16 practise habits of successful singers
Would you like to feel more motivated to practise your singing? Use my 16 top tips to help you move forward. Why don’t you have a go today?
I have to say this is one of my personal favourite topics and one of the least talked about professionally. There are techniques for singing and so how it functions that it is mind-boggling. There are CDs and books written from the 1900s up to the present day giving vocal exercises galore.
I also personally think that not every method has the whole truth about singing, but brought together they form a wonderful tapestry of more skills than any singer can take and use.
But what does a singer do with these exercises and how do they know whether they are using them correctly? When as a singer you only hear a portion of your whole sound and never as the audience hear it, how do you judge whether you are getting it right and not just spending time practicing bad habits or simply getting discouraged?
Unlike an instrumentalist, a singer should not be rehearsing for hours on end, especially at full belt. If you really understand how to practise your songs, your learning time can be cut by more than half, leaving valuable time to explore other areas of your performance and work on your craft in other ways.
# 1 Loosen it up
Your first goal in practice is to generally loosen your vocal cord muscles, ligaments and reduce tension. The use of lip trills, speech exercises and siren sounds and hums can loosen up, even out your breath and stretch your ligament range when you are singing. Many singers simply add too much pressure initially or hold their breath and their posture can be slouchy and bad from long days sitting down in the office.
No athlete forces their muscles into submission but too often singers go straight in with singing their songs. Decide whether you are feeling on top form, have had a hard day at work, been unwell lately or are just a little tired as these will all determine how long you may have to warm up for (your head as much as your voice) and what your energy level is likely to be.
# 2 Have a routine
Begin with the exercise routine given to you by your teacher. In the past I sang straight open vowels as it was the traditional approach. Some naturally placed voices (and what I mean by that is a voice whose tone and pitch fit with full access to frequencies and harmonics in the voice) are able to sing in the centre of the vowel and may begin initially with open vowels, but personally I like to use consonants before vowels (as in speech level singing exercises) to fast track that process.
I’m a big fan of new approaches to exercises because we are learning more and more about how to help singers and I really don’t think that an approach that takes years of doing exercises that have little success is a great one.
# 3 Question why
While doing these exercises ask yourself “Why?” Why are you doing this particular exercise? When I asked a group of students at a university why they practiced, answers varied from feeling good, being able to sing the song to “I was actually told to in order to get it right”.
What is that exercise designed to do? If you don’t know ask your teacher, they should be able to give you a valid answer. Why have they chosen it for you? If you have a clear understanding of why you are doing a particular exercise you will be able to build up a reference library of exercises that you can tailor-make to your vocal strengths and weaknesses and not simply act mindlessly singing exercises with little idea of their effect. Exercises can be practiced wrongly and cause as much damage as not doing them at all.
# 4 Start quiet
Make sure initially you are not practising too loudly at the start, but only increase the “leaning” and “pressing” or volume aspect once your muscles can respond without constriction in the throat or locking the breath.
# 5 Little by little
Little by little increase volume in a balanced way so that all of the vocal range will sympathetically come together. No blasting the bottom at the expense of the top and vice versa.
# 6 Find a private space
If you share a house or find it difficult to get some “alone” time, consider hiring a church hall or room to practice in. This is a great way to simply let off steam. Sing your heart out, test whether you are actually a bigger voice holding yourself back through trying not to disturb the neighbour .
# 7 Slow it down
Slow exercises down if you need to concentrate on sections of the voice that need extra work. For example you may be singing an exercise and flip in the middle over the break, or it goes a little woolly. Simply stop, repeat the exercise and pay more attention to the sensations you are feeling. If it continues try another exercise, walk around, change something rather than ignore what is going on.
# 8 Be thorough
Sometimes it better to just practice one exercise for 10 minutes really thoroughly, thinking of the sensations, rather than whip through a routine which you pay little attention to.
# 9 Move!
Walk around, swing your arms, move in your practice time and make a habit of making sure you are not increasing tension at any point.
# 10 Change it up
I often advise singers when practicing songs or exercises to stop at the “stuck” point and change the rhythm or take few notes out of context and play with it. Add a different vowel/consonant combination, look at it from a different angle rather than simply singing it straight through.
# 11 Drive carefully
Lots of students (adult learners!) practise in the car. I’ve done it too… but a word of caution: combined with the road noise and obvious lack of concentration and mobility, realise it is a far from ideal method. You would be better using hums and sirens that don’t require much singing out.
# 12 Refine, refine, refine
As you get more advanced at practise you will come to realise it is more about the detail and working little by little into odd, specific areas than pounding the pavement, bashing out lots and lots of exercises. Listen out for areas of the voice that need refinement and look for exercises that deal specifically with these areas.
# 13 Be open to suggestions
There are many methods that work effectively depending on your learning style.
# 14 Keep a diary or practise journal
See if you can find consistent areas that seem to crop up time and time again.
# 15 Clear your head
At the end of detailed practise go away for 10 minutes, clear your head and then simply sing for pleasure. Practise is about training muscle memory and increasing stamina and flexibility of your voice, but performance is about connecting and communicating the song to the audience out there. So to test whether things are improving, go away and come back and simply sing the piece through. You will soon be able to tell if you’ve fixed that section or if more practise is required.
# 16 Try it three times and move on
That’s my rule. If I try something three times in different ways and it’s still not working, I move on. It’s important that your brain doesn’t get “stuck” but that you have time to come back to it at a later date.
Example 30-minute routine:
- 5 minutes – stretch, move, get head in the right frame of mind, use siren sounds, lip trills etc to get the breathing and flexibility going.
- 10 minutes – moving from gentle exercising into moderate exercising that deals with specific areas in the voice.
- 10 minutes – song work – one song only. Begin with areas that need work if you have sung it before and avoid singing it over and over again.
- Use the 80/20 rule using sounds in the songs like lip trills, hums, consonant and vowel combinations to find where the voice needs to adjust. Then take a two-minute breather.
- The last 5 minutes – sing through as if it doesn’t matter. Just perform it and you will soon see where work needs to be done another time.
Please leave me your comments and what your favourite practise tips are!