Back-to-School, Back-to-Practicing!

Whether you’ve been looking forward to September for a while or are still in denial that it’s here, there’s no denying that back-to-school season means a big change of pace for many people.  Our lives are suddenly more routine-ful and our schedules busier; we have more commitments, more homework, and perhaps longer work hours; and, it often feels, less time.

If you haven’t already, now is a good time to give some thought to your back-to-school routine so you don’t feel overwhelmed by all the additional things that are suddenly in your schedule.  At the very least, establishing a sustainable schedule for basic things like sleeping, eating, and homework will help you to fall into a comfortable rhythm much more quickly.

It’s also a good time to think about your back-to-school practicing routine!  Maybe you kept a good practice routine over the summer, or maybe you took a break from singing; no matter what, your practice routine is probably going to look different now than it has over the past two months.

My practice routine! you think.  That’s pretty much the last thing on my mind with everything else I’ve got going on right  now.

Maybe so.  However, it would behoove you to think about it now, rather than wait until all the other aspects of your life settle down.  Why?

The longer you wait to establish a practice routine, the harder it is going to be.  Think about it – you make a schedule for everything else in your life, and the hours fill up.  Two or three weeks go by, and when you try to add something else in, there’s all of a sudden no time for it.  You try a few times, but you’re so busy that practicing always feels like an afterthought, that thing you don’t really have time for.  Oh well, you think.  I guess I don’t have time for practicing after all.  Maybe I should put my voice lessons on hold.

Noooo!  Don’t do that!

Okay, fair enough, you say.  But I don’t know where to start!

Back-to-School Basics

First, start incorporating practicing into your weekly routine as soon as possible.  Even if you don’t have any lessons scheduled yet.  If you’re really busy these first couple weeks and can only swing 3-4 short practice sessions a week, that’s definitely better than nothing, and is enough to brush up on your skills before your lessons begin.

If you’re struggling to feel motivated, take some time to think about what your goals are.  Why did you decide to take lessons in the first place?  What accomplishments do you feel good about from last year?  What are you hoping to accomplish this year?  Think about something you can address with your teacher, even if it’s just a question you have or something you’re curious about – as long as it motivates you.  Having some kind of concrete goal in mind will give you something to focus on in your practicing.

Get back to your lessons as soon as possible.  This will motivate you to practice more and get into a groove more quickly.  If you wait until mid-to-late September (or later) to reach out to your teacher, her schedule might be full and it may take another week or two to book a lesson.  Even if you do manage to book a time right away, keep in mind that it will take 2-3 lessons to really get the momentum going again.  Do you really want it to be mid-October – at which point the semester is already half over – before that happens?

Once You’ve Started…

Devise a reasonable schedule for yourself.  It’s good to be ambitious, but be careful not to bite off more than you can chew.  If you set your sights too high, you could start to feel overwhelmed or burned out.  Make sure your goals are realistic and attainable.

Stick to your schedule as best you can.  Good habits can only be built with consistency.  Sure, there are times when you will fall off the wagon, but if that happens, get right back on.  Don’t use one “failure” as an excuse to stop altogether.  Cut yourself some slack, and re-focus on your goals.

Plan ahead.  I’m talking weeks and, if possible, months in advance.  If you know, for example, that your school musical rehearsal schedule will eat up most weekday afternoons starting in November, make sure you are communicating with your teacher well enough ahead of time about a schedule change for your lessons, and adjusting your practicing routine.  If you do not give this some thought ahead of time, it will be very hard for everyone to adjust once it creeps up on you, and you will suddenly be “too busy” for voice lessons.  NEWS FLASH: you are not too busy.  You just didn’t plan ahead, and now you feel overwhelmed.

Stay healthy.  This means getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, drinking lots of water, exercising regularly, and preventing sickness inasmuch as you are able.  Remember to be mindful of your mental health too.  Give yourself time to decompress, especially when you’re really busy, and try not to fall into negative thinking.

Back-to-school season can feel overwhelming, but just remember: stay focused on your goals, and be disciplined but realistic with your schedule.  Just keep truckin’, and it will be Christmas break before you know it!

Do You Get Bored During Vocal Warm-ups?

