The Vocal Athlete: Practice
Practice, practice, practice. One of the most important things a vocal athlete does is practice; consistent, focused, and planned practice. This is one of the areas where the correlation between athlete and singer makes the most sense. Elite athletes are always training through strength and cardio training as well as mental training. This is all without the time spent practicing their specific sport. There are no parts of this that singers do not engage in, in some way. Let’s look at each part a little closer to see how it’s the same or different.
There are dozens of muscles directly or indirectly involved in singing. While it is possible to do strength training to build up many of the supporting muscles, your thyroarytenoid muscles are likely as bulky as they need to be. Instead, let’s think more about strength training as endurance training. Runners increase their muscular endurance by slowly increasing the distance, duration, or speed of their runs. Singers build their endurance in much the same way, singing longer, louder, or higher. Let me recommend going for longer or higher; louder increases risk. How much endurance you need is likely going to depend on what your goals are, a few songs during karaoke will require less than being a professional on Broadway singing eight shows a week.
I think you can probably already see this one. It takes air to sing, depending on who you ask, a lot of air; hint: it’s not true. And if you are singing musical theatre or other contemporary commercial styles, there is a good chance you are running and dancing while you are singing, which will require more oxygen and will raise your heart rate. Looking at improving your cardiovascular system the best methods are the same no matter what you’re doing. Go do cardio workouts.
To me, practice time has two major parts: skills practice and repertoire. This is where I see most amateur singers make mistakes because singing songs is way more fun than practicing scales. Unfortunately, singing songs is a very slow path to improving as a singer. In baseball, we see batting practice, throwing, and catching. In football (American), you practice tackling, throwing, catching, and kicking. All of these skills are practiced repeatedly and in isolation.
In singing, we have several skills to practice: scales, intervals, patterns, different vocal fold masses (thin, thick, stiff / chest, head, breathy, mix), different types of breaths, vowels at different pitches, and so many other things. And yes, all of these things are part of singing songs. But just like playing a sport, while singing all of these things are happening at the same time. Because of this, you cannot focus on everything at the same time.
Repertoire practice is the fun part, playing the game, if you will. This is the time when it all comes together, and it works, or it doesn’t. If you have worked on your skills enough, typically, it works. With sports and with singing, additional factors come into play that distracts from the base skills. In singing, we add words, emotions, and other musicians.
What Should My Practice Be?
Skipping past strength and cardiovascular training, we will discuss them more in a late segment. Your singing practice will be different depending on your age and goals. No matter your age, if your goal is simply to have fun singing, skip straight to singing and have a great time for as long as it is fun.
If you are looking to develop yourself as a singer, here are a few guidelines.
Make a Plan, and stick to it. Decide what your goal is for each practice session before starting. Be specific with your goal, it doesn’t have to be a big goal. In fact small achievable goals will be more motivating. Think, sing a d minor scale perfectly at 80 bpm or say the words in verse 2 perfectly five times. Notice that each time the goal is to do the task as perfectly as possible.
Short but consistent practice sessions. With the exception of working on your vocal endurance, long singing sessions will not help you develop. A 20-30 minute session daily, or twice daily if you can manage it, will help you improve faster than longer less frequent sessions.
Practice your skills. How you divide your time will depend on your specific goals but you will be tempted to spend more time on repertoire than your skills acquisition. Don’t give in to this, if your goal is to improve your scales, intervals, and other vocal exercises are where you will improve the fastest.
Record Yourself. Everyones least favorite thing to do, record your sessions and listen to them. Develop a critical listening ear, what did you do well and what could have been better. Take it a step further and be specific on how things could be better, use that to set goals for your next session.
A vocal athlete practices? Oh most certainly! Consistent, focused, and planned practice is what it takes to be an elite athlete and an elite singer. Have you practiced today?
The Vocal Athlete: The Big Game a.k.a. Performances
At the end of the day this one is pretty simple. Singing is a performance art. Whether that be in front of thousands, a few friends, or alone in your car. Like a runner, football player, dancer, tennis player, or any other sport you’d like; all of the practice eventually is put together into a moment. It can be easy to let the moment take hold and just go with the flow. It will happen sometimes and that can be magical, but the goal is to remain focused and in control.
As we touched on last time, a large number of things will affect your voice, how it responds and feels each time you step on stage or up to the mic, you will need your whits and to follow the plans you made during your practice to be successful every time. Unlike with sports, it is rarely the time for a Hail Mary during a performance; save it for after you have practiced it and can execute it 100% of the time. While an incredible batting average is .3333, singers do not get the same margin of error, and audience more or less expects perfection every time. Don’t let the drive for perfection stop you from telling an amazing story, perfection won’t save a dry performance; but emotion won’t save you if you are only 33% accurate either.
There certainly are differences between being an athlete and a vocal athlete when looking at performances, but I do think this one is a great comparison. Give it your all, trust your practice, and enjoy the game. But like one of my mentors likes to say “A failure to plan is a plan to fail”.
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