Posted with permission from the author and reprinted courtesy of Classical Singer Magazine
Practicing 101: Ten Tips for Making the Most of Your Time between Lessons
by Dean Southern
The old anecdote
has been told a thousand times and in at least as many versions—a New York cabbie (or Heifetz or Rubinstein) is stopped
by a tourist on the street and asked, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The reply: “Practice! Practice!
While the wisdom of this little joke is obvious, the reality for singers is that they often don’t know
how to practice efficiently or effectively. By the time they enter college, most violinists,
pianists, and other instrumentalists have been working on their instrumentsin solitude for 10 or more years. However, many
singers first learned to use their instruments in their school choirs, and theprospect of practicing on their own can be mystifying.
Success in singing, like almost any worthwhile
endeavor, is dependent on individual discipline, self-sacrifice, and hard work. In Vocal Wisdom, the legendary pedagogue Giovanni BattistaLamperti is quoted as saying, “‘Know thyself ’ applies
to the singer more than to other professions, because to sing well, body, soul, and mind are tuned together to do it. The
only things you can learn from others are to breathe slowly and deeply, to pronounce correctly and distinctly, and to listen
intensely and carefully. The coordination of these three must come from yourself. Know thyself.”1
Where does one gain this knowledge? In the practice room. The following tips are intended as a guide to getting
the maximum benefit from your practice time. By gradually implementing these suggestions, your practicing will becomemore
efficient, more effective, and more enjoyable.
1. Schedule your practice time.
The cornerstone of steady, measurable progress is consistent, regular practice—and, conversely, the consequence
of practicing in fits and spurts is uncertainty. Therefore, the first thing you should think at the start of each day is “When
am I going to practice?”
Plan your practice time as you would your work or class schedule, and stick to it. Also, try to practice at
optimal times, rather than leaving it to the end of the day when you are physically and mentally exhausted.
2. Make the practice room your sacred space.
Learning to concentrate is the key to good singing, and you cannot learn to concentrate if you are distracted.
E-mails, phone calls, and texts can wait, so put away your laptop and turn off your cell phone, iPhone, or BlackBerry while
you are practicing.
Also, be sure that your practice space allows you the privacy to sing and experiment with your voice freely.
Singing while driving your car is unsafe, and it does not count as practicing.
3. Set goals for your practice session.
When you enter the practice room, have specific goals in mind, both large and small. Larger goals are those
that stay with you every time you practice, such as learning to sing as effortlessly and expressively as possible.
Smaller goals might include giving specific attention to various physical aspects of your singing (alignment,
breath, neck, jaw, tongue, etc.). Or maybe you learn the pitches and rhythms of a new piece on a single vowel, while trying
to further master the diction, phrasing, or dramatic understanding of another.
4. Use your lesson as a blueprint for your practicing.
In addition to making suggestions and correcting errors, your teacher is showing you how to practice. Assume
that what you do in your lesson is what you should do the practice room. Recreate what you and your teacher accomplish in
your lesson by repeating the process on your own. Make it part of your regular behavior and apply it to other aspects of your
Also, if you are studying with a new teacher, ask about continuing to use old vocal exercises and practice habits-what
worked before may not be as useful now.
5. Start over every day.
One of the most important things about being a singer is the ability to find your voice every day. It is tempting
to start your practice session with the tonal and physical memory of where you ended on the previous day, but this can lead
to vocal fatigue and frustration.
6. Warm up gradually.
Singers are breath athletes.
As with any athletic activity, it is important to slowly stretch the muscles of your body and, thus, your instrument. Sing
for a couple of minutes in a comfortable range and then stop, resuming a few minutes later.
This gradual procedure is essential to
your vocal health, and exercising your voice in this way will help you avoid bad habits and physical tension. Eventually,
your endurance and stamina will increase as the muscles of your instrument become stronger, more limber, more responsive,
and more finely coordinated.
7. Set limits for time spent singing and divide it up throughout the day.
While the singing voice is a miraculous and resilient mechanism, its physical limitations are real and should
be taken seriously. For that reason, practice as much as you can every day without becoming vocally fatigued. Opinions vary,
but it is generally accepted that the maximum time spent singing in one day should be two hours. More than this and the muscles
of the vocal apparatus fail to function as efficiently, and you risk that your singing will not be as healthful.
Divide your practice time into increments of 20 or 30 minutes throughout the day, and have the discipline to
stop even when “it feels good.” This ensures that your brain remains alert and that any resulting vocal fold swelling
has the opportunity to subside.
8. Break up your music into manageable sections.
One of the main purposes in practicing is to build muscle coordination, which varies depending on what you are
singing. Especially with new repertoire, your brain will be able to send the proper commands to the body more effectively
if it is sending a limited number of commands at a time.
You can remember only so much, so try practicing each phrase of a song or aria separately until it is accurate
and easy. Then progressively put phrases together until you can sing the whole piece with ease, confidence, and the ability
to think ahead. In the long run, this will be much more successful than singing the piece in its entirety every time you practice
it. Another useful method is to practice the final phrase first, and then work phrase-by- phrase back to the beginning.
9. Find effective ways of practicing without singing.
While singers cannot beneficially sing for the same number of hours as their instrumental counterparts practice,
there are limitless non-singing activities that will contribute to your success. For example, with all of the various languages
in which singers are expected to communicate effectively, language study is a neverending subject that you can always devote
time to. Likewise, you can repeatedly examine and deconstruct song and aria texts to find ever-deeper layers of meaning and
Studying a variety of audio and video recordings of your pieces from different eras can provide you with a wealth
of musical information. They connect you to the legacy of performance traditions and help you to develop your own musical
values and interpretations.
By miming your repertoire, you can routine almost all of the physical and mental activities involved in singing
without actually phonating. This can be done endlessly without costing you any vocal capital. It will train your brain to
send the proper signals and also create positive muscle memory. A good rule of thumb is to think 10 times and sing once. These
types of activities are especially useful if you have long choir, opera, or other rehearsals during a particular day.
10. Memorize your music deliberately and early—and review it often.
Effective memorization is not something that happens accidentally; it takes conscious effort. Rather than memorizing your piece by mindlessly singing it over and over,
try writing the text repeatedly on a piece of paper. It is also effective to memorize the meaning of foreign language texts
while you memorize the pronunciation.
Don’t put off memorizing your music.
The longer you sing it from memory, the more secure and “natural” it will be. Also, review your score constantly
to keep details of the music freshly in mind.
Learning to practice is an integral part
of learning to sing. An improved ability to practice will result in not only greater personal satisfaction in the practice
room, but also greater confidence and success on stage.
Dean Southern is assistant professor of vocal performance at the University of Miami Frost School of Music in
Coral Gables, Fla. He was the author of the series “Distant Voices: Listening to Singers of the Past,” which was
published last year in Classical Singer. He is regularly on the faculty of the American Institute of
Musical Studies in Graz, Austria, and he frequently gives masterclasses at colleges and universities across the country. He
earned a DMA in vocal performance at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he previously served as a professor of voice.
1. Vocal Wisdom: Maxims of Giovanni Battista
Lamperti. Enlarged ed. Transcribed by
William Earl Brown. Edited by Lillian Strongin. New York: Taplinger Publishing Co., 1957,