Virtually every singer knows that vocal warm-ups are an important part of any practice session.  Just like the athlete has to warm up his muscles before training, singers need to warm up their instruments in order to prevent fatigue and/or injury.  Hopefully you have a complete, consistent warm-up routine that can get your voice going quickly and effectively; if not, speak to your voice teacher about what your warm-up routine should look like.

Recently, I wrote a post about the purpose of warm-ups: the why’s, the what’s, and the how’s.  If you haven’t read it, I recommend doing so before diving into this post.

Knowing that warm-ups are important and why, you would think that all singers would execute their warm-ups with thought and care all the time.

Sadly, this is not the case.  I’ve taught many a student who just zones out after the first few repetitions of the warm-up, forgetting all my instruction and thus falling short of the warm-up’s intended goal.

Now, in the students’ defense, warm-ups are pretty repetitive.  You sing the same pattern over, and over, and over again, all throughout your range – I get it; it’s easy for the brain to disengage when you appear to feeding it the same information again and again.  It’s like those endless homework assignments your math teacher assigns you: why do I have to do 100 problems, you think, if I’ve proven I’ve mastered the concept after doing just 5?

Vocal warm-ups are not like those repetitive math assignments, however.  Singing is not a one-skill event, ever.  Unlike a math problem, you cannot just apply the same formulaic approach to every repetition of every warm-up.  Your brain has to be engaged constantly – with the right things – for the warm-up to be effective.

So how can you keep yourself from getting bored and zoning out during warm-ups?

  1. Be mindful of the basics – i.e., posture and breathing.  If you think about nothing else, at least make sure these foundational elements are in place.  If you start singing with a collapsed rib cage, gaspy inhales, or shallow breaths, chances are you’ve gone on auto-pilot.  It could also mean that you’re tired, or concentrating so hard on something else that you’ve forgotten about them.  Whatever the case, back up and reset.
  2. Be mindful of the warm-up’s intended purpose.  What is the goal of the exercise?  Breath management?  Articulation?  Smooth registration?  Every time you sing a new repetition – that’s a single segment of a single warm-up, by the way – ask yourself, “Did I achieve the goal for this exercise?”  If the answer is no, do that repetition again, and again, and don’t move on to until you’ve achieved it.  Yes, it might take forever to work this way, and no, you will not have the time or vocal stamina to do this every day.  But you must do it frequently nonetheless.  This is how we build technique.
  3. Be mindful of where you are in your range, and make technical adjustments accordingly.  It’s easy to go on auto-pilot and, whoops, we’re already in high-note land!  And you haven’t adjusted your breath or your resonance, and so your high notes start to tank.  Again, warm-ups are different from the one-approach-fits-all math problems: different parts of your range require different things from your body, even if it’s all the same pattern.
  4. If your teacher gives you an instruction during your warm-ups, you must assume, unless told otherwise, that that instruction applies to every repetition of that warm-up.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve reminded a student “silent inhale,” and they do it only for that repetition, forgetting about the instruction literally 5 seconds later when we’ve moved up or down one half step.

Building Mental Focus

If you haven’t realized this already, singing involves a lot of mental discipline.  It takes time to develop this kind of focus. 

  • If you find yourself getting mentally tired after a couple warm-ups, take a break for a few minutes, and come back when you feel fresh again.  It’s better to do this than to sing your warm-ups mindlessly with poor technique.
  • Make sure that your practice space facilitates focus.  If it’s too hot/cold/noisy/small/big/depressing/dry/smelly/whatever, and you don’t enjoy being in it, you’re going to have a hard time focusing on your singing.  Make sure your space is comfortable and meets all your needs.
  • Consider minimizing distractions.  Distracted by your phone?  Put it on silent and out of reach – in the next room, even.  Find yourself gazing out the window too much?  Pull the shade down or face the other direction.  Family members getting in the way?  Consider practicing when they’re not home, or request that they stay out of your practice space.

Just remember: be patient and honest with yourself.  Practicing can be tedious at times, but the reward is well worth it!

audition tips

The Last-Minute Audition

 

Consider the following scenario: you decide to try out for your school musical.  They announce that the auditions are just days away.  They either give you a few excerpts from the show that they’d like everyone to prepare, or they tell you you can sing whatever you want.

