About Practice

In looking through some old documents, I ran across the Practice Guide that I give my students at Westminster Choir College of Rider University. It offers direction on what good practice is, and how it can helpful. A portion of this document was posted on this blog a couple of years ago, but I think it bears repeating:

WHAT is practice? According to Merriam-Webster, practice is “systematic exercise for proficiency.” Practice must involve experimenting/improvising (creative energy), but it is primarily to channel that energy into training. Practice is the investment of hours and years to build a resilient, dependable technique (method of carrying out a skilled activity). Practice is what one does to bridge the gap between his/her best intentions or dreams, and reality. In other words, practice is making consistent the application of desired choices; one practices making choices, so that they become “second nature,” automatic, as natural as breathing.

WHY practice? Learning without application is of questionable value; in a skill such as singing, learning is arguably worthless—unless validated by consistent practice. One does not learn to sing only in the voice lesson; vital concepts are introduced there, but the student builds with and upon those concepts/techniques in the practice room (studio class, the coaching studio, the opera rehearsal, the choral rehearsal, in performances…). It is important that techniques introduced in the lesson be promptly, thoroughly and regularly supported by generous amounts of time in practice. Much influence comes from teachers, coaches, conductors, colleagues, etc., but the student must embrace his/her right and responsibilities as Chair of the Vocal Board.

Practice is also about rediscovering and affirming choices that have previously been identified as desirable. This truth is essential for continuing progress, as one builds a cohesive network of choices that make up technique. As a singer develops and matures, it is critical to rediscover earlier choices and make subtle adaptations.

Perhaps the most important reason to practice is to develop confidence. If one does not “work out” the technique that is ostensibly being developed, he/she must depend on over-effort and luck. To come to a voice lesson or performance without effective and frequent practice—thus to be constantly “on guard,” often second-guessing oneself—does not allow the singer to make valid, true artistic choices. He/she will not develop the technical freedom that empowers expressive freedom, and will quickly lose faith in the technical approach.

Any activity (such as singing) is more rewarding and fulfilling when one is well-prepared, and has therefore earned the expectation of success. Besides, practicing well is often exhilarating and always good for the soul!

WHEN to practice? In short, at least three times a day, for a minimum total of 75 minutes; it is better to practice frequently in relatively short segments. Make practice sessions a priority in the daily schedule; enter them in the daily planner. The length of time in daily practice (six days a week, with a “vocal Sabbath”) may often be more than 75 minutes, in addition to ensemble or opera rehearsals. If more repertoire is in process (or if the student learns music/text slowly), more time will be needed in practice, as well as in research. Be certain not to actually sing for more hours a day than freshness and vocal health can be maintained; on days of heavy rehearsing or performances, some of the practice should be silent. (Ask me for suggestions on silent practice.)

WHERE to practice? Listening to recordings, even while in the practice room, is not actually practice; it is preparation for practice. Though one must not learn music from any recording, an initial hearing can be helpful, with occasional listening to the same or different recordings of the same repertoire. The library or the computer desk can also be excellent places to prepare for practicing, as the student researches texts and sources.

Find a room with a piano, where disturbance and eaves-dropping are unlikely. The room should be well-lighted, with good circulation. When entering the actual practice room, turn off or completely silence the cell phone. Distractions cripple one’s efforts to improve and grow. Lack of an ideal practice room will not stop the committed student from working, however.

WHAT to practice? The lesson is a guide for practice. The notes/recordings that are made in lessons must include vocalises. Be creative in adapting those vocalises in helpful ways.

The typical practice day should have a warm-up vocalization session, a second, hybrid vocalization/repertoire session, and a third session to emphasize repertoire. The warm-up session lasts approximately 15 minutes, early in the day, preferably before much talking—certainly before singing in classes or rehearsals.

Vocalization will include both florid and sustained patterns, though the emphasis will vary. Two or three pieces should be the center of the repertoire work each week. The assignments that I make at the end of each lesson must be observed, and are guidelines for the week’s practice.

HOW to best practice? It is important that the warm-up session, in particular, begin in the middle or lower middle range, eventually moving up and down in pitch; there may be several minutes of breathing exercises before vocalization begins.

Set realistic goals for each session; e.g., one session may focus on greater awareness of deeper, more settled breath, on memorization, or a specific technical concept. Obviously, significant time is invested in learning musical and textual accuracy. A Practice Journal (brief notes describing what was attempted and achieved in each session, and how time was used) can be helpful. In fact, I require some students to include it in the Voice Notebook, particularly if preparation is not good. Record a practice session at least once or twice a week, particularly when the accompanist is present; later review can be informative and inspiring.

