Vocal Technique: How to Best Practice Practicing Singing

I have been through six years of music school (and about eighteen years off and on of private study), and I find it curious that the one thing that is rarely systematically addressed is how to practice.

Especially when the quality of one’s practice habits, not necessarily how well one currently performs, is one of the best indicators of one’s long-term professional viability.

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.” ~ Calvin Coolidge
“For all things difficult to acquire, the intelligent man works with perseverance.” ~ Lao Tzu

I was educated at fine institutions; I do not think that their curriculum committees were negligent in their duties. They, like most of us in this industry, simply failed to question the conventional wisdom that a performance should be judged by and crafted according to a set of communal standards, while a practice routine is personal and not subject to a ‘best practices’ approach. Of course, some private teachers lent me tips along the way, and I am personally indebted to Wynton Marsalis for his 12 Ways To Practice. You will see many of his thoughts incorporated into this more singer-specific list. So, dear readers, here follows my thoughts on how to practice being good at practicing. This list is not a series of exercises or a pedagogical approach (though those are the next two issues I will cover in this series), and it presumes that you are studying with a good teacher!

#1: You become what you practice. There are two sides to this: If you practice bad habits or practice good habits, you can be sure that they will become part of your technique. Mamma Howell’s take on this was, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” I’ll reference this rule frequently.

#2: Your two possible outcomes when executing an exercise are radical success or catastrophic failure. If you constantly practice compromising, you will have a compromised technique. Old habits only die when they fail and our brains are forced to find new solutions. See thought #1. This also ties into thought #8 below (Send clear, positive thoughts to your instrument). Each exercise should serve a specific purpose, and you should be able to state what you are trying to accomplish. If you cannot (and if your teacher cannot give you that information), consider simpler exercises… or a new teacher!

#3: Work towards time goals, not specific accomplishments. I wrote an extensive article on this idea (covering aspects of career and time management). The same principles apply here. If you give yourself the time to practice everyday, without attaching the need to succeed, you will have no problem honing your technique, learning your music, and – most importantly – singing your music with your new technique. Make sure that you stop each day prior to the point of exhaustion. It does you no good to practice wearing your voice out. See thought #1. Performances are milestones along the way; the real work of a musician is done in the practice room.

# 4: Practice your messa di voce (gradual crescendo and decrescendo on a single pitch) every day throughout your entire range. This will be one of the hardest exercises you do and it is absolutely vital to cultivating a consistent and dependable technique. The decrescendo will be especially hard at first. Stick with it! The ability to sing quietly, crescendo, and decrescendo without compromising the rest of your technique is one of the major skills (along with clear declamation of text and consistent intonation and amplitude) that separate the singing wheat from the singing chaff.

# 5: Practice slow and fast. Try this: Hold your hand up, palm to the sky. Slowly close your fingers into a fist. Notice that there is a stuttering, ratchet-like, un-smooth quality to the motion. Now do it quickly, and notice that the same motion is smooth. The muscles of the hand, like the muscles that make up the larynx, consist of many short bundles of muscle fibers. When they move slowly you notice the ‘hand off’ from one to the next. When you move quickly, they act in a more smooth and coordinated fashion. Do the same with your vocal exercises. Slow then fast. Up a half-step. Slow then fast, etc…

# 6: Don’t just sing major scales and arpeggios. Work minor, diminished, and augmented patterns into your exercises. Those harmonies are in the music you sing, right? See thought #1

# 7: Smile when you breathe in. This isn’t some sort of “brighten up your vowels” trick, and I am absolutely not suggesting any type of held position! Doing exercises by yourself can be very boring and depressing. Worst of all, you can get distracted along the way and stop thinking about what you are trying to accomplish. A gentle smile from time to time reminds you that you are in the present moment and doing something positive and specific. See thought #1. Smile!  This leads to…

# 8: Send clear, positive thoughts to your instrument. Do not focus on what you want to remove from your technique when you practice. Example: Do not think, “Back of my tongue, don’t tense up.” Instead think, “My tongue is going to be relaxed, loose, and rest gently towards the front of my mouth.” The body is really good at doing exactly what we tell it to do. When we think in the language 0f avoiding negative habits, we actually give energy to those habits. See thought #1.

#9: Take radical responsibility for your own issues. Do not say the word “it” when describing your technical shortcomings, “It doesn’t work, It’s tightening up, etc…” Say “I.” “I am telling my [insert body part] to tense up.” When you take responsibility for that fact that no one else is sending the command to be tense, you stand a chance of figuring out what faulty command you are actually sending. You can even practice compassion for the poor technique. “Dear [insert body part], I know that you are doing exactly what I am telling you to do and working inefficiently for a reason. This is most likely because you are trying to protect me from something that I am just beginning to become aware of my fear of. Thank you for trying to help me protect myself. You can rest now, and I’m going to try something different for a bit.” Seriously, this works.