You’ve never had a voice lesson before, or been in a show, and you feel you need some help preparing for this audition.  So you go online, Google “voice lessons in [town x],” and contact the first teacher who comes up.  You set up a lesson with him or her, and are hoping the teacher can work some magic to help you land the role you want.

Or, consider this alternate scenario:

You auditioned for last year’s school musical, and didn’t get in.  This year, you’ve begun working with a voice teacher ahead of time in order to prepare.  You schedule extra lessons and coachings leading up to the audition, work your behind off, and… you still don’t get in.  Your teacher tells you that you should be proud regardless of the outcome, because you’ve made tons of great progress in the past weeks/months, but you’re still frustrated, and feel that you spent a lot of time and money on lessons for nothing.  You decide to “take a break” from lessons.

If you can relate to either or both of these situations, you’re not alone.  They are incredibly common.

Voice teachers are usually happy to help their students with upcoming audition materials, even if it is somewhat last-minute.  They understand that schools don’t always allow students a lot of time to prepare, and also understand how much it means to their students to land a role in their school’s show.

The Problem, However…

In scenario #1, the student is at an immediate disadvantage because of the school’s short notice.  I applaud the student’s instinct to seek the help of a voice teacher; however, the student must realize that working with a voice teacher is not a guarantee that you will land the role you want – especially if it is just a single lesson, right before the audition.  Many students come to these one-time lessons or coachings thinking that the teacher can work some magic, or give the student a “silver bullet” solution to landing the desired role.  And they are disappointed when the audition results come out.

In scenario #2, the student has made the decision to work consistently with a voice teacher toward a concrete goal – a decision which I also applaud.  It’s likely that, in addition to working toward the audition, the teacher has also helped the student to progress in other ways.  However, upon receiving the disappointing audition results, it’s clear that the student has fallen into two common traps: the first is that she became so goal-centered as to be blind to the other benefits – and the real purpose – of voice lessons; and the second is that she expected her work with a voice teacher to guarantee her a role in the musical.

The student in scenario #1 doesn’t realize that developing technique takes time and consistent lessons with a good teacher in order to take hold; the student in scenario #2 doesn’t understand what the purpose of voice lessons and a voice teacher actually are.  Both students also need to realize that there’s a heck of a lot more that goes into casting decisions than just how well you sing – you need have the voice type, body type, acting abilities, and/or dance/movement skills the directors are looking for.  There are also issues of personality dynamics, reputation, work ethic, and – sadly – school/organizational politics.

Our Advice: Remember…

  1. Your teacher is not a magician.  Even a highly experienced, qualified voice teacher cannot work miracles.
  2. You need to practice.  That means practice now, last week, last month, tomorrow, next week, and in the weeks and months to come.  Building technique takes time, and giving a strong audition is a skill that does not come overnight.

Additional Advice:

  • If you are interested in music/theater and know you will want to take auditions, consider finding a voice teacher now, rather than waiting until an audition opportunity presents itself.
  • If you find yourself in a last-minute audition situation, go for it, if you wish, and do the best you can.  Schedule a lesson beforehand, if possible, and synthesize as much of your teacher’s advice as you can.  Practice, practice, practice in the little time you have.
  • Remember that neither working with a teacher nor hours of practicing guarantees or entitles you to anything.  Casting is a highly multi-faceted process.  If you don’t get cast, it doesn’t necessarily mean you were terrible – it just means that you weren’t the right fit for this particular opportunity.
  • If the audition results do not come out in your favor, use the whole thing as a learning experience.  Assess what went well, what could have gone better, and what you can improve upon for the next time.  Having a positive attitude makes a world of difference.

If you want to find a qualified teacher but don’t know where to start other than Google, you can search the teacher databases at nats.org or learningmusician.com.  Or, contact Kim or Ellen here at Rising Stars to get your lessons started!

 

goals

Back to Basics, Part 2: Vocal Warm-ups

We’ve all done them, or at the very least, heard them before: the endless patterns, scales, and weird noises that singers use as vocal warm-ups. While, to the untrained ear, we may sound like dying cats or like we’re screaming bloody murder, any experienced singer will tell you that warm ups are absolutely essential to a good practice session or performance.

This is true, of course. But why? 

