Practice. It’s a fairly little word, but it’s a big trigger if you’re a musician! It can be so easy to get in a muddle – am I doing enough? Or too much? When should I practice? How do I even approach my practice? I know I can easily end up in a death spiral of anxiety about my practice time (or lack there of). Sometimes, it can get so bad that it actually stops me from practicing.
It’s hard enough when we have normal routines and structures to get a practice habit that works for us. When we’re working and learning from home, on furlough or working crazy shifts, it’s like wading through mud.
I know that in the tough times, actually getting to sing or play can really lift my mood. Starting is the hardest part!
Why we don’t practice
Look back over the last few weeks or months. Have you totally stopped practicing? Here’s the thing, trying to make yourself practice when you don’t want to is pretty impossible. You can make all the plans you want, but if you don’t want to practice, it’s not going to reach the top of your list.
A tired voice, vocal problems or injuries
Sometimes, the problem is obvious. Singing or playing is uncomfortable or painful. If you’re finding it hurts to practice, get some help. Most GPs still offering phone consultations, and physios and speech therapists are able to work remotely. Make sure you explain that the problem is affecting your quality of life. If you are still struggling to get help, you can also contact BAPAM, who specialise in helping performers with their health.
Don’t forget that if you’re stuck at home, you’re probably either using your voice a lot less (because you’re alone for ages), or in a less healthy way (we often speak louder on a video call or phone call!) or both. So be gentle with yourself. Start out with a few simple SOVT exercises, and build up gently to more exercises and eventually repertoire. Don’t forget, most singing (and instrumental) teachers are still teaching online, so you can get some professional help.
Nothing’s inspiring you
If you’re not enjoying the music you’re singing or playing, you’re not going to want to sit down (or stand up) and spend time on it. Figure out what it is that makes you excited. Maybe, you need to put down the big da capo arias, and go for some light music theatre or easy jazz standards. Or perhaps you’re the opposite – setting yourself a challenge to learn a dream role or a whole book of art songs could be what you need.
There are loads of places to source new repertoire. If you can run to it, treating yourself to a new vocal selections, score or songbook brings the added excitement of something arriving in the post. Or there are loads of places to buy sheet music online. You can even get a lot of out of copyright stuff for free.
The house is full to bursting
Perhaps your problem is not that you don’t want to practice. Maybe it’s that you don’t want your family or flatmates to hear you! This is a tricky one as it ultimately comes down to confidence on your part.
The big thing is to talk about it with the people in your house. Which is horrible, but worth it. Ask them when you can practice, and if you like, request that they don’t comment on what they’re hearing. You might even be able to arrange for everyone to go out for a walk once or twice a week to give you peace and quiet, in exchange for you doing the same on another day. Hopefully, a quick chat will be enough to give you the confidence to just do it.
It might be that you can’t manage singing singing practice every day. There are still loads of ways to keep your hand in. Listening to recordings while reading the score or writing out lyrics can really help with the learning process. Breathing exercises are almost silent. SOVT exercises can be done pretty quietly too depending on which sound you use. Mental practice (singing the song in your head) is another option. There are ways and means to keep your hand in, even now.
Motivation is a big part of practice, but so are the practicalities of making it happen. My favourite resource on habits is a book called Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin. This book goes through loads of different tools to help build any kind of habit. I’ve picked four things that help me with following through and doing a bit of practice regularly.
When and where
I know, I know. It’s the most boring one, but it’s the most simple. Set up a routine time, and a routine place. The key to nailing the time part is to try and tack on your practice to something else you already do, like adding it to your morning routine (this is a great time to do a short set of warmups), or making it the first thing you do when you get up at lunch or the end of the day. It takes out the uncertainty and makes it easier to get started.
Having all your stuff in one place ready to go makes a big difference too. Setting up a music stand and leaving your music or notes out will mean you don’t get sidetracked setting up. If you have a piano or keyboard, set up near it. Grab a speaker or cd player and set that up in the same place.
Having a plan
Another place it’s easy to get sidetracked or distracted is when you have to decide what to sing. So decide in advance. Write down your warm up routine and leave it on the front of the stand, or make a playlist of vocalises from YouTube. Take ten minutes at the start of the week to think about what you’re working on and write it down. Maybe it’s the notebashing work of learning a song this week, or perhaps you want to focus on the belt in the chorus of another. You can even break it down by day if you want to. Don’t forget to get all the music and backing tracks set up ready to go too!
I’m definitely generation star chart. I grew up with them as a big part of school and home life in the nineties, and by the time I was into my twenties, I’d graduated onto habit tracking apps and printables. There’s nothing quite like adding a tick, cross, star or coloured square and seeing the streak get longer and longer.
It’s called the strategy of monitoring, and it’s really helpful because you can see how you’re doing, and even identify things that might have caused you to miss a few days. Some people like to keep a more elaborate practice journal with notes on how songs are progressing as well.
Accountability (or having a nag!)
If you can bear it, an effective way to get your practice in can be to ask someone you trust to nag you. This is especially important if you struggle to do things wholly for yourself (and find it easy to do it for others). Lest you think you have to pick your partner, remember in this day and age, you can ask a friend to nag you via text/email/phone/messenger of choice, which can feel less intrusive on your household harmony.
A teacher is great accountability too. If you are really struggling, arranging to meet regularly with a teacher provides you with accountability. A good teacher will want to know how your practice is going (and a good teacher will understand when the answer is “not so good this week”!). Most teachers are still teaching online, with options to return to face to face when possible.
If all else fails, try to grab a bit of time once a week just to enjoy music. Whether it’s playing, listening or watching, dipping in regularly will bring you a bit more joy, and keep you connected to while it’s harder to devote the time you’d like. There is hope on the horizon that we will be able to get back to more routine and structure to hang our weeks around, and to the pleasure of making music together. Focus on the joy, and practice will, ultimately, follow.