# 10: You have issues with the back of your tongue. Ok, I haven’t heard you sing, but 95% of you out there are pushing down on your larynx with the back of your tongue. Get an anatomy book and look at how long the tongue is (spoiler alert: it is really long). Practice simple exercises with your tongue in a strange place (gently placed to the left or right, or curled up in the front). Notice when your tongue wants to pull back. With your tongue in a more neutral position, sing without pulling back. This one improvement will fix a majority of your technical issues.

#11: Practice non-attachment/your voice is not an expression of your soul. With practice you may develop an instrument capable of expressing something your soul feels, but you are going to have to make some amazingly ugly and non-musical sounds to develop that solid technique. You conduct your sound through bone and tissue, while your listeners conduct the same sound waves through air. When the sound in the air is beautiful, it is often harsh and ugly in your head. When it sounds beautiful in your head, chances are that it sounds anywhere from dull to manipulated in the air. It sucks, but you cannot listen to yourself when you sing, and you cannot attach meaning to the sound of your own voice as you hear it.

#12: Record everything. Buy a little digital recorder, get to know its limitations (is the microphone tinny, harsh, muted, etc…), and listen back to your rehearsals/lessons. You will hear dozens of little fixable things that no coach or conductor would ever bother to tell you.

# 13: Get excited about practicing! Make little signs like, “February is sing a clear [a] vowel month.” Hang them up around your house and in your practice space. Imagine that you are taking an independent study in singing with a released tongue. Naming your challenges keeps your attention focused on them. See thought #1.

#14: Recognize that there are different ‘modes’ of practice and that each mode requires a specific approach.

  • Warm ups
    • Easy long tones in a comfortable range. Remind yourself how to breathe and what an optimal onset is (talk to your teacher about this).
  • Purely technical work
    • Simple exercises that work your full range (not your comfortable tessitura). Later articles in this series will suggest countertenor-specific exercises. I think it is important to at least start with the same set of exercises each time. You want to cultivate the sense that your voice will dependably respond every time you use it. Building a routine is integral to accomplishing this.
  • Incorporating your new technique into new music
    1. Read the translation out loud as a poem (if in a foreign language).
    2. Read the original text out loud as a poem. This will help you find the important words in each sentence. Hopefully the composer paid this much attention as well.
    3. Write in a word for word translation (that means that your English syntax will be wrong, as you will follow the original language’s word order).
    4. Sing the music on a single vowel (or NG, vvv, zzz, or some similar sound). Make the transitions from pitch to pitch easy and sloppy – lots of portamento. The goal here is to use the technique you practice in your exercises. Do not compromise that because you perceive that the words will have meaning that you need to convey. That is for later.
    5. Sing the music with just the vowels of the actual words. Change nothing in your technique from step #4.
    6. Sing the music with the tragically bad English translation. It will be awkward and stilted, but enlightening.
    7. Sing the music with the actual words.

The longer you practice like this, the shorter the process becomes.

  • Warm ups before a performance of a piece you have performed before
    • Do not sing or start to warm up prior to one hour before the downbeat. Then, sing your warm ups and some of your technical exercises. Doing these familiar things will remind you that your voice will respond and do exactly what you ask of it.
  • Warm ups before a performance of a piece you are performing for the first time
    • Same as above, but finish off by singing a bit of a really familiar aria. This will remind you that just like you integrated good technique into that music, you have done the same with the new piece.

#15: Practice with a metronome. Singers can be rhythmically… what is the word… oh right, LAME. Don’t be a stereotype. Singing in time is a completely learnable skill if you practice regularly with a metronome. Do what my high school drumline called the “box ten” exercise: Sing the difficult phrase at a slow tempo. Increase the tempo by ten metronome marks and sing it again. Decrease it by five and sing it again. Increase by ten, decrease by five, etc… If you have a sense of your conductor’s tempo, practice slightly faster and slightly slower tempi as well. Learn the difference between 118 and 120 beats per minute. Pretty soon you will be able to sing your music with rhythmic accuracy at any tempo. If you don’t have a metronome, spend $20 and buy a Korg MA-30. It is tiny, the metronome function has all sorts of subdivision options, and the built in chromatic tuner allows you to set A anywhere from 413-420 or 438-445.

#16: Sleep is very important. I cannot emphasize this enough. Sleep is not only when your body repairs damage (say from vibrating your vocal folds against each another several hundred times a second for an hour or more), but also when the brain assimilates new information and patterns learned during the day. The more sleep you get the better you will be at singing, the faster your technique will improve, and the easier it will be to memorize music.

Now go practice…

updated 6/4/2011 to clarify numbers 7 and 11.


About Ian Howell

Ian Howell is a countertenor based in Boston, Massachusetts. He regularly performs as a concert and operatic soloist all across North America and writes from time to time. He was educated at Yale and Capital Universities, sang with Chanticleer from 2000-04, and is currently a Doctor of Musical Arts student at the New England Conservatory of Music. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.   http://www.ianhowellcountertenor.com