Tag Archives: practice

Why Even Beginners Need to Practice Singing

It’s amazing how often I come across comments like this, which I recently read on a forum:

Singing doesn’t count, as it doesn’t … require the same kind of practice as instruments do.

There’s a bit of a myth that exists that singing, especially at a beginner level, doesn’t need practice. After all, we all use our voices every day, right?


Singers, even those just starting out, need to practice every day in an organised and focused way.

Image by monica liu on flickr

Singing practice is like doing physical exercise. If you’re a runner, and stop running for a while, the next time you go back to it, it’s hard, right? Your muscles are all stiff and your body feels slow. You probably even wake up the next day with aches you don’t normally get. Singing, just like running, dancing, swimming or going to the gym uses muscles. They’re very small muscles for the most part, but they’re there, and the need to be strengthened and conditioned to work at their optimum (You can learn more in this post about how the voice works and this one on how breathing works). This can only be achieved by singing regularly, and focusing on using good technique. Training those muscles is vital, and the sooner you start doing it regularly (daily), the sooner your muscles will get stronger and more responsive.

Regular, focused practice time also helps you to learn songs faster and more accurately. By giving the song your full attention (rather than just practicing in the car, as one parent proudly claimed her daughter did), you can be certain you’re not learning notes or words incorrectly. You’ll also be using your whole brain to absorb the information, rather than just part of it. This might not feel important when you’re learning little more than folk songs and nursary rhymes, but by focusing on your practice, you’re not just learning about singing – you’re learning about learning to sing.

So, what happens if you don’t put in the time and effort to practice properly when you first start out?

Your voice doesn’t develop strength, power, accuracy, control or range. This is a serious issue. Just as if you launched straight into a marathon, doing nothing by the occasional jog around the park, jumping from low effort levels into working on harder songs with more challenging range and technique can not only lead to frustration, but it can lead to injury. By working on building up skills and strength, you’ll be improving  the longevity of your voice.

If you don’t learn how to learn songs when you’re learning nursary rhymes and folksongs, it’s an awful lot harder to sit down with a four page Romantic song in French or German and know where to start. It’s like trying to solve a complex quadratic equation without having ever taken the time to learn how to do basic arithmetic.

Ultimately? Not practicing early on leads to frustration, injury and, ultimately, giving up
It’s that simple.

So, how can we fix this? Well, make some time every day for practice, and keep following the blog for tips on practicing, and simple vocal exercises that can help you to build up good habits and make it feel just as easy at Grade 6 as at Grade 1.

“But I’m Not Musically Talented!”

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailThis is the cry of many people I encounter, and on the surface it might very well seem true. Perhaps other people seem to be able to hear music better, or pick up how to play an instrument faster. Surely they must be more “musically talented” than others?

Well, actually, that’s not really true. There is no real objective thing called “musical talent”. There’s not a whole lot of research into it, but this post collates a whole lot of the evidence so far to point out some key things (these are quotes from the linked article):

  • Primitive musicality is, without question, built into our DNA
  • Beyond primitive ability, even basic musical development requires some modicum of encouragement and teaching
  • Advanced musicianship requires methodical training and “deliberate practice”
  • Musical training physically alters the brain. Accomplished musicians have key differences in their brains — not from birth but as a direct result of training

Ok, so if what scientific research there is struggles to identify any objective thing we could call musical talent, why do some people find musical skills easier than others? We could ask that about any skill, but here are some reasons that apply particularly to music.

1. People who seem to be “musically talented” developed key skills very young.

When we’re very young we have amazing aural and linguistic capacity. Human babies are born with the ability to form the sounds needed for any language – we can pitch our tone of voice or make strange clicks. As we develop language skills, we lose the ability to make the sounds we don’t need. A child from an African culture which speaks in a click language will keep the ability to make five or six different clicks with their mouth, while we native English speakers only really use one sound. A child who grows up speaking Thai will learn to control the pitch of their voice as they speak to communicate the different words with the same sounds, while native English speakers learn to use pitch to communicate emotion. Many of these skills are also useful for music, so it’s quite likely that children who are exposed to environments that use these skills retain them better and then find learning music much easier.

Even without considering the retention of skills from birth, the younger someone starts learning, the more quickly they learn and the longer they are likely to retain the information and abilities. Ever wondered why Mozart was so amazing? He was sat down at a piano as soon as he could sit up, and taught to play at a younger age than most children in the Western world even go to nursery school. He was also not sent to school, but educated at home, which meant he could dedicate more hours to practice than anyone else. This brings us neatly to point two.

