My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Vocalists' checklist for solving practice room problems

Mistakes are not the enemy.  Mistakes show us what is begging for our attention.  But what happens when we don't know what's causing us to stumble?  More often than not when I ask a student what caused a mistake in a rehearsal my questioning is received with a look of bewilderment or a shrug of the shoulders.  The answer, if any, tends to be a vague one - "I don't know.  I think it's this line that's giving me trouble."

This type of answer isn't going to get anyone anywhere very quickly, except into a state of frustration.

What I've discovered over many years of working with instrumentalists and singers is that when someone stumbles, there are only a handful of possible triggers.  As long as we stop and figure out what the root of the problem is, there is nothing that can get in the way of us solving the passage, fixing any weakness that was previously learned because of the problem, and then moving on in a blaze of glory.

Sounds easy, doesn't it?  It is!

Over a year ago I put together a checklist for instrumentalists of issues that typically lead to mistakes in the practice room.  Not wanting to keep vocalists in suspense any longer, here is the vocalists' edition.  If anyone has anything else to add, please free to do so in the comments section below!  It takes a village to learn how to practice.

  1. Could it be a breath issue?  Do you know where you want your breaths to be or where they should be?  Are you doing them consistently in the same places every time?  It is important to figure out where your breaths are going to be and to stick to them from the very beginning.  If you find a breath you've already chosen isn't working, then find another place to take one. Inconsistent or impractical breathing can significantly take away from your voice's ability to shine.  
  2. Do you really know what the text is, how it's supposed to be pronounced, and what it means if it contains a word you don't know or is in a different language?  Even when singing songs in your native tongue there can be words that are unfamiliar - look up their meaning, make them make sense and you'll find it's much more difficult to get thrown off by them.  
  3. Can you separate out and perform the different layers of your song?  Many singers insist on learning the words, pitches, and rhythm all in one fell swoop but in my experience the performers that can isolate the layers and perform them individually and in various combinations are the ones that can deliver performances with the most security.  Be able to speak the text without rhythm as if you are an actor or actress delivering a monologue on the stage.  Conduct and vocalize the rhythm of your line on one syllable.  Conduct and vocalize the rhythm of your line using the text.  Sing the pitches without the rhythm and words.  There are lots of different combinations that can keep you mindfully and productively busy.  
  4. Are you sure of how your text's syllables line up with the notes, especially when there are multiple syllables that have to occur on one note?  Separate out the layers first.  Be able to speak the words or syllables in question slowly in rhythm first, without the pitches.  Then add the pitches.  
  5. Are you sure of each and every note's pitch?  Make sure you are carrying any accidentals that appear throughout the rest of each measure and mark them in if you miss anything more than once.
  6. Do you hear the intervals you are singing in your inner ear before trying to sing them?  This exercise will require that you slow down but it's important that you're able to do this.  If you want to have good intonation, hearing it in your inner ear is an important part of the puzzle.  Developing a good inner ear is an investment that will pay off exponentially over time.
  7. Do you know what the interval is between the last note of the preceding phrase and the first note of the next?  Is it the same note?  Is it a fifth away? 
  8. Could there be a rhythm issue?  Do you know the math behind the rhythm?  Guessing is not advisable!  If you can count to 4 or 6 you can figure out virtually any rhythm that's out there - it's well worth a few extra minutes to do the math and to truly learn how to execute a tricky rhythm.  In vocal music that contains a lot of sixteenth notes where each note gets one syllable, publishers often use individual flags rather than connecting groups of them with beams in beat units.  This can be very disorienting to the eyes since the beats can be obscured. Organize the music by drawing in vertical lines to represent the beats or connect the notes with beams so that your eyes have something to latch onto when reading the music.  Otherwise you may just be swimming in a sea of scary rhythms.
  9. Could it be a meter issue?  Is the piece in 3/4?  (3/4 for is a notoriously difficult meter for many of us to sing or play in.  I've written about it extensively in my post, "A note of apology and sympathy to a time signature.")  Make sure you know how the meter is supposed to feel and where the emphasis should be.  More often than not you will see that the composer has brilliantly set the text in such a way that the most important words and syllables will fall on the major beats.  
  10. Is the passage a fast passage that gets you all tied up?  If so, look for as many patterns and sequences as you can find to simplify it for your eyes, voice, and mind.  Are there scales?  Triadic motion?  Repeated motives?  Doing this type of investigative work will also help you memorize the passage more quickly and securely since you won't be trying to remember it note by note.  
  11. Are you unsure of how an ornament is supposed to be carried out?  Make sure you know exactly how an ornament is to be sung and where it should begin rhythmically.  Once you figure that out, write in whatever you need to so that you always know what you should be doing both rhythmically and in regards to pitch.  Don't guess!
  12. Is there another phrase that is similar but slightly different elsewhere?  Often those differences will cause problems if we're not aware that they're there.  Look and compare.  Ask yourself why the phrases are different.  Did the composer want to highlight a word that is different?  Did he or she want to lead us somewhere different harmonically?  Once you truly know the differences practice the phrases back to back slowly.  Have a mental tape running that will guide you through the differences so that you are longer relying on luck to get the correct version.  
  13. Could it be a transition problem between one phrase or section and another?  Often times we work hard on individual phrases and then we piece them together.  Make sure you regularly practice stringing phrases together so make sure you can go from one to another securely and musically.
  14. Is the problem occurring on a page turn?  If so, either photocopy one of the pages so that it makes the transition from one page to another more easy or memorize the material around the page turn so that you can practice it without having any problems.  I also want to note that I've noticed that many singers, when working off of photocopies, put the music in their binder so that they have to turn the page at the end of each page.  I suggest putting the music in a binder as they would be in a book, with pages side by side.  This reduces the number of page turns in half.  (I wrote about this in my post, "An uninspiring but important tip for singers.")  
  15. Are you unsure of where to come in after an interlude?  Look at the piano score to find some cues that will help you know how your part relates to the accompaniment and write clues into your score if that would be helpful.  Don't just rely on counting out loud - there are too many distractions that can throw our counting off and if that happens we're generally stuck if we don't have something aural to grab onto.  Counting out loud also doesn't work if the composer has intentionally written music that is deceptive aurally - I'm thinking of dear Johannes Brahms, Barber, and Argento just to name a few.  
  16. If you are having problems coming in after rests, are you sure you are holding the last note of the preceding phrase the correct length?  If you cut your final note off a beat early or a beat late that can dramatically alter how you're counting and may lead to you coming in a beat early or late.  
Happy problem solving!

Your friendly neighborhood pianist,


  1. Thank you for this checklist. It's all a lot of work, but the payoff is immense!

    1. I couldn't agree with you more! Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.