The voice is both the simplest and the most difficult musical instrument to play. It is the simplest because most everyone is given a voice as part of our bodily, working equipment. It is the most difficult because it is mostly invisible. It takes study and practice to absorb information about the voice in general, enrich your musical education, and to listen critically to your own voice. We are all working toward sparkling intonation, an exquisite musical line, subtle and thoughtful interpretation, and meticulous attention to pronunciation and communication of the text.
Practicing is the regular process of developing the means by which you want to communicate musically, deciding what you want to communicate, and perfecting the ability to execute at the moment you desire to communicate it. With this in mind, we continue through the parts of our practice plan:
How to Practice New Music in 12 Steps – Part II
Your girl loves some solfege – fixed do, movable do, it’s the bee’s knees with me. I don’t care if you’re a letter names, solfege, or scale degrees person. I really don’t. The point is: find the system that you enjoy for identifying how the pitches function in relation to each other. Even if you have perfect pitch, working through the solfege gives you important insight into tonal/non-tonal functionality. Learning pitches and their intervallic relationship is an important step in deeply understanding the piece of music you are singing.
Part of your work during this step could be to practice tuning against a drone pitch particularly if you’re in an established key center. Just open up your tuning app on your phone (I love Tunable for this) and select “sustain” and try singing against a drone on your “do” pitch.
5. Start Counting
If I can leave a legacy of obliterating the “singers can’t count” insult, I will be a happy diva. It’s not that singers can’t count. Counting complex rhythms is not an extensive part of most vocal studies. This isn’t the case for everyone and I’m certainly working to make sure that I and my students have incredibly high rhythmic accuracy. You can help me in my mission to squash this jeer by doing your part to accurately count during your practice sessions. First, begin by clapping and counting the printed rhythm. One of my favorite practice hacks is to take a picture of one or more pages of your music and use any “wait time” (in line, at the doctor’s office, etc) to count and tap your music. After counting and clapping, I move to count-singing. This is where I figure out all of my breath marks and identify any areas in which I need to work on breath control and vowel efficiency.
Speaking the words in rhythm and speaking the words in rhythm while playing melody both come to my rescue when I need to take it easily vocally but still want to spend some quality time with my repertoire. Avoiding vocal fry, I’m making sure that I understand both the rhythmic and melodic intent of the composer.
6. Focus on Resonance
Depending on the style of the music and the vocal line, pick an individual vowel and sing through sections or the entire piece. The point of this exercise is to make sure that you are achieving your best resonance throughout its entirety. I pay special attention during this part of my practice to any parts of the line in which I feel the vibrations of my resonance to be unbalanced or outside of chiaroscuro. “In vocalism, ‘chiaroscuro’,” as Richard Miller writes, “specifically refers to the equilibrium of acoustic strength manifested by an ideal distribution of lower and upper harmonic partials (overtones), clustered in formants.” It is my goal to fully-exploit the balance of light and dark in my instrument. Therefore, focusing on resonance during my practice time is one of the most important activities I can do.
Vowels only. We sing on the vowel unless you’re spending a significant amount of time on a bilabial, dental, or velar nasal. Of the greatest gifts one of my voice teachers gave me, one was teaching me the practice technique of singing on vowels only. Vowel definition is one of the main characteristics of excellent vocal production and sung communication. I liken it to creating this gorgeous satin ribbon with the vowel sound that just gets little bows of thoughtfully-produced consonants tied to it along the way.
7. Plan the Dynamics and Phrasing
We must always remember that all dynamic levels are relative to the size of the instrument, there is no explicit decibel standard to dynamic markings, and studio dynamics are not the same as hall dynamics. With those things in mind, we can begin to make our own plans for how we will direct the dynamics and phrasing of a musical line. I will often identify moments in the music that might suggest the use of messa di voce (beginning the phrase a p or pp dynamic, crescendoing to f or ff, returning to p or pp, or rather a “swelling of the tone.”) and then isolate those sections for their own practice.
Phrasing is not synonymous with dynamics. It includes dynamics but in that way that “every square is a rectangle because it is a quadrilateral with all four angles right angles; however, not every rectangle is a square, to be a square its sides must have the same length” dynamics are not the only aspect of phrasing.
“Phrasing is the element of syntactic connection,” as Adolph Carpe wrote in Grouping, Articulating and Phrasing in Musical Interpretation: A Systematic Exposition for Players, Teachers and Advanced Students. Carpe also wrote, “Any group of notes in a composition may for interpretation be a phrase. But usually the phrases consists of conjoint and interconnected groups which, as parts of the same sentence or period, have an uninterrupted connection in thought”… “Phrasing designates that artistic quality of action which completes each group according to its inner meaning and brings it through coordination or subordination into proper relation to other groups.” Which is to say that when I’m practicing, I focus on how the smallest possible groupings of musical thought relate to the most expansive understanding of the whole work with all the connections and relations along the way. Then, I use my understanding of musical/technical production (such as inflection of pitch, intensity, duration, and timbre) to elucidate those connections for the listener.
8. Work That Coloratura
Now, I don’t sing a lot of coloratura passages. However, it does happen from time to time. As a mezzo who grew up thinking “I could never move my voice that fast,” I have had to do a lot of work figuring out the “how” behind coloratura when I didn’t have very many mentors to turn to in this arena. My first step is to always identify the underlying structure or pattern. What groupings of notes can you identify? Do they move in a straightforward pattern? Does that pattern change? How? When?
Here’s the thing: Go Slow. Go very slow until you’re able to go faster. I sing the every-living snot out of those patterns on solfege or letter names until I know the patterns by heart. I could, and do, write them out dictation-style to make sure that my brain recognizes all the different pitches I am singing in those measures. This section could also be called “Work Out the Hard Parts.” These practice techniques apply to fast coloratura passages in the same way that they apply to when I’m working on difficult atonal music.
Then, we chunk it out. You can work in both forward and backward chunks. For forward, I like the additive method of singing the first few pitches and then adding the consecutive pitches one at a time until I sing the full phrase. The backward version means that you develop the final four notes and then build the other direction.
I should make a mention here that until I fixed a pretty significant tongue tension issue, no amount of coloratura work would have been possible because my tongue was still “trying to control pitch changes.” Also, a much more robust understanding of correct vowel shapes and resonance allowed me to sing through those coloratura passages with consistency.
There’s Still More?
There’s always more! That’s part of what can make practicing so daunting. That’s exactly what I’m trying to reframe here. Instead of feeling overwhelmed or daunted by the fact that there’s so much to accomplish while practicing a piece of music, I want to be enlivened by the process. One of my favorite over-drinks conversation starters is to ask,
“In your career are you…
A) A sculptor chipping away at a block of marble to reveal the angel?
B) Depositing gold bars into a bank vault that will one day hold the totality of your legacy?”
I’m always a “depositor.” But, either one can work with our practice lives in mind. It helps me to remember that each practice session is like those gold bars, or leading to the gold bars, that are accumulating in my career vault.
I hope you’ll join me next week in the last part of this practice plan series!