Most of us would agree that singing is an art form; it’s a type of creative expression that has a unique ability to take us to emotional heights. I’m also going to suggest that you think of singing as a sport. If you are pursuing voice training, you are a vocal athlete. Here are five ideas used in athletic coaching that I employ as guiding principles for improving your voice.
1. Strive for perfect form. An athlete’s coach is there to provide an outside eye to correct mistakes in form that the athlete can’t sense themselves. This is what a voice teacher does for a singer; effective vocal instruction helps you increase your proprioception (your 3D map of your body in space). When you receive a correction in a lesson (i.e., keep your ears over your shoulders), your job in practicing is to remind your body of this adjustment. Aimlessly running through scales at home is no good. Your practice should be deliberate and concentrated; I’d rather you do five minutes and really pay attention than do 45 minutes letting your mind wander.
2. Practice frequently. Olympic athletes do their drills throughout their days. They are constantly reminding their brains that they want to learn to play their sport better. The same applies for us as singers. You may achieve an amazing high C in your lesson, but if you don’t keep coming back to it, your brain won’t believe that you want to make this learning permanent. Many vocal skills can be practiced quietly or silently (see my article here), so you can be performing your vocal drills throughout your day.
3. Never practice through pain. Pain is an action signal. It is created by your brain to say, “Stop what you’re doing,” or “Do something different.” Nothing we do as singers should be painful. If we “push through it,” not only are we in danger of hurting our voice, but we are associating the act of singing with discomfort. If you experience pain when singing, reduce the range (if you’re singing a high note, transpose it down) and reduce the volume.
4. Add novel stimulus. When you hit a plateau in your practice, you need to add novelty to force your brain to pay attention. Some ways that we can add novelty in singing are:
- Change your body position when you sing (sit, lunge, squat, walk around).
- Vary the dynamics.
- Adjust the rhythm (sing in a swing rhythm vs. a straight rhythm).
- Sing your music on a vowel or a sound like “ng.”
- Practice the phrases of your song in a different order.
5. Make it look easy. Tennis is my favorite sport to watch; the best players seem to glide around the court, gracefully reaching and returning every shot. This efficiency is what we’re aiming for as singers. We have mirror neurons in our brains that “mirror” the behavior of others, as if we’re doing the action ourselves. Thus, when we watch a performer struggling, we feel tension in our own bodies. When a singer is performing effortlessly, an audience gets a resulting sense of ease. Performing with freedom is a gift to our listeners, and is that we should be aiming for every time we get up to sing.
You can learn more about how I apply these ideas in my voice studio here.
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