Intentional Practice: My Guide to Making the Post of Practice Time (without the arguing!)

Ohhhh practicing. The bane of (most) music parents’ existence! You spend all this time and money on your kids’ lessons and yet they just. Refuse. To practice! You feel like you’re just pouring money down the drain since they’re not progressing they way they otherwise could be, and you’re just tired of fighting with them to do it. And a lack of preparation often leads to a lack of engagement and withdrawal from lessons, not to mention extreme stress come performance time!

I don’t know if there’s a worse feeling as a performer than going on stage feeling like you’re not prepared- Will I remember the words? What if I miss my entrance? How long is that musical interlude again? Will I get the high note in tune? Will I run out of breath on the money note?! SO many things go through your head, when if we just practiced, we’d feel confident, ready and even excited to get up there and share our music! And these things apply to singers of all ages, too, not just young beginners!

I remember as a kid I was signed up for no less than three choirs at a time, orchestra, private singing, piano and violin lessons, dance classes and then add school musicals, other performances and homework into the mix- things were crazy! I always felt like I had so much practicing to do on top of all of the rehearsals and lessons just to keep up and be prepared. I also liked my privacy when I practiced so I could make a mistake without fear of judgement (which never went away, even when I trained in college and university!), so I would only do it when I had the house or practice space to myself. And then there was the problem of finding the time to do that, in privacy, five times a week for all three of my instruments. I felt like I never had time to just relax or do fun things, at least not without the guilt of “I should be practicing!” I put so much pressure on myself that I started resenting my practice time instead of using it as my fun relaxation time. It eventually led to me dropping piano lessons, followed three years later by violin lessons, just to prioritize what was most meaningful to me once homework and rehearsals became a greater part of my life in high school. And how I regret both of those decisions! I so wish I had continued, with the piano especially, because now, as an adult, I love every opportunity I get to make music and wish I had more than one instrument to do that on confidently and competently. It’s a release from “real life” and my vehicle for self-expression. So, why wasn’t I able to find that as a kid? Mainly because I didn’t know how to practice and use it effectively to see ongoing progress and really enjoy that process.


It all comes down to being intentional. You have to be clear where, when, what, how and why you practice, and the enjoyment will follow! So if you are a singer, or any musician for that matter, or a parent of one, I highly recommend using this guide as a way of making practice in your house more effective and ease up on the arguing to make it consistent and more fun!


Where

You must find a quiet space, free from distractions, equipped with all of the resources you need before you begin. This can be a bedroom, although if you’re like me, they can be a gateway to distraction! I recommend using a quiet formal living space, an office or dining room- a place with no foot traffic from the rest of the household, away from all personal temptations. And yes, this means leaving your phone in another room or putting it on do not disturb if you’re using it in your practice (another blog post on that another time!). This should be quiet time for the singer without any interruptions. Obviously if you have a piano or keyboard, it’s best to be in the room with it, and a sound system if you need it to play accompaniment tracks.


Make sure all of your required resources are in place before you start so you don’t have to stop mid practice. Do you have all of your sheet music? Lesson notes? Any props you need for technical exercises? Students in my studio may want a mirror, scarf, straw and cup of water for example. Do you have a bottle of water? Any music tracks you need? Get it all in place, and then begin!


When

I always tell my students to aim for five twenty minute practice sessions a week. Obviously some weeks this is easier than others, but something is always better than nothing. 5 minutes a day, 5 times a week leads to 100 minutes a month, which is great to start, but imagine even 20 minutes a day 5 times a week! That ends up being 400 minutes a month and 4,800 a year! Think of the progress that can be made in that time! And if you’re having a day where you’re just not feeling like practicing, do as the great Catherine Robbin, one of my university professors, once told us: just start. Do five minutes and in all likelihood that will inspire you to do more and then twenty minutes or more will fly by!


A way to make this daily task more appealing to the young ones (or anyone, really!) is the tried and true reward of stickers! Have them make a chart with the days of the week, and each time they practice give them a sticker for that day. Not only is it cool to see the practice times line up in a colourful row, it gives you a visual indicator of how frequently you have been practicing. I’ve found in my lessons, the younger singers get so excited to get stickers and it is a fun reward for them that’s simple for parents. It also teaches them responsibility, which is a lifelong skill they can carry with them.


Although it is understandable that certain weeks require you to prioritize other things like exams, family functions, performances, etc., it is crucial that practice time is set aside as a part of your weekly schedule. Don’t leave it like I did for so many years as the thing you do once everything else is done. Trust me, everything else is never done, and if it is it’s probably bedtime. Unfortunately the thirty minutes or hour you sing in your lesson each week just isn’t enough to see progress. So if that is something you’re looking for (which I really hope it is!), you must make time throughout the week to apply the concepts you study with your teacher on your own.


