Mechanical Practicing

Want to be more artistic as a singer? Practice more mechanically.

I’m not kidding. When you simply begin with prescribed warm-ups and drills and strive for a steady repetition of every line, every gesture, working the individual elements of the voice like range, tone quality, and breath flow like a bodybuilder in a gym, you are priming your instrument so you can make art that is more free, not less.

Think of a drill as a meditation. You’re not worried about sounding beautiful or impressing anyone. You’re not worried about anyone else hearing. You are simply making sound for its own sake, training the mind as much as the body to shape it. Just hear your sound and be with it. Five notes, up and down. One note, with a crescendo and decrescendo. A siren. A lip trill. A toning sequence. Take the “music” out of it and experience your voice as the tool and instrument that it is.

You will grow to become less self-conscious about your voice and allow it to show you what works about it and what doesn’t. You will have a chance to bypass the personal judgments that your subconscious makes all too quickly: “Oh god; I’ll never sound like Celine Dion.” Let those objections slide away with each drill repetition; let your work on your instrument save you from comparing your sound to the imagined ideal.

People who see music practice as an endless uphill battle to perfection benefit best from this approach. They don’t have to worry about singing The Barber of Seville; they can just concentrate on the present moment’s work, just five notes up and down for a couple of minutes and gently flexing the voice.

In recent years, private teachers of all instruments have been trying to get away from the endless drill routines that bore their young and inexperienced students, and for good reason: They really ARE boring and frustrating. So instead of transforming our relationship to them, we push students into doing “real music” as quickly as possible, hoping that they get their technique as a by-product of performing.

But do they? It takes a minimum of 21 days of consistent behavioral action for a fresh neural pathway to form in the human brain. That’s how long it takes to develop a good habit, or break a bad one. If your technique work is only incidental to making music, how much music will it take to build the kind of technique that will keep your voice happy and healthy for a lifetime?

I’ve said before (and often) that your voice is not “you.” The sound that is made when your vocal folds vibrate is the product of a working instrument, not a mark of personal identity. It may be weird for an artist to think this way about the voice, but is a painter his brush? With mechanical practicing, you will see your voice as a tool and not as “you.”

But what are “you,” then? That’s the best part: You are no longer your voice; you are the artist.

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