to get in the way of your ambitions and goals. Get creative and get to work. That's all I've got folks. Thanks for listening. And Matt and I are excited to be back together again, hopefully very soon. Thanks for listening again and take care of yourselves.
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