I wanted to share some thoughts on how to practice as a vocalist because it seems to be a common question!
The first thing I need to say is that I am speaking as professional vocalist but NOT as a trained vocal teacher or coach. These are my thoughts and opinions based on personal experience.
1) There is no substitute for a qualified voice teacher. I used to take a lot of pride in being “self-taught” or not having any formal training. It made me feel like I was special somehow. But then I realized something very important: I was not really that good. If you are like me and were born not-great but have a deep desire to become excellent, then I strongly recommend finding a voice teacher. It may be a financial investment, but I have a hard time thinking of any professional path that doesn’t require a financial investment for training. Would you go see a “self-taught” doctor? Should I go get my hair cut by someone who is “naturally talented” or someone who has been trained? Find a voice teacher. Get training. Find one who has studied or been certified in vocology (Nashville, you know my girl is lizjohnsonvoice.com).
2) There are several different areas to practice. You need to warm up. You need to exercise and strengthen your voice. You can practice reading skills. You can practice vocal flexibility (being able to sing more notes faster). You can practice repertoire (specific songs). You can practice improvisation. You can practice scales. You can work on your vocal range. You can practice developing pitch accuracy. You should think about what you want to accomplish with your voice. My personal priorities are strengthening my voice and vocal improvisation. So I address those goals by 1) doing vocal strengthening exercises called Blaylock exercises, 2) working on exercises from Darmon Meader’s book “Vocal Improvisation: An Instrumental Approach”, and 3) learning instrumental solos from jazz recordings. Sometimes I also practice sight reading by reading new songs out of the Vocal Real Book.
3) Both consistency and variety have their place. Consistency is important for practice. You can’t do a set of exercises once and expect to see lasting change. You must pursue discipline and consistency with your practice. But realistically, we also go through emotional waves when it comes to music. Some days I practice and the sound of my own voice makes me want to cry. How helpful is it for me to spend a long time practicing when I’m in that mental state? I would argue that it’s better to just do the essentials (my voice strengthening exercises, for example) and ditch the extras (repertoire or learning solos) for the day in favor of a different form of practice. Maybe it means practicing ukulele or charting a new song to add to my solo sets. Maybe it means breathing exercises. Maybe it simply means listening intently to an album that inspires me. So I would recommend having an arsenal of various practice strategies so that you can switch it up and still practice on days when you’re sick or struggling with the sound of your voice.
4) Practicing slowly is vital. If you can’t do it yet, break it into smaller pieces and practice it slowly. Practice it as slowly as you need to to do it right. If there’s one measure that’s giving me trouble, my first thought is to slow it down. If I still can’t do it, I need to break it into smaller pieces and identify what is giving me trouble. Often, it’s a particular interval that I’m not used to singing. So I may practice that interval—a descending minor 6th, for example—as it appears in the passage I’m practicing, then take it up a half step, then down, etc. for as long as I can. Then maybe I try to practice the whole measure slowly. Eventually, this will drive me crazy and I’ll pause until the next day :) But don’t gloss over the things you’re close to doing well but aren’t nailing. Zoom in on those spots, practice them slowly, and then give it time to sink in.
5) Imitation is an important tool. I’ve had several different people ask about finding their true sound, their unique voice. I think one of the best ways to discover your own true sound is to spend a lot of time imitating others and trying on their sounds. No matter what you do, your musical vocabulary is made up of things you’ve heard. You can’t avoid imitation, no matter how hard you try! But you can use imitation as a tool for evaluating what sounds feel best on your voice. It will take a lot of time and a lot of imitating to sift through the information that’s out there, but don’t pressure yourself to “land” on a right answer. Just accept that it’s a process that will last a lifetime. Have fun trying on different vocal tones or styles. Keep what feels right.
That about sums up the questions or thoughts that have been on my mind lately. To close, here are a list of ideas to get you jump-started on your vocal practice journey:
-Schedule an appointment with a well qualified voice teacher
-Warm up with a video like this: https://youtu.be/YTMSwPq4KIo
-Pick a song out of the Vocal Real Book to sight read and then learn
-Pick a song off YouTube to sing along with and imitate the style of the person playing or singing
-Buy Darmon Meader’s vocal book and practice different scales
-Practice singing and playing an instrument at the same time
-Try playing a piano melody and singing along in unison. Make something up
-Learn a famous vocal solo like Chet Baker’s “It Could Happen to You”, Ella Fitzgerald’s “Blue Skies”, or Sarah Vaughan’s “All of Me”
I’d love to hear your thoughts, advice, and questions!