When you choose to practice is up to you- before or after school, in the evenings, whenever works for your and your family is great, as long as you write it in your calendar just as you would any other appointment. Practice won’t just fit in around everything else. If music is an important part of your values and passions, you need to make that time happen! Use it as your break from other things- wouldn’t you far rather sing than do laundry or write a paper?! Then eventually it can become the part of your day that you most look forward to!


What

This is a common topic between my students and me! So many music students just fill the time mindlessly singing songs or exercises without really knowing what they should be practicing. This gets boring very fast, which is why we tend to put off the practice time. After all, what’s the point? Yes, it’s to improve in your technique and ability, but you have to set yourself some goals. This will guide your practice to give it more meaning and will help you see continued progress.


Long term goals might include preparing for a performance, competition or exam, getting a piece ready for a musical audition or even just improving a particular aspect of your technique. Then set weekly short term goals. They should help you build toward whatever long term goal you choose. These goals might involve learning the notes or rhythms to a piece, memorization, working on vowels, diction, breath control or alignment! Talk to your teacher about this and make yourself a guided list each week, as I do with my students. Short term goals should change regularly if you’re keeping up with practice. This is a great way to keep practice sessions interesting, so you don’t get bored doing the same thing over and over. You just have to be specific!


For younger students, the “what” of practice might even be games! I spend so much time being silly and turning exercises into fun activities and games in our lessons and this should absolutely be transferred to practice time at home! Practicing really, truly should be fun! So parents, get involved in your child’s practice time- let them teach you something, or play a singing game with them! If you’re curious about what you can do, talk to your child’s teacher and I’m sure they can give you some recommendations to help reinforce singing concepts through play.


Whatever your short term goals are, I cannot stress enough the importance of being prepared for lessons. It is imperative for your progress that you take ownership over your short time with your teacher. Come with your sheet music, songs learned (even if it’s just a small section of it), or questions to ask. Your teacher is merely a guide for your progress, but you will only get better if you put in the time regularly, otherwise we spend your lesson doing the practice that should be done at home. When you are prepared, it’s exciting for your teacher to see your progress week to week and then they can better help you take the next steps in your training. So, if you’re not sure what your short term goal can be, start with “Be prepared for my next lesson” and figure out what steps you need to take to achieve that and you will be well on your way!


How

This section ties in directly with the goal setting above. As I mentioned, I keep a running list of technical exercises, concepts and repertoire points we work on in lessons with my students. That said, you should never tackle that whole list in one practice session! It would be so overwhelming! It is simply to keep track of what we work on together so you can go home and apply them to your singing in a manageable way.


Choose one thing each session and focus only on that. Let’s say your goal for a day is to open up in the back of the mouth more. Do the technical exercises that apply to that concept, then work on applying it to your repertoire. You must be intentional about it- don’t just go through the motions of the notes- think about the steps you can take to work on that one concept (opening your mouth), then the next day choose another one to focus on. Or maybe you’re not satisfied with the last day’s practice and you want to do it again- go for it! Whatever you choose, I just can’t stress enough the importance of not mindlessly singing through exercises or songs. There is absolutely a time to just sing for the enjoyment of it- maybe you start or end your practice with that- but you need to break songs down into smaller, more manageable sections when you are doing intentional practice. Where in the song are you working on opening the back of your mouth the most? Focus on those few bars or that verse, then take on a different section tomorrow. Don’t let the length of the song overwhelm you, just take it a little at a time. Slow and steady wins the race, right?


These mini-goals will make your practice intentional and will help you to feel ongoing progress week to week, even if you’re revisiting concepts. Technique is an ongoing process, with no real end point. So enjoy the journey and be patient, just make sure you’re proactive about the steps you take!

Why

This is probably the most important point, and it will be different for everyone, but this is your personal inspiration. Why are you singing? Look at the big picture. What were your reasons for beginning the training in the first place? Why do you continue to do it? Whatever it is, I cannot encourage you enough to find the joy in the journey! Singing is meant to be fun, so keep it fun! Celebrate your progress, even if you don’t feel it’s significant. Every little thing is a step in the right direction of your ongoing progress and that is something worth celebrating!


As I said before, even though practice needs to be a part of your schedule, use it as your creative and expressive release. Whatever frustrations, stress or anxieties you experience in a day, use your singing and music to channel them and release them as you would a relaxing bath, reading or exercise. Don’t make it a chore, it’s a part of your “me” or fun time in a day, so make it something that you look forward to. We are so fortunate to have our voices to express ourselves, so why not make it a regular part of our day to day lives?! We will all be better for it!


I’d love to hear your feedback or questions below! What practice routines work well for you? What are your current short or long term goals for singing? Feel free to contact me if you need some help focusing and making the most of your or your child’s practice time!

154 Hampton Rd, Unit 107

Rothesay, NB

E2E 2R3

Tel: 506-609-SING (7464)

Email: alison@alisondawnvoice.com

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