Each singer has unique gifts and unique challenges. Do not measure progress merely by comparison with others; the important comparison—one that each of us can affect—is today’s self, compared to yesterday’s.

Recital Retrieval

An informative article in The New York Times (January 20, 2011) caught my eye. The title is “To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test,” reporting on a study that is detailed online at the journal, Science.

The gist of the study was this: Three groups of students were asked to read a passage of scientific information. One group re-read the material several times. Another group engaged in “concept mapping,” (a method I often use) in which diagrams, lines, notes, color-coding, etc., are created to help organize one’s thoughts. The final group took a test on the reading material, to discover how much recall they had with what they had just read.

One week later, each of the three groups was tested on the initial passage. To everyone’s surprise, the final group (those who had been given a written test after the reading) did much better on the test–about 50% better. In other words, the relatively passive exercise of simply reading was not as effective, nor was the more active approach of creating a visual “map” to identify the conceptual relationships.

The study actually was a bit more involved than what I describe. The Times article includes comments from several scientists (some of whom were not involved in this study), on how the mind seems to reorganize material through testing, making it easier to access in the future. “I think that learning is all about retrieving, all about reconstructing our knowledge,” said the lead author, Jeffrey Karpicke, a psychologist from Purdue. “I think that we’re tapping into something fundamental about how the mind works when we talk about retrieval.” I highly recommend that you find the newspaper article to learn more; some of you may want to study the entire article in Science. If you do that, please leave comments here for all of us.

For performers, I see several implications in this study. Actually, many of us already know some things to be true that are validated or explained by this study. (Yes, that’s a subtle way of saying, “I told you so.”)

First and foremost, the activity of performing is itself a major piece of the learning/growing process. Who among us does not recognize the value of rehearsal, dress rehearsal, “studio class,” preview performances, “taking it on the road” before the reviewed performances are given, etc.? In the practice room and in the studio, it is vital for the performer to gather his/her “performer energy” and make a performance–often at the end of a session, perhaps at the beginning of the session. Many of us who teach like to occasionally bring colleagues or other students into the lesson to hear what a student is doing, e.g. In reality, this is a sort of test for the student that gives him a chance to put some things together. Very often, one may find that she is actually more together than previously realized!

Every public performance–particularly those that we call Junior Recital or Senior Recital–is a means of learning and moving ahead. Those tests must not be mere “Look at me!” photo-op attempts to validate what has already been achieved. The artist must actively engage in each performance, so that retrieval can support the moving ahead/growing process.

Far too often, the immature student (even a chronologically-advanced artist!) seems to think that public performance is merely a vehicle to display accomplishment–an occasion to gain the approval of family, fellow students, the public, even God–eagerly depositing a dead mouse on the back doorstep to establish “top cat” status.

A primary benefit of performance is the strengthening of the performer’s relationship with the repertoire. That success empowers the next performance to be even more textured, more effective!

True Imagination

I remember reading a comment by golfing great Severiano Ballesteros. In his playing days, Seve was known for an unmatched ability to get out of trouble on the golf course–hitting shots from unusual lies, parking lots, trees, etc. (Of course, one must first get into trouble to be able to get out of it…That could be another post, another day.)

As I recall, the quote was something like this: “People say that imagination is looking at somebody else, wondering what that person looks like naked. I say imagination is looking at somebody, and knowing what he/she looks like naked.”

Seve is telling us about creativity on the golf course, but also in the arts, in any kind of activity, like singing.

Curiosity and dreams can awaken imagination, but they’re not the same as true imagination. Neither are positive thinking and confidence the same. (See the Trevino quote in “The Confident(?) Performer.”) Distinctions are to be made between wild, untried choices, and those possibilities born in reality, discovered in practice.

A similar difference exists in the art of musical improvisation. Whether in jazz, 17th/18th Century, or other music, the performer must know tonality, rhythm, essential rules. In this way, improvisation won’t lead the performer (the listener, too!) down a dead-end road, with no way to get back home.

Through lessons, practice, observation, research, conversation, and/or earlier performances, the serious performing artist discovers effective choices, ideas, possibilities. Wishing, hoping, and wildly dreaming are not enough. Performing “without a net” is best done by seasoned veterans with a lot of data in their imaginative computers. Amateurs tend to perform without a net rarely, if more than once.

In the long run, foolhardy carelessness and insufficient preparation steal the performer’s confidence. True confidence fuels true and productive imagination. Ask Seve.