2. People who seem to be “musically talented” dedicate more time to music, and that time is quality time.

ClockYou want to know why that fifteen-year-old from China can play the piano better than you can? He’s probably spent three or more hours practicing for every one you have. Music is a bit of a numbers game. The “ten thousand hours” statistic is dubious in its accuracy, but it certainly reinforces the rule that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. You wouldn’t expect to run a marathon in four to five hours if all you’re doing is taking a leisurely jog around the park for twenty minutes a couple of times a week, but people often think musicians can pick up an instrument and play brilliantly while putting in similar effort. Talented musicians simply put in the hours needed to be masters.

Talented musicians also know how to use their time effectively. If your music practice involves you flipping through a few books and idly playing anything you fancy, then you’re going to progress more slowly than someone who focuses in on one thing at a time, and works on the difficult bits rather than avoiding them. Music practice can be quite boring! I once heard someone say that “if your family aren’t sick of you playing that bar again then you’ve not played it enough”. For help and advice on developing quality practice habits, click here.

3. People who seem to be “musically talented” may have other abilities or disabilities which affect their musicality.

Music isn’t actually a thing in itself that one can be talented at. It’s actually more of a combination of different abilities. Musicians require aural skills – the ability to hear and understand music clearly, but they also require physical skills and intellectual abilities. People who appear to be talented musicians may have great ears that can hear intervals precisely, and predict what makes sense. Or, someone who makes rapid progress might have particularly flexible hands, good fine motor control, or great co-ordination.  Other people might bring their intellectual abilities – an ability to understand what the music is about.

There will be some people who find music difficult because they have disabilities. Dyslexia, for example, can affect music reading. Other people have physical problems – anything from paralysis or amputated hands, to severe allergies or a lactose intolerance – that might affect their ability to play or sing. None of these things make it impossible to learn to play as many disabled musicians demonstrate. Musicians can learn to play the piano with only one hand, or learn to read braille music because they are blind, or rely on vibration to play because they’re deaf. It really puts the complaints of those of us who are able-bodied into perspective doesn’t it?

4. People who seem to be “musically talented” are in love with music.

I-love-musicBeing a musician is a lot like being married (or in a long-term relationship). Some days you are the happiest person in the world, and feel the glow of love. Other days, you wonder why you ever picked this life and seriously consider giving it all up. Ultimately, though, you know once upon a time you said “yes”. You fell in love, and you decided that love was worth fighting for.

So here’s the truth of the matter: ‘Musical Talent’ isn’t real. To become that person with musical talent, you just have to suck it up and put in the hours of quality time. It’s that simple. Not everyone will want to do it, and not everyone will be willing to overcome the physical and mental challenges you will face along the way. But if you want to, it is possible. Even for you.

(And if you do want to start the journey – check out my posts on choosing a teacher to help you on your way)

Essential Practice Kit for Singers

Singing is simple in one way – our voices are free and always with us, but that doesn’t make it easy to practice singing. Here’s a run down of the key things I use to help me get the most out of my singing practice time:

Piano/Keyboard – Having a piano or keyboard isn’t vital for learning to sing, but something that can give you accurate pitch, and you can pick out the melody of your songs on is important. Smart phone and tablet piano apps can be effective for starting notes, but aren’t always easy to play with accurate rhythm, so it’s worth investing in a cheap keyboard if you’re planning on taking singing lessons long term. You can access a virtual piano here.

Music StandMusic Stand – A decent quality music stand is really useful for singers because it frees up your hands and body. Holding a book can be tiring and affects posture. By setting the stand at about “boob height” and resting the book on it, you can start to move more freely even when you’ve not memorised the words. I also find that at the stage when I’m weaning myself off the book, a stand means I can check back, but don’t have to focus on the book in the way I feel I have to when I’m holding it in my hands.

Camera with HQ Video function – It took me a long time to come round to the concept of recording myself, but now I’ve tried it (embarrassing though it is) it’s really useful. For all singers, the ability to video your posture and breathing is really useful as it gives you feedback you can’t get otherwise. A decent camera is also useful for musical theatre singers as it gives you an idea of how your physical movement looks. If you don’t have a bookshelf at a suitable height, you may wish to invest in a cheap tripod, or make use of the music stand listed above. A phone video camera should be sufficient, but the better the recording quality, the more useful the videoing process is.

