Courtesy of AMEB
1. Use a metronome
The metronome. The metronome is especially useful when practising technical work. Many students aren’t aware that their scales and arpeggios are not rhythmically secure. There may be a tendency to rush on the way down and to drag on the way up. Being able to present technical work at an even and consistent tempo is very important. So practise with the metronome!
2. Record yourself
I find recording myself one of the best ways to get into a ‘performance mindset’. Also, listening to yourself perform helps you hear issues you may not even be aware of while you’re singing. Problems with intonation, tempo and articulation become abundantly clear when you hear yourself being played back. Sometimes what you hear can be really encouraging too – in those moments where you might not have been aware you were singing so well!
3. Skip the easy stuff
Let’s face it, we LOVE the easy parts. Don’t waste time practising what you can already sing well. Go right to the problem sections at the start of your practice time and sort them out first. Just singing the easy parts may be fun but it is not productive. Tackle the hard stuff first!
4. Take breaks, lots of breaks
This may seem obvious but how easily we forget. Practising can be physically demanding and often it’s easy to just keep going until you begin to physically tire. But practice also involves a lot of brain work and often we compromise our practice by not giving our brains time to absorb what we have accomplished physically. We’ve all become frustrated by particular sections of the works we’re practising that just don’t work. It’s very important to have regular breaks to refresh the mind. I remember one of my teachers saying that I should be having a break from practice every half hour! Go for a walk, have a snack, a cup of tea, or anything to let your brain rest from all that concentration. You’ll soon see that taking regular breaks makes a real difference to the effectiveness of your practice.
5. Practise silently in your head
Similar to number 4, more and more evidence supports the effectiveness of mental practice. Especially effective when you need a physical break, try mentally practising by closing your eyes and in detail imagining playing your piece, note by note, phrase by phrase. Try repeating tricky passages, slow them down and really imagine the experience of performing the piece. One piano teacher I know suggested playing pieces on the piano lid, or on a coffee table to sharpen up mental focus. Some professional musicians can even learn entire pieces away from their instrument. Practise on your daily commute or in a quiet space of time in your day, you’ll see improvement!
6. Use a mirror
Playing any instrument requires a great deal of physicality. Our bodies often look for the easiest positions to hold, generally those that use the least energy but are not often the best for playing. I find practising in front of a mirror helps me check my stance, my hand positions and other key indicators that can prevent fatigue and injury over long periods of time. Singing teachers, for example, often recommend singing in front of a mirror to check posture and relaxation, tongue position, unnecessary movement etc.
Memorisation is a valuable skill and being able to play through a piece from memory gives you freedom and confidence in performance. The printed score can be a crutch and can hamper expression. Memorisation can also be very useful for confronting nerves: with the score gone there is no safety net, you have to get the notes right. Proving to yourself that you can play the piece without the score is definitely confidence boosting. When you are memorising music try to play through the piece in your head away from your instrument. If you’ve really properly memorised a piece you should be able to sit down with a piece of manuscript paper (or a software program like Sibelius) and write it out. Don’t just rely on finger memory because this is what tends to fail when you are under the pressure of a performance. Know the notes as well as the fingerings.
8. Play as much as you can
Don’t just learn your set pieces. Study as many pieces as you can – even if you don’t learn every piece up to an exam standard of performance. This will increase your musical awareness and improve your sight-reading.
9. Make music with other musicians whenever you can
Get involved making music with other players whenever you can. If you are a pianist, play for a singer or with someone learning an orchestral instrument. If you are a string or wind player there are so many wonderful duets, trios and quartets you can play. Join a choir. You will learn ensemble skills, how to phrase and breathe with other players and singers, and gain a knowledge of how your part fits into the whole. Again, musical awareness and sight-reading can be developed significantly by making music with others.
10. Perform as much as you can
Everyone gets nervous performing. However, the more you do it the more your confidence develops. Over time, performing begins to feel like a very natural thing to do. Play to your family and friends. Grandparents are good because they never get tired of listening to you play! Look for opportunities to perform at school, in eisteddfods and competitions. Doing an exam can be daunting if you have very limited performance experience. And an exam should really be like a performance. Don’t just play to your teacher. The more you play for other people the more confident you will be when exam time comes around.
SPECIFICALLY FOR VOICE
For singers the whole body is our instrument and the most important part of that instrument is the larynx. It is therefore very important for singers to maintain the health of their bodies so that they perform to the best of their abilities.
Most voice care professionals agree that the following suggestions are very important for maintaining and protecting your instrument – your voice.
1. Keep your larynx well hydrated by having frequent sips of water throughout the day. Aim for around 8 glasses of water per day. Other fluids such as tea, coffee and soft drinks can be quite dehydrating so should not replace your intake of water.
2. Try to avoid throat clearing. Swallow instead. Don’t overuse throat lozenges or cough mixtures as they dry out the throat. Water is better.
3. Conserve your voice when you can. Avoid long periods of loud talking, screaming or shouting. Limit the amount of time that you talk over noise, eg at school socials, in buses.
4. Do not smoke! Limit the time you spend in smoky rooms.
5. Limit the amount of talking and singing during colds and other respiratory infections.
6. Avoid using a forced whisper, especially when you have a cold. It is less stressful on the vocal folds to use a soft, breathy voice.
7. Maintain overall good health. Eat a well-balanced diet, get plenty of sleep and have regular exercise.
8. When practicing, establish a routine of warming up before you start and cooling down at the end. Lip/tongue trills and scales are excellent. Don’t forget some deep breathing and stretching.
9. Listen to you singing teacher’s advice and enjoy your singing!
SUGGESTED ACTIVITIES FOR PRACTICE
1. Listen to your CD. This can be done passively (even while you are getting dressed) and actively (with your music and/or words in front of you.). You don’t always have to be singing to rehearse.
2. Practise your scales and vocalises (eg Sing Legato, Vocalize!, Diack, Vaccai).
3. Sing the melodies of your songs to solfa and different sounds (eg lah, doo and lip/tongue trills). Use the melody-only tracks of your CD where they are available. Don’t always sing your songs all the way through. Concentrate on the phrases you find difficult. Work out where you need to breathe and where the phrases are.
4. Go through the words of your songs. Write them out as poetry, read them dramatically, read them silently, record them and listen to them. Think about the meaning of the words. Look up any unfamiliar words in the dictionary. If in another language, know their meaning.
5. Sing your songs with and without the backing tracks. Unaccompanied practice and practice with the melody only will help you make sure you are singing in tune.