Practice Makes Permanent! hero

Practice Makes Permanent!

Posted Monday, March 11th 2013 by David McCall
"Practice Makes Permanent!" Mrs. Marilyn shouted from behind the piano after, yet again, someone forgot to cut off with the rest of the ensemble.  The rehearsal room immediately froze, save for the darting...

“Practice Makes Permanent!” Mrs. Marilyn shouted from behind the piano after, yet again, someone forgot to cut off with the rest of the ensemble. The rehearsal room immediately froze, save for the darting eyes that were searching out the rogue singer. For those of us who knew the ropes of the theatre department, this was a fairly common occurrence, but for the cast members new to our beloved, presently-feared music director, this prompted quizzical stares for the adage, as we know it, states: “Practice makes Perfect.”

“You perform the way you practice, kidlets. Trust me, you don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb during a performance, so don’t practice like a sore thumb!” Mrs. Marilyn knew that a singer who sang through a breath consistently in rehearsal would most assuredly sing through that same breath before a paying audience–not because of ignorance and not because of a burning desire for a solo, but because his practice had been spent ingraining that behavior.

Practice makes permanent, from chorus rehearsal to singing in the car. The way you sing in a lesson, in public, or at karaoke will reflect the way you rehearsed. You may not be aware of the pesky habits that have found their way into your practice rituals, but from time to time, we all fall into the practice pitfalls.

Quantity Over Quality

You may rack up a ton of time working on your singing, but does your voice reflect it? This question deserves serious reflection. We live in a time in which we feel the pressure to engage in no less than one million activities per minute. (No exaggeration.) Perhaps distractions and multi-tasking have found their way into your personal practice, making the actual time you’re spending on singing mediocre compared to the tweeting, status-updating, text-returning, email-writing, funny-video-watching, funny-video-sharing, or…wait… what was I talking about?

If you’re finding yourself practicing extensively without the vocal growth to show for it, try shortening your rehearsal time in favor of a shorter, focused session. Where you practiced an hour with distractions, try thirty minutes, sans phone, computer, and TV. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to check my LinkedIn…

Lopsided Practicing

So you really want to work on your belt, huh? Well, how better to get better at belting than to belt and belt and belt and belt? Great. Now that you’re hoarse, take a break, sweep up the broken glass, and hear me out: singing well requires balance. If you’ve been working on one aspect of your singing over and over without success, you need to balance your regimen.

Check in with the body before you start. Stretch or try some light exercise to get your blood flowing. How’s your breathing today? Is it getting as low as it was yesterday? Have you stretched your head voice before attempting your mixed belt? Try to give some attention to all aspects of singing in your practice to avoid becoming a lopsided singer.

Practice: The Optional Luxury

“I know that it takes practice to get better at singing, but I’m already okay at it. Sure I’m not as good as some people, but I’m certainly not as bad as others. I just can’t devote any extra time to practicing. I’m doing just fine without it. What’s the point?”

If you find yourself treating practice time like a three week vacation to Maui, step back and take a (low) breath. You know better. You likely know that starting this journey means admitting that it’s not a “you-either-got-it-or-you-don’t” enterprise. Sometimes, students with this struggle come to NYVC behind the guise of “just trying” or “I was told I was talented…years ago.” Most of the time, there are fantastic elements to their singing, but once we start talking about the areas that need improvement, off they go, diving perilously into the Comparison Game: “I’m not ever going to be as good as [you name it].” (No one wins so why play?) The goal of your singing should never be “to be as good as” someone else. The goal is to be as good as you can be, and that’s going to take practice! Start the journey with small steps. Practicing can begin as simply as warming up before belting out your favorite Whitney classic.

Compulsive Practicer

Speaking of Whitney, you may have seen the YouTube video of the girl singing one of the late, great diva’s classics. The girl can barely get a phrase out without cracking, but that doesn’t stop her from trying over and over again:

“Annnd I… And I… Annnnd I-i-I… And I.. An… And IIIIII…”

It’s funny because she hardly changes her approach. What was it Einstein said? “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

This pitfall usually attracts singers who want more than anything to “get it right.” They listen and judge their voice so hard that they forget to breathe, sabotaging the entire operation. Since we don’t have unlimited vocal energy, practice should be a series of deliberate, controlled experiments. Rather than just singing the same phrase repeatedly, hoping for a different outcome, try making an adjustment to your recipe each time to see what works.

If compulsive practicing has stymied your growth, try recording yourself singing a full song (no stopping!). Listen back and make notes on parts you liked and parts you’d like to improve. The best gift you can give your voice is the gift of distance. The better you train your objective ear, the more controlled experiments you’ll be able to conduct.

In Conclusion…

Practice makes permanent. The way we perform in our private practice is the way we’ll perform for our audience. So. It’s time to make a date with your voice. Go ahead and open your calendar app and make a practice appointment…

  • Commit to giving your full attention to your voice. A quality 10 minute session is better than an unfocused hour.
  • Be specific about what you’d like to accomplish with the session. Stick to the agenda.
  • Perform controlled experiments.
  • Deny each and every invitation to play the Comparison Game (there will probably be a few).
  • Make Mrs. Marilyn proud.

**For some continued thoughts on the topic of practice, you might enjoy Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, by Geoff Colvin. The author describes the kind of practice advocated above as “deliberate practice.”

David McCall

Senior Voice Teacher, Head of Vocal Development

David has become one of the leading instructors of Contemporary Voice in New York City, with clients ranging from Broadway singers (Billy Elliot, Matilda), Classical and sacred music singers, cantors in New York City Synagogues, to Professional Rock and Pop artists, some of which have toured and been signed to record contracts, appeared on shows like The Voice and American Idol, and performed at venues such as SXSW. Additionally, David has taught as a Master Teacher of Contemporary Voice for the NYSTA Comparative Vocal Pedagogy series.

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