Hack Your Practice - Practice Tips for Maximising Your Results!
A note before you begin - this is written from my perspective and research as a voice and piano teacher. While it primarily addresses singing practice, these same principals are applicable across all instruments and levels.
“Practicing helps you internalise and perfect techniques. You can use practice session to learn new tunes, strengthen your voice, extend your breath support, clarify diction, and fine-tune all aspects of your singing.” (Peckham, 2010)
Often when students first start learning to sing, they and their parents want to know how long they should practice for and how many times per week.
Singing should be treated like a sport or athletic pursuit – generally speaking the more you practice, the better you will get in a shorter space of time. However, there are lots of things we should consider regarding getting the most out of our practice time, such as fatigue, memory, focus, and goals for each practice session.
I’m sure most students know why they should practice – to get better! However, where most students (as well as many professionals I know!) struggle is how they should practice.
Personally, I believe practice should follow these five guidelines:
1. Practice HABITUALLY
2. Practice DELIBERATELY
3. Practice MINDFULLY
4. Practice IN SECTIONS
5. Practice IN A WAY THAT IS FUN
People tend to attribute success in things like sport, music and art to either talent and/or motivation. We assume that elite level athletes and performing artists must either be innately gifted or have inhuman levels of self control and discipline. While talent and self-discipline are small pieces of success, the greatest thing we can do to improve at our craft is to make our practice routine exactly that – a routine or habit.
Most of our habits are things we do without even thinking about them, and they are part of our routine. Our goal should be to have practice at singing be as routine as brushing your teeth.
Below are my top tips for establishing a practice habit:
Start small – 15 minutes a day is a good starting off point as it is pretty manageable for most people.
Commit to doing the same time every day for two weeks to start off with. Make it part of your routine rather than trying to find a different time each day. The best time is a time where you will likely not be interrupted, will be fresh, not too tired, hungry or distracted.
Practice in the same place every day if you can (I’ve included some tips below on setting up your practice space).
Record your intention to practice at the same time every day in your iCal or diary – set yourself a reminder and commit to it like you would any other appointment.
Keep a record of your practice – a habit tracker app such as Productive or StickK is great for this. (Here is a list of great habit tracker apps to check out)
Adjust after two weeks based on how you went. If you found it easy to do 15 minutes every day, see if you can bump that up to 20. If you struggled and skipped days, try finding a different time of day, or see if you can commit to doing 15 minutes every other day, or 10 minutes every day, and find something that is manageable for you to stick to.
When in doubt, doing a little bit but doing it frequently will probably be better.
As you establish a strong practice habit, try to move away from the idea of time based practice and move on to goal based practice instead.
For singers specifically, it is not recommended to practice for more than 60 minutes at a time due to the increased risk of injury when fatigued.
We’re all busy. It is often hard enough to find time to practice with every other commitment we have, be that school, work, family, friends, sport and other activities all putting demands on our time.
With this in mind, it’s very important that when we do find small amounts of time to practice, that we practice DELIBERATELY and WITH INTENT. Ultimately, quality over quantity will make the biggest difference in the results you see from practice.
In “Practice With Purpose” (Deans For Impact, 2016), five principles of deliberate practice are established:
Push Beyond one's comfort zone -- Work toward well-defined, Specific goals -- Focus intently on practice activities -- Receive and respond to High quality Feedback -- Develop a Mental Model of expetise
How do we apply this to music practice?
PUSH BEYOND comfort zones by doing something in each practice session that you would like to improve on. It is all too tempting for singers to sing through repertoire start to finish, singing through parts they can already do well and glossing over sections that need focused work to improve upon. Every session, identify at least one thing before you start that you need to get better at and focus solely on this (if you have more time, this could be one section for each piece of repertoire you are working on, as well as a few technical exercises).
