You know I’m not above starting this post with all the corny practice axioms I can muster. However, efficiency is sometimes better than repetition.
When I hear parents tell me, “My child just hates to practice,” I will often assume that they don’t hate it as much as they say. Unfortunately, it is much easier to say, “I hate practicing” than it is to say, “I don’t know how to practice.” It’s more freeing to say, “I don’t want to do this” rather than, “Can you help me?”
How to Teach Your Students to Practice
I consider lack of practice to be the symptom of a void in teaching. What do you hear time and again in your Meet & Greets when you ask, “Why do you want to take private lessons?” They always respond, “Well, I really love singing.” Invariably, their parent always backs them up, “She sings all the time. She’s just constantly singing around the house.” If your student is already constantly doing the activity, practicing shouldn’t be a hindrance to her progress.
Practice “Small Wins”
I know what you’re thinking. Students who constantly sing around the house aren’t practicing. Practicing is hard work. We all have students who are incessantly vocalizing. But, they never crack open their repertoire books between lessons. Let’s challenge the notion that practicing has to be hard work. Let’s think of practicing as “small wins.” Collect as many “small wins” as possible and they lead up to “big wins” otherwise known as accomplishing your singing goals. When you ask your students about their goals for the year, it is important to break those down into a list of “small wins” with them so that they understand the work that it takes to accomplish those goals. That is true for every skill level present in your studio.
Show; Don’t Just Tell
Teaching practice strategies is different from simply telling your students different practice strategies. It is one thing for me to tell a student to practice with a metronome. It is very different to show them how it works, use it in the studio together, and teach them how to practice with it on their own. Once I take away any misunderstanding of how the practice strategy works, then the student is much more capable of trying it on their own. I know this seems simplistic, but it is incredible how many teachers “tell instead of show” when it comes to practice techniques. For maximum return on investment when teaching practice strategies, employ Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience.
I highly recommend making your own list of practice strategies. Then, write them out on popsicle sticks and keep them in a jar in your studio. Ask your students to randomly draw a practice strategy as often as possible. Here is a list of strategies to get us started:
Notes and Rhythm Learning
- Read over the score silently before you begin. Look for patterns.
- Lip buzz/tongue trill the vocal line for mapping the breath over the course of the phrase. Mark the breaths sooner rather than later.
- Solfège – fixed or movable do, la-based minor, etc. Conduct the piece while you sing the vocal line. (Identify key signatures.)
- Clap and count the rhythm out loud. (Identify time signatures.)
- Countsing the vocal line. Sing the pitches of the vocal line and replace the words with counting.
- Clap and count the rhythm with a metronome.
- Countsing the vocal line with a metronome.
- If any of these rhythms are difficult, use that practice stand-by of slowing down and incrementally speeding it back up to tempo.
- One way to practice ornaments or particularly florid lines is to break it down and sing each pitch on its own number. Then, see if you can break the whole line into smaller groupings and string them together. This cuts down on losing steam or getting lost in the middle of the line.
- Individual vowel – sing the vocal line on [du] or [to] in an effort to practice consistent resonance.
- Sing the individual vowel with different articulations such as staccato or legato.
- Vowels only. This one is tricky and takes time. But, it offers a huge payoff when added to regular practice. Only sing the vowel sounds of each word in the text. No consonants.
- Sing on the text.
- Conduct the piece while you sing the vocal line.
- Make several audio recordings of yourself. Listen for different elements each time. Take notes.
- Finally, listen to someone else’s recording.
- Write in the IPA.
- Write in a word-for-word translation.
- Speak the text poetically.
- Speak the text in rhythm.
- Sprechstimme the text. Or, “sing-song” text. Speak the text in a sing-song voice that is close to the actual pitch of the vocal line. Listen for consistent resonance throughout the phrase. Think of this as the link between speaking the text and singing the text.
- “Text Three Ways”
- Write out the text word-for-word while looking at the text in the music.
- Practice writing the full text from memory.
- Just write the very first word of each phrase (textual or musical) from memory.
- Now, practice singing the whole piece from these handwritten pages.
- “Text Three Ways” is one of my favorite memorization techniques as well.
- Practice playing your pitches at the piano.
- Practice with a tuning fork only.
- Practice singing the intervals between pitches. For example, sing the words “minor sixth” as you vacillate between the two troublesome pitches.
- Practice against a drone pitch. Have a consistent “home pitch” for a section of the piece? Set your tuner app to play a drone (or sustain) on that pitch and sing the section while tuning each interval to the drone.
Body Technique – AKA facial expression, eye contact, and body language
- Speak the text with different body language to emphasis the character of the text and the musical line.
- Write in different emotion cues to the score.
- Sing a memorized vocal line while practicing keeping your eye contact steady or looking at different fixed points. Or, practice starting over every time you look at the floor.
- Take a video while practicing. As you watch it, take notes of what happened and what didn’t happen. Give yourself feedback for the next run-through.
- Practice playing off-type with your body technique. If the text/music is happy, can you practice giving an opposite emotion with your body? How does that help or hinder the performance? Can you practice layers of meaning?
Troubleshooting Tough Sections
- Chaining – this is our “play a part and add little by little” practice suggestion. Start with the few notes that you can sing confidently. One by one, add another note to the phrase until you feel confident singing the whole phrase.
- One way to practice chaining for singers to use the forwards/backwards devise on solfège. Let’s say that the phrase is Do, Mi, Sol, La, Re. You would then sing: Do, Do-Mi-Do, Do-Mi-Sol-Mi-Do, Do-Mi-Sol-La-Sol-Mi-Do, Do-Mi-Sol-La-Re-La-Sol-Mi-Do.
- Isolation is pretty self-explanatory. When you know that there is a section of the music that gives your trouble every time, that is the section that deserves the most practice attention. Use some (or as many as possible) of the other practice strategies listed above to conquer that trouble spot.
- Ask for help in making a practice track.
It is my goal for this list to simply be a jumping off point. I would love for you to add to this list. What other practice strategies are a go-to in your studio or in your own practice sessions? Got a practice suggestion that fits into 140 characters? Tweet it to me over at @mezzoihnen.
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