Good quality audio recorder – many laptops and tablets have a voice recorder built in, but you will need to test your existing equipment.  Smart phones usually don’t have microphones powerful enough, so you’ll get a tinny recording. Investing in a decent microphone will be worth the money as you’ll get a better idea of how you sound. You don’t need to sing into it, just set it up in the room and go.

Audio Recording Software – if you’re recording onto a laptop or desktop, you’ll need some software to record into. I can highly recommend the free and open source programme Audacity, which will allow you to record into it. You can even record yourself over a backing track if you use headphones. Very snazzy, very useful.

Music Notation Software – If you can’t play the piano, notation software is vital. By entering the music in, you can get the software to play it back to you. It’s really useful for getting tricky rhythms right. The really dedicated can also enter in the accompaniment and export it as an mp3 to create a backing track. Only for the insane and/or desperate, though. Musescore is highly recommended and free to download for all platforms. Noteflight is web-based programme.

Audio Playing Software – almost everything electrical can do this now, but you want to find something that’ll allow you to create playlists. I keep a playlist of all the backing tracks for songs I’m working on right now.

MP3 Player/iPod – This is a great way to maximise your time if you’re a busy person. I regularly load on recordings of songs I’m learning and listen to them when I’m out and about. Right before an exam, I will sometimes put them on as I’m falling asleep too. This really helps with the memorisation process, but it’s important not to mimic the person singing.

Notebook and PenNotebook, loose leaf lined paper, manuscript paper and a pen – I keep a notebook where I practice, and I try to jot down what I do in it so I keep track. You might like to use an app, or design your own printable record sheets. You can also buy preprinted practice books from music shops. Experiment and find out what works for you, but do find a way of keeping track of issues so you can go back to your teacher at your next lesson and ask for help with the problems. I use loose leaf paper for writing out lyrics by hand to memorise them, and sometimes I do the same with melodies on the manuscript paper.

2B pencil – a pencil is vital for making notes and annotations on music, and a 2B pencil is soft enough to rub out easily when you no longer need the notes.

Timer – if you’re pushed for time, or struggling to be motivated, setting the timer and just doing 10 or 15 minutes can make it much easier. Having the ability to set an alarm or timer can also stop you getting overly involved in your music and wondering where the time has gone (yes, it does happen…!)

Metronome – not often of use to a singer, but something that’ll give you a regular click at a speed you set can be useful for practicing passages with the right rhythm but at a slower speed. You can get metronome apps, or use this one for free online.

Do you use any of these things? Or do you have any things you use that aren’t on this list? Leave your suggestions in the comments below!

Singing Through the Summer

It’s school holidays from this week, up in slightly sunny Scotland, and it won’t be long before the schools are off in England too. That means lots of music teachers are on holiday too. Some teachers take the whole summer off and most of us will take a couple of weeks.

So, how do you survive the summer as a music student? Here are some of my favourite things to do to keep myself motivated without weekly lessons.

1. Read some books about music

As things quiet down over the summer, it’s a great time to pick up a book about music. If you’re off on holiday yourself, a good book is a must to pack into your suitcase. Join your local library to get books for free. If you’re under 16 (mainly aged 4 to 11), you can also join in the national summer reading challenge at your local library and get rewarded for reading!

There are loads of choices for all ages. You could pick up a composer biography, a book on the history of musical styles, or one about instruments. What about a scientific book about how music works, or one on the psychology and neuroscience of how music works? Amazon even has a selection of classic texts on music available free in kindle format.

I’m just compiling my reading list for this summer (more later in the week), but in the meantime, check out my book recommendations page.

2. Head out to a concert or festival

Music happens all year round, but in the summer it’s usually mild enough that musicians venture outdoors. There’s a huge range of outdoor concerts that take place throughout the summer, from national events like Proms in the Park, to the bandstand in your local park. Keep an eye on national sites like The List as well as your local listings for opportunities, especially family friendly ones with the option to picnic while you listen.

For the more adventurous, summer is the time for festivals. Urban festivals often showcase local talent, while weekend events in fields give a more intense and cosmopolitan environment. These aren’t the cheapest option, but often offer a wider variety of styles of music. I’ll be reporting back from Greenbelt later in the summer which offers a huge range from classical opera to punk rock all on the same site.

If you really can’t find anything locally, check out coverage on the BBC of the various music festivals from Glastonbury (last weekend) through to Leeds and Reading (at the end of August). They also broadcast lots of concerts from the Proms on radio and TV.

