In the Toolbox: Practicing

Is Ash practicing or just having fun? Sometimes it's the same thing!

Practicing on your own is essential for all musicians.  For the singing musician there are two unique challenges: 1) that you are incapable of hearing yourself accurately and 2) that you require accompaniment.  In order to make your practice time efficient and ultimately productive you must solve these dilemmas.

Before I go into some of the tools I use to practice, I would like to dig into the challenges singers face when setting up a practice routine.

Singers are unable to accurately hear themselves.  Our hearing mechanism is located inside our resonating mechanism.  It would be like trying to determine what a guitar sounds like by placing your head inside the body while strumming.  You would hear some of the acoustic resonance, but you would not hear the guitar the way a guitar actually sounds to an audience.  Similarly, your head is merely a resonating body, but your actual sound is occurring beyond your body.  What the audience hears is not what you hear.  Think of this: what is your reaction when you listen to your own voicemail message?  Does it match what you imagine your voice to sound like?

Singers need accompaniment, somehow.  Singers, unlike other instruments, cannot push a button in order to hit, say, a C# or an Eb.  For all the beautiful things a voice can do, we have vulnerable instruments that need harmonic reference points.  This is the single biggest challenge my students face.  Many singers do not play an instrument such as guitar or piano, and furthermore, when practicing a song it is best to focus only on your singing, rather than hitting the right keys on the keyboard.  Singers could arrange for an accompanist to rehearse with, but accompanists should be paid for this service.  The overall cost can be quite high if you are relying solely on this.  I reserve the hire of an accompanist for rehearsals leading up to a performance.  If you are singing with a band, you can only reasonably expect the band to get together once or twice a week.  What do you do to accommodate a daily practice schedule?  You must rely on recordings.  [More on this in another blog post.]

In light of this, here are some tools I have found indispensable in my studio:

A recording/listening device:

You must have a quality recording device in your possession.  The recorder on your phone will work in a pinch, but will not pick up the subtleties of your voice.  In other words, you won't notice the problems or even when a solution is working.  I've used GarageBand on my laptop, but the internal mic picks up the whirring of the computer motor, which is distracting.  I prefer my Sony PCM-D50.  It has several features that make it ideal: it is lightweight and portable, so I can take it to lessons and record them easily; it has two condenser mics built in, which have an incredibly high quality of recording (I've used it to record live rock shows with pleasing results); it records files digitally for instant playback or transferring easily to your computer.  In the photo I have a pair of headphones plugged in so that I can record myself running through vocal exercises or a song, and instantly listening to it.  I can then assess the run-thru and make adjustments.  Record and repeat as necessary.  I also record all of my performances, load the tracks onto my computer and can listen to them or share them with others.  The Sony PCM-D50 is a bit of an investment, but it is no more expensive than a decent electric guitar or a piano - tools that other musicians cannot afford not to buy.  If you are not ready to make this kind of purchase, at least look for a less expensive handheld recorder.  GarageBand is also available on iPhones and iPads.  I have not experimented with these, but they may also be fine recording devices.

A mirror:

A mirror is useful for checking your posture and mouth position while singing.  Because singing is a physical act, it is paramount that our bodies are simultaneously energized and relaxed - or aligned.  Because we are human, we tend to carry tension, anxiety, or fatigue in our bodies unknowingly.  A simple check in a mirror can help you address these issues as they arise.  I recommend a full length mirror in your practice area.  Here, I have pictured a pretty, antique mirror because it looks cool on the shelf.  Small mirrors can function for "mirror checks" as well, but only for the mouth, jaw, tongue, etc.

A meditation pillow:

 My boyfriend has a beat-up, well-worn meditation pillow, and the day I tried using it while doing vocal exercises was a day of great discovery!  Over the years I have found that standing while singing can be distracting, or overwhelming.  In addition to focusing my thoughts on getting the right notes, creating line in my phrasing, generating consistent airflow, modifying my vowels, resonating in chest or head, or any other many things that can dramatically affect your tone, not to mention your personal expression...... and I'm supposed to stand tall, ignore back pain, not sway on my feet, do I tuck my butt or not?  Aaaaah!

A meditation pillow is a miracle solution for this conundrum.

Sitting in chairs can be problematic too.  Most chairs are constructed so that your butt slides back in the seat.  This is pretty relaxing if you're working at a desk, but if restricts your breathing apparatus.  With a meditation pillow your hip flexers are lowered and relaxed.  You are able to have a tall, extended back without the forcing your spine to hold the entirety of your weight.  See the picture of me sitting on the pillow.  My torso is positioned perfectly for singing, and with little physical effort.  It makes sense, though; meditation pillows were designed for people to relax while doing breathing exercises (or pranayama in yogi terminology.)  I LOVE doing vocalises while sitting on the pillow!

A music stand:

A music stand is ridiculously helpful while practicing with your recordings.  It is obviously awesome that a stand keeps your hands free.  I like the "conductor's stand," because it is durable and can hold heavy books.

These tools will get you started on a solid practice routine.  In addition to these things, which you can add to your personal studio, be sure to take regular voice lessons.  Nothing can replace the outside, objective ears of a professional, and the gentle guidance of someone who wants you to achieve your best.

Next steps: Get to work!