Out of all the things we do in our creative professional lives, today’s post covers one of the most important aspects — practice habits and schedules. The subject of practice came up in eighty-two percent of the diva mentors’ responses to my interview questions. The practice studio is our lab. It is where we do the work to eventually demonstrate our proficiency. It is also where we stretch ourselves to develop new skills and better application of technique. The practice studio is a place to work out plans already set as well as a playground for new ideas and dreams to take shape. It is the place where we query our habits and internalize our music. There is no more important incubating time in your diva life than the time you spend in practice.
Your 29 Days to Diva Day 6 micro-action is to evaluate your practice regimen and make refinements.
The Habits and The Schedule
Fabulous flutist and new music champion, Tammy Evans Yonce, elaborated for me, “Develop good practice habits right away (e.g., writing down a schedule, planning each practice session, recording yourself) so you still make measurable progress when your level of busy ebbs and flows.” That last part is so crucial. Our lives have so many demands. It is necessary to develop good practice habits or practice processes so that it happens without you having to move heaven and earth to get it done. Practice shouldn’t be the thing that fades out of your daily schedule when things get busiest. We want it to become the anchor in your day-to-day especially when things get crazy! Another friend and new music superstar, Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, also mentioned the importance of a practice schedule in her work, “Create a music-learning schedule months in advance of shows that allows enough practice time to internalize my music (which only works if I get scores on time!)” You know that phrase, “perfect practice makes perfect”? This is how we work on the perfect practice part. Leveling-up your diva skills relies heavily on your practice habits and your music-learning schedule.
There Is No Loophole
D.J. Sparr is one of the preeminent composer-performers of our generation. I asked him about the advice that he gives to his students and this was his excellent response:
Hypothetical conversation after Student asks a question when they obviously haven’t spent time practicing or composing:
To Student: The question you have for me right now is you looking for a magical loophole.
Me: The answer is you in your practice room practicing or composing at your highest ability a lot —time on task. Nothing works if you aren’t figuring out how to make the best artist out of yourself. The rest is all emails and hellos and coffee meetings, etc…all while loving to hear about your colleagues’ successes! It’s like someone wanting to [medal in the] Olympics as a weightlifter by talking to their trainer about magical shortcuts. Lift the weights, get stronger.”
Your teachers, mentors, and coaches are all just guides who provide you with more information for you to apply in your practice time. Talking to them will give you lots of ideas and great information. But, you still have to do the work. I run into plenty of younger musicians who are under the impression that their lesson time is the same thing as practice time. (Of course, you wouldn’t be so foolish to assume that lessons or ensemble rehearsals are the time for you to learn the music.) I tell them, “Please think of this like your English class. Your teacher, or professor, teaches you about grammar, syntax, analysis, and composition in class. They do not write your papers in class. The same goes for what we learn during lessons. This is the place to learn. Your practice room is where you go to apply, refine, and internalize.”
A Progressive Trigger System
We’re going to cover many more aspects of practice during this month-long series. However, I wanted our micro-action for today to be to look at how you’re practicing and the quality of your practice habits/schedule. D.J. also brought up a great point when I asked him about one important hard skill he has developed during his career,
Learning music fast. (and making sure I have a streamlined workflow/space for composing.) I practice this way: With metronome on very slow tempo, I work my way from end to the front of the piece measure by measure. Example: Last measure, three times perfectly. Then, second-to last-measure to end, three times perfectly. Then, third-to-last measure to the end, three times perfectly. Then, fourth-to-last-measure to the end, three times perfectly. Continue until you are at the beginning of the piece. Then, I play the piece with metronome on a slow tempo. Each time through, I will increase the metronome by one click. I do this until I have gone well past the tempo that I will perform the piece. So, when I perform, I am always leading to the music I have played the most. The performance gets easier and easier, and then there is a “homestretch part” towards the end of the piece where I can think to myself, “here we go!” and it is really fun.
The reason I can compose music fast is because I keep journals, cell-phone notes, and dry-erase board scribbles of ideas for whatever piece is on my plate. When I sit down to write, many decisions have already been made… so the workstation being set up nicely allows for the data entry of the score to happen fast. Later in the process, I make a “to-do” list of things I would like added to the score. It is a clear way to look at what needs to happen in a final draft, and allows for dedicated time to be set aside to complete the engraving for those ideas.
My good friend and spectacular soprano, Danielle Buonaiuto, agrees with D.J. on the pacing, “Practice slowly and in manageable chunks.” It’s imperative to not gloss over the work you must do while also becoming as efficient as you can be in the process. One of the distinguishing features between how generalists practice and specialists/experts practice is that generalists mainly practice the things at which they are already skilled. They often lack the self-awareness to know what skills they’re missing. They proceed with limited knowledge on how to make more significant gains in skill, scholarship, or creative vision. Specialists and experts focus on also filling in those gaps (we’re going to get more on this from Sharin Apostolou in the near future) during their practice time. She went on to say that “becoming a quick study,” is necessary. “Do mind games, crosswords, whatever helps you memorize better. I practice off book as much as possible and learn patterns in the music – rhythmic and melodic – and learn the text separately first.”
TODAY’S THOUGHT LEADERS
This year, since I’ll have so many people to thank as we’re making our way through the series, you’ll see the names of people who have contributed their wisdom in this section.
- Tammy Evans Yonce is a flutist living in South Dakota. Her creative endeavors include the commissioning, performance, and teaching of new music. To thank her and cheer her on you can check out her website – she’s open for collaboration! www.tammyevansyonce.com.
- Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, DMA, is an Omaha-based classical soprano who specializes in the work of living composers. Along with her solo repertoire, she is a member of Ensemble Dal Niente, Hasco Duo and Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble. To thank her and cheer her on, please go visit her website www.amandadeboer.com and sign up for the Quince newsletter www.quince-ensemble.com.
- D.J. Sparr is a composer and electric guitar soloist who currently lives in the mystical high plains of the Wild West. He has a passion for captivating audiences with his musical performance and eclectic, boundary-erasing composition. D.J. is also a proud faculty member of the Walden School Creative Musician’s Retreat, http://waldenschool.org/creative-musicians-retreat/. Support his work by visiting his website www.djsparr.com and singing his vocal music www.djsparr.com/category/compositions/vocal/.
- Danielle Buonaiuto is a soprano based in New York City. Her artistry is driven by values of community building, access and inclusion, and compassion. She seeks projects that treat issues that matter to her – environmentalism and climate change; LGBTQ+ issues; racism and systemic oppression – in direct, intimate, and emotional concerts. To thank Danielle and cheer her on visit www.daniellebuonaiuto.com/o-sea-starved-hungry-sea.html to learn more, hear a preview, and get involved with her new recording project.
- Elizabeth Smith is a soprano and content creator in New York City. She is an active solo and choral performer, a photographer, and co-founder of The Pleiades Project. To thank her and cheer her on you can visit elizabethsmithsoprano.com or subscribe to The Pleiades Project on YouTube http://bit.ly/thepleiadesproject
Elizabeth Smith, magnificent soprano and co-founder of The Pleiades Project, explains the issues and remedies of practice process so perfectly. I love how she explains her routine step-by-step. Having a practice process is one of the things that helps you become a beacon of efficiency in the studio. Another much-appreciated aspect is that this process builds in many progress triggers. Once you’ve done one step, you instinctively know that you move on to the next so that you master all your repertoire at the highest level your skill allows. D.J. also demonstrates a wonderful progressive trigger system by working from the last measure to the first. Elizabeth wrote,
One of the major issues I run into in my life and career is that my time is extremely limited, and I often have to learn a great deal of music in a short amount of time. My instinct in grad school was always to just dive in and attempt to jam the whole thing into my head by singing it through as many times over as possible, fixing mistakes along the way. This was a recipe for frustration, angst, and music that never was learned well. My entire life changed when I started getting incredibly specific from the first time I look at a new project. Not only does doing this help me to learn things faster and more accurately, it improved my sight reading, my ability to retain technique changes in new and old repertoire, and increased my confidence in what I’m capable of in performance.
Over the last few years this specificity has evolved into a routine – once I’ve translated and looked up background, my first practice session on any piece goes as follows:
- Isolate every rhythmic pattern I can, making sure that I know how any complex ones work.
- Clap rhythm with metronome.
- Speak with metronome (I record this step on my phone so I can listen to it on public transit.)
- Block out the major harmonic patterns on the piano (identify recurring musical ideas and general.
- Sing through on my best vowel (this step is to identify where my intervallic mistakes are.)
- Drill those intervals until I remember what they sound and feel like (still on vowels.)
- Work backwards through the piece, about four measures at a time, modifying to vowels that are close to the ones in the words of the piece. I also start conducting beat patterns during this step – it helps me to remember rests and meter changes.
- Sing with metronome, under tempo (I record this step, and I have to be exact because mistakes that I make here will stay with me forever.)
- Mark with text while blocking out harmonic language on the piano.
- Run from memory. I like to move around the room here, adding in any physical gestures that speak to me – these gestures sometimes make it into the final iteration of the piece. (I record this as well – reviewing it helps me identify where recurring mistakes are.)
Now, I could probably get away with not getting this basic – and sometimes I get frustrated while I’m doing it because I want to feel like I’m singing like I’m in the middle of the performance already. I want to hear the finished product in the practice room instead of slogging through making sure my syncopated rhythms are exact and my intervals are in tune and my vowels are lined up. But, approaching music making and music learning in this way has hands-down been the most important thing I’ve done for my singing in the last five years.
I can’t agree heartily enough with the steps that Elizabeth uses in her practice process. In fact, some of you may remember our Sybaritic Singer mini-series on “How to Practice New Music” which came in Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. Check them out if you want even more resources on how to level-up your practice routine.
Show Your Work
Okay, divas, you know the importance of developing good practice habits and schedules. However, it’s time to turn your magnifying glass to your own practice process. What aspects are positively serving you? Can you identify what needs work? Here are some prompts to help you level-up:
- What is my current practice schedule?
- What are three ways I could make my schedule more efficient?
- What practice schedule makes me feel the most efficient?
- What are two triggers I use to get my butt into the studio more often?
- What is my current in-studio process?
- If I wrote out my schedule for another person to follow, it would look like:
- My current process differs from my idealized process by:
- The most important outputs during my practice studio time are:
- The time management system I like to use during practice is:
- The area that is currently my slowest stage of the process is:
- The skills I need to cultivate to fill in that gap are:
- What are my strongest parts of the practice process?
- The area in which I’m looking for a magic loophole in my practice process is:
- I’m going to fix that by:
- The way I build in accountability to my practice schedule is:
- The way I build in accountability to my practice process is:
It’s time to turn to your Diva Buddy System! Ask them about their answers to the prompts. How do you all differ from each other in the practice studio? What did you discover that you all do exactly the same way? I would love to know! You can share with me on the Sybaritic Singer Facebook page or get in touch with me directly on Twitter. As always, I’m @mezzoihnen.