Practice Tips and Techniques, No. 1

About ten years ago my student Brian O’Neill and I had a long discussion about practice techniques. He transcribed it and sent it along to me, and it languished on my hard drive. Recently, I remembered the material and dug it out. It needs editing, so it’s going to take a while to get it all tidy, but there’s some worthwhile stuff in that document. The first part of the conversation was about practicing the drone — the most basic type of self-tuning a singer can do.

WS: When I started out I did not have any particular deep sense of discipline in practice. Eventually I began by starting every day with a drone session. I would just sing the tonic, the Sa. And I would focus on that, and I would…

BTO: Tune up?

WS: Yeah. You try & get your temporomandibular joint a little bit loose; you do a little bit of overtoning; some tongue stretches; try and make sure the soft palate is down and you’re getting sinus resonance. What I tell my students is to begin with a little session (it might be 10 minutes) of Sa, every morning. And when you do that, you examine different variations.

For example, subtle intonational shifts. Get on Sa and move the note the smallest possible amount flat, then return it to the center, then move it sharp and return it. What you’re really doing is, you’re decreasing the intonational standard deviation of the pitch.

So that’s one approach to the Sa.

Another approach is breath control. You get a watch with a sweep second hand, sing Sa [one breath’s worth], and time yourself. “Hmmm, that was 11 seconds. OK, I’m going to go for 12.” And then you ask yourself, “Where does most of the air go out? Oh, most of the air goes out in the very first half a second. OK, let me try and regulate that. Good!, I got 5 more seconds on that.” So those are all good ways of occupying yourself on the drone. So 10 minutes turns out to be nowhere near enough time, and you just pick one or another of those exercises to do with the tonic.

There’s a lot more to come, including very specific methods for organizing your practice to get the most effective study in the time you have available. Stay tuned!

Finally, a word on a related subject.

If you’re studying or teaching music, you’re engaged in the long, slow, work of taking parts of our past and preparing them to travel into the future.

Therefore, you owe it to yourself and to the music you cherish — to educate yourself about climate change.

No stable climate – no music. It’s as simple as that.


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