You look great! But can you sing?
Young singers are constantly bombarded with conflicting information about appropriate repertoire, audition attire, singer websites, resumes, bios and headshots. So utterly consumed with these seemingly pressing issues, singers often ignore far more important issues, effectively ending their careers before they begin. I’m talking specifically about vocal technique and musical preparation. What results is the all-too-common audition or performance today in which a singer looks great and has a lovely set of materials, but is sorely lacking vocally, musically and/or dramatically. While “the package” is of course important in the business of singing, it seems that somewhere along the road, in our fast-paced, looks-obsessed, easily distracted social-media culture, we have lost sight of our priorities.
Every singer knows that a healthy, sustainable vocal technique is the key to a long and successful career. Yet many singers have completely unstructured and unmanaged practice and preparation habits. The primary idea behind learning good technique is that it becomes an integral part of your body’s muscle memory in practice, so that it happens naturally when you are performing, without having to focus on it. In order for this muscle memory to truly “gel” in the body, singers must diligently attend to their technical exercises on a regular basis. An Olympic ice skater knows that she cannot hope to execute a perfect triple Lutz without hours of weekly practice developing, solidifying and maintaining muscle memory. Similarly, daily attention must be paid to the athletic act of singing by constantly fine-tuning technique for reliable and healthy singing habits.
Making the time
Most singers who have graduated from college have a supplemental job or, in many cases, a correlating career (see my previous BSR article, “The Correlating Career”). This means that practice time is at a premium. It is extremely important that practice sessions (in addition to coachings and lessons) be planned well in advance, and make it into the daily planner. One must stick to the scheduled time just as one would if one had a doctor’s appointment or a meeting with a colleague. The average professional singer needs a minimum of three hours of practice a week in order to maintain good muscle memory and be adequately prepared for auditions, rehearsals, performances and recordings. These three hours do not include “armchair work”: translating and doing IPA for text, memorization work, brainstorming characterization, listening to recordings, etc. It is not easy to do a 7am practice session before a 9 to 5 workday or to head to the practice room after a full day of work, but it is absolutely essential. Once practice time is shunned and work-life takes over completely, it is a very slippery slope. Would-be singers wake up one day and realize that they essentially no longer sing.
Musical preparation is of equal importance to vocal technique. Musical preparation includes note and rhythm mastery, accurate intonation, phrasing, dynamics, diction, translation, memorization and expression. It doesn’t matter how impressive a voice is if the music is riddled with inaccuracies, the singer has no idea what he is singing about, the entrances are constantly missed and the language is butchered.
Singers who graduate from undergraduate and graduate vocal performance programs emerge with varied levels of ear training and music theory experience and skill. Unfortunately, those who find themselves lacking have a responsibility to bulk up those skills before entering the professional singing world. Any singer with a degree in voice should be able to sight-read a variety of music, from simple hymns to contemporary music that is atonal or modulates through many keys. A firm understanding of key signatures, command of intervals, ability to look ahead and proficiency of rhythm are essential in order for a singer to be hirable for church jobs, professional choral jobs, chamber ensembles and even opera roles. A beautiful voice is basically irrelevant during the sight-singing portion of an audition.
Musicality skills are also crucial when preparing a recital, opera or oratorio role, professional choral gig, or other vocal endeavors. Learning and memorizing music is a far less daunting task when one is able to read music on first sight instead of being weighed down by the task of plunking slowly through music. Singers who lack good ear training and music theory skills often rely on recordings or coaches in order to learn their music. Use of recordings often results in imitation of the singer one is listening to, not to mention that it prevents a true understanding of the score. Some singers can afford to rely on coaches to teach them their music, but many cannot. One can save a significant amount of money and time by being able to easily prepare oneself.
A common complaint from singers is that they feel overwhelmed in the practice room. They know what exercises and repertoire they need to practice, and they know what elements of technique, diction, presentation and character they need to polish, but they can’t figure out how to formulate an effective practice plan. Unfortunately, the smarter the singer, the worse it tends to be. The singer attempts to do everything at once, resulting in the mastery of nothing. As a result of this “overloading”, some singers actually regress in the practice room, teaching their bodies poor singing habits and ultimately defeating the purpose of practicing.
In order to avoid overloading and make permanent changes in the practice room, one must have clear, concise goals for practice and improvement (with help from a trusted teacher). An exercise notebook is a great way to keep track of practice goals. Singers should log each exercise from their lesson (including scale degrees and vowels), and underneath, create bullet points of the goals for the exercise. By recording dozens of exercises over time, the singer will have a tailored list of specific exercises to pull from in every practice session. An exercise entry in a practice journal might look something like this:
5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1
[ja] [ja] [ja] [ja] [ja]
-separation of tongue and jaw;
tongue glides independently
-consistent [a] vowel
-maintain spin and legato throughout
At the beginning of the practice session, the singer should determine the major technical elements to focus on that day and write them down. Below is an example of a list of technical elements tailored to one specific singer (of course, teachers and singers have many different ways of discussing and labeling technical elements):
Released (“fluffy”) back of tongue
Maintain the inhale position during phonation
Freedom in back of neck
Balanced resonance (chiaroscuro)
Singers should cycle through the technical elements as they work through their exercises, focusing on one technical element at a time, and changing focus to a new element after two or three keys of the exercise. The brain will likely try to force focus on more than one element at a time, but one must insist on a singular focus until it is time to shift.
