Judy Rodman - All Things Vocal Blog

Training & insights for stage and studio singers, speakers, vocal coaches and producers from professional vocal coach and author of "Power, Path & Performance" vocal training method.

Monday, February 7, 2011

What a Piano Can Teach a Voice




It is common sense that rehearsal and practice are absolutely necessary if we want our vocal performances to have impact. However, good vocal practice skills - just like academic study skills - are vital. I recently met a great blogger who is a brilliant piano player and I asked if she had any practice tips that would help singers. Her name is Maria Rainier and she wrote the following excellent guest post:

While I was studying piano performance and taking voice lessons in college, I heard it over and over: voice teachers asking piano teachers for the secret to getting students to practice. It’s certainly not true for every piano and voice student, but in general, pianists practice more. At school, I saw piano majors in the practice rooms around the clock, but voice students seemed to use the practice rooms just to warm up for lessons. And I was no different – I spent about five hours a day, seven days a week on piano practice and two hours a week on vocal practice. That’s a huge disparity, and most of it was due to my greater interest in piano, but there’s something about being a piano student that demands consistent and successful practice. 

Of course, there are many factors to consider when translating the piano practice mindset to the world of voice. Practicing for five consecutive hours, for example, is out of the question for many vocalists because overworking the vocal cords is unhealthy and it’s easy to run out of breath. But some of the mental preparation, endurance, and focus that pianists rely on when they practice can be useful to vocalists. The following are some aspects of the practice mindset that became second nature to me when I was a full-time piano student and I hope that they offer you some vocal practice breakthroughs.

Plan Ahead & Set Goals

Planning your practice session and setting goals for it should be done at the same time. Think about what you want to accomplish and how much time you have to devote to your session. If you’re planning your practice day, you might break it up into two or more sessions, depending on your schedule. Set specific goals for each one. For example, I might have a new piece to memorize, so I would set a reasonable goal such as playing through the entire piece several times and memorizing the first page. Avoid working on one piece for the duration of the session. This helps you to get a big picture idea of where you are in your mastery of the pieces you’re working on rather than pushing you ahead on one and dragging you behind on others. It also keeps your mind refreshed and ready to focus on the next task. Once you’ve set your practice session goals, you’re ready to move on to the next step.

Warm Up Deliberately

Based on your practice session plan and goals, choose warm-up exercises that will prepare you for the specific music you’ve decided to work on. For example, if I needed to practice Chopin’s Harp Etude, I would choose a few warm-up exercises that focus on arpeggios because they are the main substance of the piece. By identifying one intrinsic element of the music you want to practice, you can find warm-up exercises that will prepare you for that element when you encounter it in the pieces you’re practicing. This not only warms you up properly, but it also prepares you mentally and physically for the exact type of technical challenges you’ll find in the music you practice.

Stay Relaxed

If you feel your body tensing or your muscles tightening, stop and relax. Do breathing exercises and simple yoga poses in the practice room. Don’t worry about how you might appear to anyone else – just get your body back into a relaxed state so you won’t injure yourself or suffer stiffness later on. Practicing with a tense body is one of the worst things you can do and it will turn you off to consistent practice because of the discomfort and limited success that result from it. My entire studio attended yoga classes twice a week and we all practiced yoga on our own, both at home and in the practice room. It made an incredible difference in the comfort level and degree of success we experienced in practice sessions.

Get It Right

Practice with strong focus and be present in each moment. Don’t let mistakes go unnoticed and don’t ignore them when you do notice them. A recurring mistake means that you’re literally practicing incorrectly. What is practice but repetition? Avoid repeating mistakes because you’ll learn them and it will be difficult to change them later. Instead, stop as soon as you notice a mistake and practice getting it right. Practice coming into it from a few measures before it occurs and memorize the problem section correctly. Now, execute it correctly three times in a row before moving on. Do this each and every time you notice something incorrect about your performance, and you’ll notice that your practice sessions are more successful. This alone is great motivation to keep practicing.

Communicate

In the end, it’s not all about correctness. You need to communicate with your audience and make them feel something. This means that you need to work on making yourself feel something when you practice. Once you have built the technique to perform correctly, you can experiment with communicating different emotions. Listen to the music and let it speak to you. This can be done by changing the tempo of the music, playing it at a different dynamic level, isolating the melody, or any combination of these approaches. Every piece of music has something to say, and once you’ve heard it, you can interpret it for others. This communication begins with practice.

Bio: Maria Rainier is a freelance writer and blog junkie. She is currently a resident blogger at First in Education, researching the best paying engineering degrees and what it means for the gender wage gap. In her spare time, she enjoys square-foot gardening, swimming, and avoiding her laptop.

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