Most young or inexperienced singers will say that warm-ups are essential to “get your voice going.”  While this is perhaps the most basic aim of warm-up exercises, an effective warm-up routine must consist of at least these three goals: 

Goal #1: “Lining Up” the Voice

This initial part of a singer’s practice routine is usually what people are referring to when they say “get the voice going.”  However, the point is not simply to use your voice.  You must execute your exercises with thought, attention to detail, and self-awareness. 

This stage usually begins with some stretches and an alignment check, and then energizing the breath in some way.  (Check out this video for posture tips, and this one for breathing exercises!)

When you begin to sing, choose an exercise that will help to connect breath to sound right away (voiced consonants like z or v are great for this).  As you sing, you want to make sure the various parts of your mechanism are released (throat, jaw, tongue, soft palate, etc.).  Use a variety of vowels, and travel up and down your range, feeling the changes in resonance.  (For a few suggestions, check out this video!)

Goal #2: Technical Specifics

Once you’ve ensured the voice is functioning properly, start to think about specific techniques.  What technical ideas have you been working on in your lessons lately?  What problems have you been trying to fix?  Choose warm-ups that will help you work on these things – perhaps some of the same exercises you did in your most recent lessons.  The main idea here is that every exercise have a specific purpose.

 

Goal #3: Preparing for Specific Rep

What songs will you be working on that day?  If it’s something with a lot of high notes, you should make sure you stretch up there.  If your song has lots of staccato, make sure you include some in your warm-ups.  If it’s got lots of runs, long scales should be a part of your routine.

 

How Long Should I Spend on Warm-ups?

The answer to this question varies depending on the level of the student, his or her vocal abilities, the demands of his or her rep, and other considerations.  In a 30-minute practice session, I would advise spending 10-15 minutes on warm-ups, and the rest on repertoire.  In a longer practice session, 15-20 minutes is fairly standard for more advanced students.

Other Important Considerations:

Your warm-up routine should be consistent, yet evolve with your vocal needs.  In other words, have a regimen of exercises that serve your needs and goals for right now; as your technique grows, you may find that certain exercises no longer serve a purpose or are not stretching you enough.  This is completely normal.  Work with your teacher to find new exercises that will suit your needs.

You should keep your day’s voice use in mind when warming up and practicing, and monitor how your voice is feeling.  You may find, for example, that your voice gets tired on days when you have school chorus.  This means you should consider doing a lighter warm-up that day, so as not over-tax your voice.  Or, if you know you will be singing a lot in your evening production rehearsal, you may choose to scale back your practicing session to save some voice.  In these cases, the primary goal is usually to do what is necessary to get things connected and functioning properly, and then move on.  

If you find that a certain exercise just isn’t working, re-assess how you’re feeling/what’s happening and try something else.  It’s better to abandon something that doesn’t feel good than to keep going and work more tension and bad habits into your voice.  You could just be having a bad voice day.  It’s frustrating, but it happens.

You do not need to warm up to the extremes of your range every day.  You should choose one exercise to stretch your stratosphere (or your basement) a couple times a week, but you shouldn’t sing up there every day, especially if you are young/new to singing.  Singing in these areas of your range too much can be extremely demanding on the voice.  Unless you are singing rep in which these notes are required, it’s not essential to exercise them every day.

In General…

Remember – specificity is key!  It’s better to do fewer exercises – each with a specific goal – than to do more exercises without a purpose in mind.Curious to learn more?  Contact us with any questions, or, better yet – sign up for lessons!

 

sight reading tips

Sight Reading 101

In our last post, we discussed the ins and outs of choral auditions – what to expect, how to prepare, and what directors are looking for.  We discovered that one common aspect of choral auditions is that experience that virtually all singers dread: sight-reading.

What is sight-reading?  

Sight-reading is when you are handed a piece of music you have never seen before and must sing through it then and there, without having spent any time learning it.  You’re usually given a few minutes to glance it over, which allows you to work out a handful of crucial details and gives you a general sense of what you’re up against, but not much more.   Read more

good performing techniques

The Mixology of a Good Performance

Have you ever sat there in the audience, listening to a singer who maybe *sounds* good enough, but whose stage presence is just… awkward?  I’m talking hapless, seemingly random gestures, a deer-in-headlights look, a wild lack of visual focus, and/or an obviously huge emotional disconnect from what they are singing about.  Yes? Read more