Work towards well defined, SPECIFIC GOALS by setting goals with your teacher for the year, term, week and each practice session. Have these recorded in a journal or plan where you can see them easily and refer to them frequently to check you are on track to achieve your goals. You should also aim to be participating in Goal based practice rather than time based. This means rather than practicing for 30 minutes every day, list one or two goals to achieve within that practice session (e.g. be able to sing through the chorus of Chandelier 5 times with the breaths in the same spot). This means that you know each practice session has a deliberate purpose in your longer term goals, and you also get a win every session!
FOCUS intently on practice activities by minimising distractions and practicing mindfully. More on practicing mindfully in the next section.
Receive and respond to HIGH-QUALITY FEEDBACK by recording your practice sessions for self-critique and teacher critique in your next lesson. This can be recording the details of your session in a practice journal, recording videos or audio of your practice sessions on your phone, or keeping digital notes of your practice, but make sure you record what you do each session and make note of how things are feeling, any difficulties you notice, anything you feel you need to come back to next session, as well as any achievements or anything you found easy or think has improved. Bring these to your lessons so your teacher can give you feedback help you improve your practice. You’ll also have a point of comparison for the future so you can see how far you’ve come!
Develop a MENTAL MODEL of expertise by making sure your practice is tailored to your individual learning style as well as research on cognition and learning. For example, if you learn by listening (aural learner), try recording your practice sessions and listening back to them. If you learn by doing/feeling (kinaesthetic learner) try including physical cues for areas of technique e.g. touching the belly to cue breathing.
When you practice, you should be focused entirely on practice. Try to stay aware of what you are doing, particularly of any feelings in your body such as tension or pain that might be indicating to you to work on technique or take a break.
Some tips for practicing mindfully:
Put your phone onto do not disturb mode. I don’t advocate for turning it off completely as there are a number of apps and functions of smartphones that I think should be used to our advantage when practicing, but turning your phone onto do not disturb will make sure you are not interrupted by messages or notifications.
Practice when you are well rested and alert, not hungry or thirsty, and ideally not when you are very stressed, distracted or
It can help to start with a very short one or two minute mindfulness meditation to help focus your mind, relax your body and bring your attention to your breath before you start practicing. Here are two that I like: Find Your Focus and Let Go Of Stress from Headspace.
Use a practice journal to record your intentions for each session, your goals, warm ups and technical work, repertoire and focuses for each session. Also use it to reflect on how things felt, if you noticed any difficulties or any wins from that day.
Have a good practice location where you can practice by yourself. In the Contemporary Vocalist, Anne Peckham writes: “If you practice at home, it is important to work where you can relax and not be self-conscious. You need to feel free to make mistakes, and not hold back for fear of disturbing neighbours or family. This might mean scheduling your practice time when others are away.” Your practice space should be somewhere you can be alone, undisturbed by others, and somewhere where your only focus is on singing (Do not practice while driving!)
Listen to your body. Be aware of any tension and try to stretch to release it before you sing, but if you are aware of tension while you are practicing, stop and try and release it before moving on. Be particularly aware of any pain. If you experience pain at any point while practicing – STOP. Pain can be caused by a number of things such as fatigue, incorrect technique or dehydration, but attempting to sing through pain can make things worse and lead to injury.
Practice IN SECTIONS:
Your practice should be broken up in to a few fundamental sections to ensure you get the most out of your practice time:
1. Warm up (5-8 minutes)
2. Technique work (10-20 minutes)
3. Song study (15-20 minutes)
4. Cool down (2-5 minutes)
(Peckham provides these times as a guideline based on her recommendation of 30-60 minute practice sessions. Depending on your goals for that session you might need more or less time on each section)
WARM UP: This should consist of physical stretching to release any tension before you sing and prepare the body for the physical activity of singing, as well as warm up vocalisations on slides, lip trills and humming.
