by Spencer Welch
If I don’t practice one day, I know it. Two days, the critics know it. Three days, the public knows it.
This is one of those pithy quotes that probably everyone has heard at some point, but no one seems to know who said it. But is it true? Is a daily regime imperative when it comes to practicing a musical instrument, in this case, the voice? And while we’re at it: for how long should I practice singing in one sitting?
I still shiver when I recall my first week in music college. I was intimidated! Everyone seemed to be uber-talented and a much better pianist/singer than I was. So off to the lonely practice rooms I retired to “woodshed”—run technique, scales, songs. Like a hermit, I would lock myself in that room for two, three, sometimes four hours straight. I had to improve…and quickly!
Unfortunately, I could stay focused on my task for only about 15 minutes before things would miserably devolve. I would “come to” halfway through playing all my seventh chord inversions, wondering where I was and what I was doing. All practice roads inevitably led to jamming out yet another rendition of “Piano Man,” a song I had mastered years before.
I wasted a lot of time and energy in that practice room. Eventually, I over-practiced, giving myself tendonitis in both forearms and wearing my voice thin. I had to stop practicing—for a few months, in the case of my arms.
Over the years of teaching and researching, I’ve come to realize I was practicing all wrong. I wasted time, running in circles for hours, because I was practicing mindlessly. I wasn’t fully aware and awake to what I was doing, playing and singing with intent and focus. In fact, I did just the opposite, shutting off my brain and body as I practiced scales or technical exercises. I assumed if I did them by rote for hour after hour, eventually my body would turn them into muscle memory. This worked, somewhat, but progress was slow, incomplete, and inefficient.
It’s not enough just to sing the exercise. It’s how you sing it.
The opposite of mindless is mindful. Dr. K. Anders Ericsson calls it deliberate practice. His research is responsible for bringing the “10,000 hours” concept of mastery into the layperson’s lexicon. However, this concept is often misquoted. He didn’t say it took 10 years or 10,000 hours of practice to achieve an expert level, but rather 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. This requires focus, awareness, and intention.
When you practice singing, do you pay attention to anything? Or do you do it on autopilot? Are you listening and feeling as you sing? Here are just a few aspects you could focus during your next practice: evenness, ease, freedom, pitch, vowels, tone, dynamics, lyrics, vibrato, style, stage presence. And that’s just scratching the surface!
Of course, if you try to focus on all of these things at once, you most likely will get overwhelmed by the multi-tasking and end up focusing on nothing. So under the tutelage of a good voice teacher, figure out what aspect of your singing needs to be deliberately targeted first. Once you focus on that priority long enough during your practice sessions, it will become an automatic response—muscle memory—so that eventually you can “forget” about it and focus on something further down the order of priorities.
Frequency is more important that duration.
For all these reasons, I recommend short, frequent practice sessions. When you are training your body to develop a new motor skill, you must find and sustain that new coordination frequently. Every day, if possible. Multiple times per day, if possible.
Many students make the mistake of practicing voice for hours at a time. However, only the first 15-20 minutes of their practice is deliberate. After that, they lose focus, waste time, or worse, wear their voice out.
When it comes to the gym, a 30-minute workout performed several days per week will train and condition the body more effectively than a 4-hour workout once a week. In the same way, you will train your voice more efficiently if you practice vocal technique for 15-20 minutes, 5 or 6 days per week. Once your voice is ready, you can follow up this vocal workout with another 15 minutes of application to a song.
What? Only 30-40 minutes of total practice time in one sitting? Deliberate, mindful practice is exhausting. At first, you may only be able to focus 10-15 minutes, taking short 1-2 minute breaks every 5 minutes. If you want to practice more than this per day, come back later that afternoon or evening and do another round of 10-15 minutes. But don’t forget to bring along your brain, your ears, and your nervous system too. When it comes to practicing voice, the whole mind-body is your instrument.
Want to learn more about what and how to practice? Check out our video series Singing 911!