Learning to Practice (Singing)
[This was written by a student of mine. He has come a long way in his singing, but also in his thinking about singing, which he shares here.]
To begin, I should explain that I’ve been studying voice for many years. With different teachers, in different schools; even in conservatory. And I spent a lot of time in practice rooms, and in my living room, and in basements, and in the car…. practicing. Or at least that’s what I told myself I was doing, and I sincerely believed I was. I had a career for a while, back in my 20’s and 30’s, as paid actor and singer.
I’m now in my early 70’s. And learning to sing all over again. Because, as it turns out, I didn’t really know how. True, I had some talent, and a lot of drive. I LOVED to sing, and I wanted to get good at it. And I thought I was. So did some other people, including my teachers.
And yet, I developed serious vocal problems and had to abandon my career. I became a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist instead, and I’ve been “practicing” as a therapist ever since.
Working with Bonnie, I’ve been learning not only to sing naturally and well, but I’m also learning to practice. I wish someone had taught me how way back when.
So, for what they’re worth, here are few things I’ve been learning:
1. Don’t perform for yourself. It might feel good, but it’s mostly a waste of your time.
2. Work gently. Pushing things only makes it worse. If something isn’t working, stop doing it. Try something different.
3. Stay small. Work on very small things —- like precisely what happens when you move from one note to another. Like where you tongue is when you say an “l,” or an “n.”
4. Practice mindful awareness. You can’t fix something you can’t feel. Practicing is about learning to experience yourself as you sing.
5. When things aren’t going well, admit it. That’s actually the “good stuff” of practicing. Rehearsing what you do well doesn’t make it better. And rehearsing what you do badly only reinforces your bad habits.
6. Stay humble. The really good singers are the ones who work at it, diligently and honestly. Really.
7. Explore. Experiment. Take chances. See what happens if…..
8. Old habits die slowly. It takes a lot of repetitions of a new behavior for your brain and body to make the change. Neuroscientists call it “neuroplasticity” – the way your brain creates new synaptic pathways, and even new neurons, to accomplish what it’s being asked to do.
9. Singing well is easy, in the sense that your body knows how to do it. Trust your body.
10. Practice letting go of control. Singing well is a kind of surrender, I’d even say a spiritual surrender, a relinquishment of my ego and a surrender to an experience of release. Find out what that release feels like. It’s eerie at first, perhaps even frightening. With practice, what was frightening becomes thrilling.
11. Working harder won’t make it better. I wish it did. The question is: what will you do if working harder doesn’t help?
12. Practice doesn’t make perfect. I don’t know who said that, but it’s nonsense. Practice makes us better; we never get “perfect.”
13. If you’re practicing for technique, don’t worry about interpretation. That comes later.
Lastly, I offer these sage words from that giant of the American musical theater, Stephen Sondheim in his song “Anyone can whistle:
“What’s hard, is easy; what’s natural comes hard.”
That’s it, in a nutshell. About so many things.