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Imagine, if you practice ...

Any ambitious collegiate musician who is considering a music career needs consistent, focused practice and the benefits it can reap. While this article will concentrate on the human instrument--the voice, a correlation may be drawn to other wind instruments where there is fundamental need to build stamina for playing that instrument. For playing a brass instrument, the major concern is building the student's embouchure control. This is also quite true in training of woodwind players. Facial muscles, which control breath stream management for flute and double reed players, are absolutely essential. Every teacher, whether one works with wind instrumentalists or singers, faces the initial hurtle with their students of instilling a consistent regimen of good practice habits in their students to build the stamina needed to counter muscle fatigue.

You should know there are students throughout the country practicing twenty or more hours a week; you will meet them at auditions and compete with them for jobs of all kinds. For a moment, consider the medium-sized state of Ohio. It has sixty schools of higher education where one can get various vocal music degrees. Of these, eleven are schools or conservatories of music, while the remaining fifty or so have departments of music. If we make a very conservative estimate of the average number of undergraduate vocal majors in each of these institutions, say thirty per school, the state of Ohio alone has at least 1,800 vocal majors working on undergraduate degrees. It will graduate about a fourth of that number, approximately 450 per year. Ohio's graduating singers then will be competing, with several thousand other undergraduates, for teaching positions in the nation's job market or for acceptance into the best graduate schools and apprentice programs along with you.

Low Endurance, Low Confidence

If you practice vocal music for two to three hours weekly, or six thirty-minute sessions, you will slowly learn the notes and be fairly accurate rhythmically on about four songs of easy to moderate difficulty--that's typical for a first semester freshman with average ability. You will sound fairly good if your teacher's modeling elicits a free sound that is well-focused on pure vowels. You could even have fun. But, if you had to sing all four of your songs consecutively at jury time, you probably would become fatigued toward the end of the second song and would begin to have pitch problems shortly into your third song. You may find that your memory fails, depending on how nervous you are, and that you begin to tire because thirty-minute practice sessions for singers are not long enough work periods to build vocal stamina and develop confidence.

Ensemble rehearsal time can't really be counted yet in the above two- to three-hour practice schedule, for two reasons. First, those rehearsals, especially early in the learning cycle for a semester-ending concert, seldom require sustained singing for more than a few minutes. Second, two to three hours in vocal practice is barely enough time to learn four songs in a semester, so there isn't time to learn choral music outside of actual rehearsals--something a good conductor requires of choristers. Choral rehearsals can be a detriment to your vocal progress, or they can be a tremendous boost to it. You will see why later. You learn a lot in ensemble rehearsals. They teach you important musical skills such as how to focus in rehearsal and relate with others to music; you learn how to follow a conductor and take directions; how to mark a score; how to take cues from other parts and the piano; and how to count, read intervals and shape phrases musically and more. But these skills are not a substitute for skills gained in the practice room and the endurance that comes with practice there.

Practicing five to six hours a week, you can make progress with careful time management. You likely will be able to develop a comprehensive warm-up routine and work on various vocalises, etudes or vocal methods, called "vocal study." These exercises are ideal not only for building your ear and sensitivity to phrasing, but will begin to help you gain the stamina needed to counter fatigue. You may actually even prepare songs and materials for jury examinations well before the cramming that comes at the end of each semester. Your teacher will consider this to be minimally satisfactory progress for a semester's work. Such effort allows for reasonable muscle memory development, which is vital for a singer's progressive development. You may even begin to memorize the various vocal studies. At this point there will be time for practicing choral music outside the rehearsal, which is essential for building technique and endurance.

Choral Singing Improves Solo Growth

Let us consider one of the hidden benefits choral rehearsal holds for your studio work now that you've allotted additional time to practice your choral music. Because choral rehearsals also are opportunities to build upon vocal studio technique, the time in mandatory choral rehearsal is now an addition to your weekly vocal practice time. By knowing your choral parts better, you are able to participate more fully in rehearsals with improved vocal quality. You increase your stamina and flexibility in choral rehearsal.

A singer who doesn't know the notes is working at cross-purposes with studio objectives. A timid singer inadvertently uses poor technique when following rather than leading--remember how good it feels to be a leader in any singing experience? Your voice teacher, who wondered why advancement in the previous lesson wasn't holding for your next lesson, is now seeing weekly progress. Here's why you weren't able to build on what was taught the week before: The lack of sufficient practice each week was "killing your technique" because you didn't know your notes well enough to feel useful and reinforce what was being taught in your studio lesson. Therefore, your mandatory choral rehearsal time was neither increasing your stamina nor building your technique. Now the time you've gained allows you to practice your choral music and makes those choral rehearsals work in your favor. This is a win-win situation--you build your voice while improving the choir.

Build to a Crescendo

Regular practice up to ten hours per week, or forty per month, may cause some important and valuable developments in your singing. Most likely, you will become more "fit." You will learn and memorize eight to ten songs of increasing difficulty per semester and possibly more, in addition to getting greater benefit out of your vocalises. There even will be time to play memorization games, write your words into a notebook of song texts and study your songs' harmonic and formal structure, which can improve your interpretations. You also will be able to determine the deep structure of the poetry or prose you're singing, which will make your interpretations more convincing because they will be more musically expressive and insightful. You will be able to work on fine points of stage presence, articulation, facial expression and poise. You'll be able to listen to many new recordings in search of new repertoire and much more. Your sight reading will improve, and you will be able to spend quality rehearsal time with your accompanist, whose services you may have to pay for each semester. And best of all, you will not get tired.

Your choral rehearsals will be a joy because you can fully and effectively contribute to the expression of great choral music chosen for students, like you, who inspire and make their director more creative. Your work ethic, vocal quality and spirit will be an inspiration to those around you in choral rehearsals. And your voice teacher, who will be very pleased with your progress, will be reminded of how important quality choral rehearsals are to the technical progress and health of a voice student under a competent choral director. You will have greater self-esteem; an outgrowth of personal achievement and the recognition it brings you from others, who respect your work. You will like yourself.

Now, if you develop the discipline to practice fifteen to twenty hours a week--remember that your choral rehearsals are now bonus hours, depending on the weekly length of those rehearsals--you'll get all of the previously mentioned benefits. Plus, you'll be a serious competitor at auditions, and you'll deserve to be chosen for solo work.

If you cannot increase the number of practice hours to this level, the gains will be haphazard and elusive.

There are many gifted musicians studying in America's schools of higher education. And since there is so much talent, it appears that talent alone does not determine success. Beyond talent, it's the competitive drive to practice. Do you take your talent to the next level by increasing the amount of time you commit to consistent and focused practice?

Imagine, if you practice ...

David Saladino is Director of Choral Activities at the University of Arkansas, where he teaches conducting and conducts Schola Cantorum, a critically acclaimed American choir that has performed all over the world.
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Title Annotation:music practice
Author:Salidino, David
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2001
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