Many students practice singing songs over and over again in their entirety. While there is often some measure of improvement due to the repetition, this repetition can also be detrimental. If a singer continues to perform a phrase with an error, the error will then become a habit. Because our voice organs are made up of many muscles and membranes and much of singing is muscle memory, instilling the memory to continually sing a phrase a certain way can be a difficult thing to overcome. The best way to avoid these vocal frustrations is to learn the art of productive practice.
Here are some tips:
1. Always make sure you are properly warmed up.
2. Record yourself singing the song or the vocal exercise you wish to learn. Sing it as well as you can in its entirety (or as much as you can). This recording is to give you a reference point for monitoring improvement. Be sure to label the recording properly for easy reference later. We suggest a label such as "09-10-01 The Star Spangled Banner – Vocal Practice (First Run Through)." Get organized early and save yourself time later.
3. It is now time to dissect the song material and break it into manageable pieces. First analyze what you would consider the first phrase, first section or the "problem section" of the material. An analysis would consist of:
a) Listening to the recording.
b) Taking note (and making notes if you are a serious singer) of what it is you would like to sound better or different.
4. Once you have determined what you would like to sound different in this section, it is important to understand what it takes to accomplish your goal. This is where it can get a little tricky, but knowing the facts can make most vocal frustrations easy to fix with a little practice.
Consider that a singer is an:
Athlete - Fine tuning and conditioning of the vocal instrument (the body) directly effects singing and therefore makes each singer an athlete in their own right. If the performance skill or ability can be obtained from the development of muscles or muscular coordination it falls in this category.
Student - True musicianship requires a certain amount of music analysis and music theory knowledge, from proper phrasing to rhythmic execution. If the knowledge can be obtained from a book, it falls in this category.
Artist - Music is a beautiful form of individual expression. If the vocal ability includes the sincerity, creativity, individuality or the emotional content of the performance it falls into this category.
If you are working on a song in a specific style and the performance problem lies in a basic foundation technique like inconsistent airflow, then obviously studying rhythm patterns and listening to artist renditions of that stylistic song material will not help you. You see, the problem isn't with the Student or Artistic Department; it is a problem with the Athletic Department (as are most beginning and intermediate singer issues) and should be addressed as such. Specific focus should be placed on the individual athletic issue(s) involved.
Sometimes just recognizing the department and specific vocal issue solves the problem; and, rehearsing the section or phrase with concentration on this area is all you need. So practice it a few times and monitor your success rate. If you are satisfied with your performance, add the section or phrase back into the full song and start the process over. Be sure to compare your first recorded performance to your new one. The section you have worked on should show improvement on the recording.
If realizing the vocal challenge is not enough ammunition to conquer it or if you have multiple challenges in one section or phrase, we suggest the training singer strip everything back to the basics. This technique involves working with vocal exercises geared to develop the necessary skills causing the current struggle. If the underlying problem is with inconsistent airflow then do some basic foundation exercises geared to develop a consistent and strong air flow before trying the section again. In fact, repeating this process at least three times (exercise / sing / exercise / sing / exercise / sing) will help apply the concept to real world singing.
A word of caution: When working with this technique be sure to add the section or phrase you have worked back to the entire passage or song material. It is just as detrimental to learn to never complete a song as it is to learn to sing a song with the same mistakes.
So remember to keep your practice time productive and keep it simple. Review the song material providing the challenge and logically determine what simple steps are necessary to achieve your goal. Singing usually does take practice, practice, practice; but, knowing how to fill that time can make all the difference in the speed of your vocal improvement.
(© Yvonne DeBandi)
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