3. Make some music with others

I nearly titled this one “take part in a concert” and I would definitely recommend that as one of your considerations. If you have a local festival, why not consider participating? It might be too late for this year, but you could use your summer to plan for next year.

If you’ve got some more free time over the summer, why not touch base with some musical friends and get together to play? You could even head for the park and make music outside, or try busking (check out your local council’s by-laws before setting up just anywhere). Making music with others challenges all kinds of skills like sight-reading and aural perception, and it’s loads of fun. I love getting together with my duet partner to rehearse new songs.

4. Take part in a summer school

Summer schools for music come in all shapes and sizes for all ages and abilities. Local events are often short and affordable. Come-and-sing events often crop up over the summer, as do workshops for kids run by local music groups. I was lucky, as a teen, to take part in summer workshops with a local opera society, for example. Non-residential summer schools are often run in vacant school buildings for local kids, while boarding schools often host residential weeks for more advanced children.

For adults, the range goes even further with Conservatoires opening their doors to a wider audience. There are also many residential events, some of which involve travelling overseas to French country lodges or Mediterranean hotels. You can get a taste of what is on offer here.

5. Set Yourself a Challenge

Why not set yourself a challenge? Your teacher might have left you a list of things to do, but if you’ve got some extra time (especially if you’re on school holidays) why not set yourself something totally different to do? The summer break is a great way to hit the T of SMART by making your challenge one which is “time-bound”.

You could set a goal of learning anything from a single song you don’t know up to a whole song cycle. I’m toying with learning all the mezzo arias from the Messiah as my musical challenge while my teacher is on holiday for a month.

To take a different angle, why not consider the challenge of composing something? Set a favourite poem to music, or muck around on an instrument (anything from piano to recorder) and write down a melody all of your own.

6. Think about what you want to do by next summer

Maybe you need to take some time to refocus on what you want out of music lessons. We can often get stuck in one track in music, like getting from one grade exam to the next without really thinking about why we’re doing exams. It’s important to think about what you’d like to do in the future and summer is a great time for blue skies thinking (well, on the three days when the skies are actually blue anyway!).

Think about what you’ve achieved up till now. Is it what you’ve wanted to do? Are you happy with all of it? What would you change?

Then think about what you’d like to do in five or ten years with music. Do you want to go to conservatoire, or be a teacher? Do you want to sing in amateur musicals? Or just to be able to sing to your kids?

I try to spend time with my students at the end of the summer talking about what we’ve achieved and where we’re going together. Watch out for more on this later in the summer.

7. Don’t stop singing!

Whatever you do, don’t stop singing all together. Just as when you stop exercising for a month, going back to the gym is unpleasant to say the last, so if you don’t sing over the summer, your voice will get out of condition! So keep singing. Even if you’re on holiday on a Spanish island, do your warm-ups in the shower to keep your vocal chords in check! Remember, too, that just like athletes, singers need to be wise about things like drinking too much and sleeping too little…


All in all, though, have a great summer and enjoy taking a more relaxed approach to music for a few weeks. If you’ve got any of your own tips as to what to do over the summer, why not comment below with your ideas.

ABRSM Exams – Preparing for Performance

 NB: While reading this series, it can be helpful to keep a copy of the ABRSM Singing syllabus to hand. The syllabus can be downloaded here http://gb.abrsm.org/en/our-exams/singing/


The process of learning songs for performance is the subject of hundreds of books, blog posts, websites and conversations among singers. Obviously, this post can only highlight some of the most important issues relating to preparing for ABRSM singing exams, so in this post, you’ll find my answers to some frequently asked questions about exam preparation.

Remember, preparing songs for performance is also a very personal journey. Teachers and students alike will have their own preferred methods for learning notes, memorising lyrics and engaging with the content. Finding what works for you is an important part of the process, so think about how you would answer each of the questions in your own way.

1. Where do you start once you’ve chosen your repertoire?

The obvious response is, at bar one! Certainly, the next step is to start learning the notes so that you are confident with “how it goes”.

With younger students, I will introduce the songs I’ve chosen one at a time over several lessons about a month or so before the closing date for entries. The order is not terribly important, but if one song is substantially longer, or more difficult than the others, I tend to introduce that one first.

For older students, choosing repertoire is usually a more collaborative process, and I aim for us to have decided on a programme a few weeks before the closing date. That still leaves plenty of time for learning the notes and polishing the performance.

2. Do you want a student to be “ready for the exam” before you enter them?

I am a big believer in not putting someone in for an exam until I’m confident they will pass. Failing is very disheartening for a student, and I don’t want to put someone in that situation. Obviously, sometimes candidates do fail despite their teachers best efforts because not everyone practices diligently, or unexpected things happen.

