How To Practice the Voice as a Musical Instrument
One of the most often asked questions from voice students is how to practice. The answer to this quandary depends on what your short and long-term objectives are and how much time you can allocate for the purpose of reaching your musical goals. Since the voice is quite vulnerable to wear and tear, it is important to keep in mind that practice time must be limited in order to preserve vocal health.
In fact, all musicians need to be cautious of extensive muscle repetition. It’s nice to be enthusiastic but overdoing it can provoke fatigue, injury or more severe problems requiring medical attention.
But there are many musicianship skills that can be practiced without playing your instrument. These competencies should be folded into your daily practice regimen, as they will ultimately contribute to your overall musical profile. Here are some tips for vocalists on how to practice:
1. Write Down Your Goals
The first and most important thing to do is write down all your goals as a musician including performing, teaching, composing, arranging, authoring books, etc. If your aspirations include more than one instrument make a priority list including all venues that will complete your professional dream profile.
For some of us it can be many things at once like performance, teaching, studio work, authoring books and a practice day that can include voice, drums, trumpet, flute, puccolo (whistling) and acoustic bass. You can further break these down by style if your musical tastes and proficiencies are diverse (eg: classical trumpet, jazz vocals, R&B drums, etc).
2. Envision the Future & Prepare For It
Next, imagine yourself in 5 years and 10 years and list the scenarios you envision as a performer, teacher, etc. (eg: teaching college level musicianship skills to vocalists, writing a book on body drumming, playing drums in a contemporary jazz-funk band, playing trumpet in a brass ensemble, touring as a lead or background vocalist with a famous rock band, etc.).
Now list all the things you will need to do to reach your short-term and long-term goals.
Take some time to research the things you need to reach your goals. This will take some research in addition to imagination. But somewhere along these two paths the word “practice” will inevitable appear. After all, it’s how you get to Carnegie Hall! The first subheading under “PRACTICE” should be the word “WHAT” followed by “WHEN,” “HOW” and perhaps “WHERE” (particularly if you are a drummer or play the tuba). “WHY” is moot if you are truly a dedicated musician who is drawn like a moth to the flame.
What you need to practice should include a list of resources provided by the teacher(s) you decide to study with.
If you have no formal schooling you might want to start with ear training and basic theory and harmony-for these skills you will need to become familiar with the piano or guitar. If you already have some musical training and/or performance experience, ask your teacher for a list of appropriate textbooks.
This should include technical studies, etudes, repertoire, solo transcriptions, play-along CD’s, orchestral excerpts, rudiments/patterns, stylistic literature, etc. You can build this list gradually as you go along but these books will be permanent fixtures in your practice woodshed! If you don’t read music yet there are plenty of CD sing-along resources available for rote learning.
3. Learn How to Practice
Finally we come to HOW to practice and It’s very important to prime your vocal cords at the beginning of each day. 90 MINUTE SAMPLE PRACTICE PLAN FOR SINGERS
Vocal Warm-up: (10 minutes) You should have a few rotating routines because it’s very important to prime your vocal cords at the beginning of each day for whatever rigors you plan to put them through. Melodic Ear Training: (10 minutes) Using a keyboard or guitar for support, practice singing all melodic intervals. Play a note, sing the interval to the next note by ear, check accuracy by playing the target note on the piano (or guitar). Rhythmic Ear Training: (10 minutes) Purchase a metronome and practice written (or recorded) syncopated rhythmic patterns at various tempos using prescribed vocal syllable articulations, tapping, clapping or playing a practice drum pad with sticks (highly suggested). Harmonic Ear Training: (10 minutes) Theory and harmony are rather dense topics but nevertheless essential tools for all musicians in training. The best way to learn how to hear harmony is to practice playing triads, 7th chords and 7th chords with extensions in all keys. Learn how to voice these configurations on the piano or guitar in all keys. Characteristic Patterns/Etudes: (10 minutes) Instrumentalists have the advantage of having many resources as there are few books with contemporary patterns and etudes for voice. To practice scat singing more effectively, simply adapt instrumental technique books by adding vocal syllables to the various examples beginning with the Arban Trumpet Method. Repertoire: (30 minutes) Your repertoire should include all the songs you plan to perform but may also include vocal works that will help you develop better technique and increase your library of musical styles and languages. There are too many books with standard vocal literature to mention here so this should be determined by your teacher. Break Time: (10 minutes) Interspersed as needed throughout the practice session.
Final Helpful Hints:
Singers have different endurance thresholds but it is my opinion that you should not sing for more than 90 minutes per session and no more than 3 hours total per day. Also make sure to take intermittent breaks to keep your voice from tiring or becoming damaged.
One trick I learned is to always combine practice objectives whenever possible to make the most of the time you have. For example, you can practice playing different chord types and voicings on piano or guitar during your warm-up.
Most vocal warm-up patterns move chromatically (in half-steps) so this gives you the opportunity to practice both harmonic ear training and basic piano skills simultaneously. If piano or guitar is your second instrument then you can study theory and harmony on those instruments while you rest your voice.
Rhythmic ear training can be accomplished with a drum pad and a pair of sticks. There’s no need to sing everything you need to practice!