TECHNIQUE WORK: This is the ‘work out’ part of your exercises and should be tailored on what you need to improve in your singing technique, as well as the demands of the songs you intend to practice on that session. Technique work can help improve range, breath control, vocal agility, tone quality, register transitions and diction. Select exercises based on where you are weakest and try and select exercises that have some carry over into your repertoire for that day.
SONG STUDY: Learning and practicing repertoire can involve a number of different aspects. When you are starting out with a new song, it is important to start by focusing on learning the melody, rhythm and lyrics separately. As you become more familiar with the song, you should start to focus on expression and interpretation of the song as well as polishing your performance.
COOL DOWN: Cooling down brings your vocal folds back to a more stable place for speaking again, and can prevent shock to the voice from sudden changes in the demands being placed on the vocal folds and the body. A simple repeat of your warm up activities such as stretching and gentle vocalising is often fine. It is especially important to cool down if you are going out into cold weather or if you have been singing high notes for a while. (Peckham, 2010)
If you have a practice journal, I recommend planning out your sections for each practice session before you practice so you have a deliberate plan for how to spend your time and a goal for each section of your session.
Practice IN A WAY THAT IS FUN
This seems somewhat strange to include – many people have the idea that singing is fun, but practicing exercises and warm ups, as well as repetition of small sections of songs over and over again, is boring and is a task to be endured.
However, if we find practicing to be something that is enjoyable and rewarding, we are more likely to stick to our practice habits and see results.
When it comes to making singing practice rewarding, we need to consider INTRINSIC and EXTRINSIC motivation.
Extrinsic motivation are things that motivate us outside of ourselves. Examples of this are winning competitions or awards, passing exams, pressure from parents or teachers etc. Extrinsic motivation can be positive (eg. Impressing all your friends at school by performing at the talent show) or negative (e.g. getting in trouble from your parents or teachers if you don’t do your homework). While extrinsic motivation can be an important part of motivating students to practice in the short term, for long-term motivation, we should be looking to intrinsic motivation.
Self-determination theory research by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan found that humans are motivated less by things such as money and prizes, and more by “competency, autonomy and relatedness”. (McCally, 2010) This means that for long term progress in our practice, we need to feel like we are making progress and that we own our progress and our goals.
Some ways to improve Intrinsic Motivation for singing students:
Think about what you like about singing and what you want to achieve. Write these down and discuss your goals with your teacher. See if you can set ‘SMART’ goals for yourself and ask your teacher if they have any recommendations for steps you can take to help achieve those goals.
Work on the same things week to week and record improvements as you go on – e.g. you might do a breathing exercise and exhale for 8 counts this week, and next week aim to exhale for 10 counts. This is a way you can measure your progress and build your sense of competency.
Do something you enjoy each session. Make sure you make time to sing through something easy and fun at the start or end of each session if you are working on something really difficult for most of the session. Try improvising or ad-libbing over instrumental tracks, writing your own lyrics, finding new songs or artists, watching performances of the repertoire you’re learning etc. so you come away from every session feeling good.
If you made it to the end, or just wanted to skip ahead to a quick summary, here are my top ten tips for Singing Practice:
Make practice like brushing your teeth (same time and place every day, part of your routine)
When you’re practicing, make practice the only thing you are doing (phone on do not disturb, by yourself, free from distractions)
Keep a practice journal
Record your practice sessions (in your journal, or with audio or video recordings) and reflect on them by yourself & with your teacher
Talk to your teacher about your practice each week
Set a goal for each practice session and practice to achieve that rather than practice for a set amount of time
Make sure you warm up and cool down
Practice things you need to improve, not things you can already do
Listen to your body
Have fun and try to have one ‘win’ every practice session!
Deans For Impact. (2016). Practice With Purpose: The Emerging Science on Teacher Expertise. Austin, TX, USA: Deans for Impact.
McCally, K. (2010). Self-Determined. Rochester Review , 18-21.
Peckham, A. (2010). The Contemporary Singer (2nd Edition ed.). Boston, MA, USA: Berklee Press.