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 17 Assignment: Create your practice SOP
What’s an SOP? A standard operating procedure is a set of written instructions that details the step-by-step process that must be taken to properly perform a routine. This is a fancy way of saying, “Let’s document your practice tasks so that it can become repeatable.” Honestly, I’m borrowing this term from our business school friends because, metaphorically, I can be a different kind of employee every time I show up in my business. Sometimes I’m that high-achiever who is looking for more work so that I can check more boxes. Sometimes I’m “quiet quitting” my own singing career. (I can’t be the only one who feels this way…) To carry this metaphor further, I am also the boss in this scenario. As the boss, I want all of my employees to put out consistent and high quality work. So, I need to make sure that the processes I follow for ‘Repertoire A’ also happen when I work on ‘Repertoire B’. If I create a standard operating procedure for how I practice, that means that I’m more likely to apply the same work ethic, skills, and discovery methods to each practice session or each piece of repertoire and therefore create more consistent results over time.
There is no loophole
I wanted to share this one story from my friend D.J. Sparr (who is a fantastic composer, performer, and educator and I suggest you check out his music). 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.) Your practice room is where you go to apply, refine, and internalize.”
A progressive trigger system for practicing music
Your micro action for today is creating a routine that you follow every single time. Having a practice process is one of the things that helps you become incredibly efficient 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.
In our musical lives, we often run into the issue of having very full schedules, a lot of music to learn, and a short window of time to get that done. Our younger selves might have been tempted to just dive in and sing things over and over hoping to cram the whole piece into our heads through non-strategic repetition.
When I was teaching in the voice studio, I worked mainly with high school students and undergrad students. It was paramount to me that I help my students learn HOW to practice so that they could replicate the steps on their own and pick different strategies for different issues. It’s not that voice students are less skilled or not as smart about practicing but we’re often trained very differently than our instrumentalist colleagues. It’s no wonder that voice students who trained in studios in which they simply rehearsed their repertoire over and over with their teachers don’t feel very confident in learning music on their own without practice tracks. (Practice tracks are also a fine practice strategy! I just want you to have more than one strategy at your disposal.)
Be specific about the practice steps you follow
By getting really specific about the steps you follow, you’ll also learn things more quickly and more accurately. It will improve your sight reading abilities. It will also help you incorporate technical refinements or new technique into your work. Plus, you’ll feel more confident and capable at performance time.
Some of you may remember my Sybaritic Singer mini-series on “How to Practice New Music” – I even sell this as an ebook/practice plan now if you’d like. This is my practice routine SOP and I’ll list out some of the steps here.
- Check the score.
- Analyze the form.
- Translate and transliteration.
- Solfege (or pick the system for pitches and intervals that you do best.)
- Count and clap.
- Speak the text in rhythm with a metronome.
- Sing through (sections/whole) on one vowel only.
- Sing through (sections/whole) on vowels only.
- Plan the dynamics and phrasing.
- Double down on “the hard parts” – do it slowly, backwards/forwards, memorize the patterns, etc.
- Dial in your facial expressions/dramatic movement.
- Listen to recordings.
- Create nuances.