The benefits of this approach are many. First, by not overloading the brain and body with multiple technical focuses, each technical element has a much better chance for improvement and lasting change. Second, as focus shifts, the singer retains benefits from the previous focus and the results are cumulative; she is, in fact, addressing multiple technical elements at once, but without becoming overwhelmed and stressed. Third, it will be a far more productive and positive practice session, and the singer may even start to look forward to practicing! Finally, there is heightened awareness of overall vocal function, which is essential for a lifetime of healthy singing.
Don’t rush the repertoire
Once the focus on technical elements is completed, the singer is free to move on to repertoire. Practice one step of repertoire preparation at a time, addressing rhythm, pitch and diction. Remember, translation, IPA and interpretation of the text as well as character analysis should happen first, outside of the practice room!
It is crucial that one not simply dive in and start singing a new song without taking it apart first. Below is a list of recommended repertoire preparation steps:
Speak text like a poem, with attention to diction
Speak text in rhythm (metronome optional)
Speak text in rhythm while playing pitches on the piano
Sing the tune on one vowel, a lip trill, or through a straw
Sing the tune on two or three randomly alternating vowels (ex: [e], [o], [e])
Sing the tune on the vowels of the language (no consonants)
Many of us are familiar with most of these steps, and may even have been prescribed a specific order. The most important thing is that each separate step occurs; for just as with the technical work, overloading will have poor results. Effective practice of repertoire often renders memorizing separately unnecessary. By having a plan and following the above steps in every practice session, music will become memorized naturally. Additionally, by taking care to work systematically through the repertoire, the singer ensures that good technical habits are infused into his or her pieces.
Once music is thoroughly prepared, singers are in a much better position to explore the character, make bold interpretive choices and express themselves truthfully. Most singers will also find that performance anxiety is greatly alleviated when they are truly prepared. Instead of being bogged down by anxiety about entrances, rhythms or technical elements, they are free to be a vessel for the music and text! The ability to be fully present and committed separates the good singers from the great singers.
Never stop learning new repertoire
It is very tempting to always fall back on old repertoire, especially when one is busy and stressed and needs to prepare for an audition. If an old aria in in excellent shape and showcases the singer marvelously, then by all means she should keep using it, but there is much value in consistently learning new repertoire. The singer continues to challenge herself, the new repertoire becomes infused with the (ideally) constantly improving technique, and it becomes second nature to go through the process of carefully preparing and memorizing music. This is especially important if the goal is a professional singing career; the singer becomes well equipped to prepare for future gigs and make a great impression.
- To hold oneself to a beginner/amateur level of singing, plan to fully prepare and memorize one piece every 6-8 weeks, ideally 6-8 songs per calendar year.
- To hold oneself to an undergraduate voice major level of singing, fully prepare and memorize one piece every 2-3 weeks (6-7 pieces per semester or 16-20 pieces per calendar year). Have enough repertoire to perform at least a half recital yearly.
- To hold oneself to a graduate voice major level of singing, fully prepare and memorize one piece every 1-2 weeks (8-12 pieces per semester or 20-30 pieces per calendar year). Have enough repertoire to perform a full recital yearly. Learn at least one full operatic role per year, in addition to oratorio repertoire (or the equivalent in personally preferred types of classical music)
- To hold oneself to a professional level of singing, follow the guidelines for a graduate voice major and add additional full operatic roles and oratorios (or other personally preferred types of classical music).
- A serious singer should have freshly prepared material at every voice lesson; it is not the teacher’s responsibility to fill lesson time or be forced to only focus only on technique due to the student’s lack of preparation.
What to do with all of this freshly prepared repertoire? Aside from using repertoire for auditions, get creative! Collaborate with colleagues to set up recitals, parlor concerts and aria sings in local venues. Research recital series in your area and submit your materials for consideration. Make a recording with a trusted pianist and use the tracks for both applications and your website. Singers are entrepreneurs; by staying motivated and active and presenting their work regularly, they are bound to build a following and make great connections in the professional world.
Be a great, reliable colleague
When hard work pays off and singers find themselves working professionally, it goes without saying that they should show up to rehearsals having put in the appropriate amount of preparation. Arrive early and dress professionally. Always aim to arrive off-book at the first rehearsal, even if it is not required (or if it is an on-book concert, know the music well enough that the score is more of an accessory). Have notecards on hand for reference so that staging can occur without carrying around a cumbersome score. Bring ideas to the table about character, text interpretation, musical phrasing, etc. Be kind to and patient with everyone, even those who are not providing the same courtesy. Take responsibility for any mistakes and correct them for the next rehearsal. Word spreads fast in the professional music world; once others hear about the collegiality, talent and hard work of a singer, more and more gig offers will come his way. Similarly, if the singer makes a poor impression, it is a guarantee that other professionals will hear about it and choose not to hire him in the future.
Many singers are nowhere near being adequately prepared for a career in singing, or they are prepared in all the wrong ways. It is essential that priorities are in order; vocal technique, musical skills, expression and character development come first, and marketing materials come last. While marketing materials are extremely important, one has to have a stellar product to market, or there is little point in spending all the time and money that is required to develop a brand! In a business as competitive as classical singing, there is no excuse for poor preparation, and those who exhibit it will be quickly weeded out. So singers, get out there and practice, and present to the world the very best version of you!