I don’t demand every student knows all their pieces before submission for the exam. Some people need a looming deadline to get them motivated to put the effort in – I’m that kind of student myself! However, if I’ve never submitted a pupil for an exam, I will try to make sure they are absolutely ready before I submit them the first time, and then see how they respond to the pressure.

3. Do you have any tips for learning songs quickly but still making sure you know them properly?

It’s best to mix things up with singing between working “line-by-line”, singing the whole song, and listening to how it goes. I usually start by sight-reading through the whole song, and then I work through it phrase by phrase to make sure I am accurate. Then I sing it as a whole a few times. Each practice time, I tend to use this “Sandwich Method”  of sing/play through and notice mistakes, isolate the bits that went wrong and then sing the whole song again. In between practices, I listen to recorded versions of the song to help me memorise them (you can find my YouTube playlists for the ABRSM exams here). It’s laborious to break down the song and work on individual phrases, but you’ll be glad you did when you get into the pressured situation of the exam (or concert).

Make sure you make notes in pencil on your score marking where you need to take breaths in long passages, and add other reminders about things like tone, vowel modification and dynamics. I often circle notes that I regularly get wrong, or add in accidentals that I forget about.

4. Do I have to memorise the words? How do I do that?

Singers are required by ABRSM to perform from memory, unless they are performing a work from an oratorio, where the custom is for soloists to use the music in regular performances. I ignore this last caveat as, even if you are performing with a score in an oratorio, it’s far better to have memorised it and just have the score there for reassurance/show than to be reliant on it. So yes, you have to memorise the words – even the ones in foreign languages.

I tend to find a combination of listening to the song and practicing it with the words from the beginning get me to about 90% certainty. Where I’m struggling with the words, I usually try to copy them out from the score a few times. Then I write them down from memory a few times. I also “mark” the song by half-singing the words in the shower or walking down the street to keep them circling round in my head.

5. What do I need to add to my performance to get really good marks?

The syllabus has a detailed mark scheme which you can read yourself, but the first key to great marks is to be absolutely spot on. Know your words, know your notes, and be really confident in yourself that you can sing your songs really well. The ABRSM value technical skill above all the other aspects of performing at grade level, so don’t neglect that side of it.

Make sure you get good advice from someone who can a) hear you and b) is trained as a singing teacher about your tonal quality. Most of the songs on the ABRSM syllabus should be sung in a classical style, where there is a purity of tone. Vowel sounds should be the focus of each note, with consonants bracketing it. You’re aiming for a vocal sound with an open throat and low larynx position – often described as “bel canto”. Some of the musical theatre songs require a different vocal set up. This is where a trained teacher’s advice is vitally important to doing really well.

The final aspect which is often neglected but is key to high marks is acting. All songs are being sung to someone. Know who your song is being sung to, and why. Try to feel the emotions of the song as you are singing it – think about times when you’ve felt the love or sadness being sung about. The last thing you want is to sing a song in an exam which is beautifully executed from a technical standpoint but is completely soulless. I’ve produced a worksheet I call “Understanding Repertoire” which can be found on my Resources page.

6. What about accompaniments?

Most ABRSM exam songs are available as downloads on one of the backing track websites on the Recommended Clicking page. It’s important to make use of these so you can be confident about holding your own against the piano. The higher up the grades, the less helpful the accompaniment is to the singer.

While you are practicing, think about whether you need to give your accompanist any instructions like “slow down here” or “don’t play this bit too quietly”. I never accompany my students for exams as I think it’s very important for singers to learn how to work with accompanists. We need to know how to be confident enough to ask for what we want, and we need to be able to trust the person manning the keyboard to work with us for a good performance.

7. Anything else I need to think about?

This is the time to make sure you have legal copies of everything, including the words/translation of your traditional song for the examiner.

You also need to do what you can to prepare for the practicalities like knowing how to get to the venue, and choosing what you’re going to wear. Once you have a date, make sure your accompanist can make it and arrange a rehearsal.

Further advice and guidance can be found in the ABRSM publication These Music Exams, which can be picked up in most music shops or downloaded from this page.

Oh, and don’t neglect your supporting tests – the aural and sight-reading tests can make all the difference to your exam results. They’re the subject of our next two blog posts. Next week’s is on the most “dreaded” element : sight-reading.

–> Next post “Supporting Tests: Sight-Reading

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