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Friday Focus: Practice makes Permanent (or how to fall in love with Process)

Probably the most frequent complaints in the studio are related to practice.
Some of the things I hear are:

  1. I don’t have time to practice.
  2. I don’t know what I am supposed to practice.
  3. I think I am doing it wrong.
  4. I practice a lot but I’m not improving.
  5. I feel worse after practicing than if I skip it.
  6. I perform better without practice.

In today’s Friday Focus, I hope to demystify practice and convince you to embrace Process.
First of all, why do we have to practice?  The fact is that our ability to learn anything is brain dependant.  The brain must change in response to stimuli (the new information) and create neurons to transmit that information.  The pathways for that information to get to the related areas of the brain also need to be built and strengthened and that it the fundamental work of practice.  Strengthening the neural pathways and building new ones in order to solidify understanding and the ability to execute the task, in this case, voice use.  In the case of voice use, we are also dealing with motor learning.  The repetition of movements that over time decrease the need for attention and make actions more automatic.  This in turn also solidifies those neural pathways to your most efficient voice use.  Efficiency is the ultimate goal of our voice use.  It allows for the most flexibility of use, with the maximum access to the instrument, and in the healthiest way.
Okay, assuming I am starting to sell you on why you need to practice, how do you do it?
I believe that the most productive practice is the practice you plan for.  This also has the benefit of being the practice you will actually get to because it has a set time and structure.  It is also important because while most of us learned that practice makes perfect, practice actually makes permanent.  If you practice mindlessly, you may just drill in bad habits or even actual mistakes.
Introducing the micro-practice.
Micro-practices, for our purposes, are small units of focused practice spaced with at least ten minutes of break in between the units.  They are sprints towards specific results.  For example, if I am working on making sure my voice is supported by breath, a micro-practice might look like this:

  1. Alignment and vocal warm-up – 5 minutes
  2. Focused exercises for supported vocalization – 7 minutes
  3. Review (written, mental or both) of changes, observations, issues – 3 minutes

The short length and focus of the micro-practice allow you really direct your thinking into the task and allows for quick adoption into your neural network.  Another micro-practice might look like this:

  1. Alignment and vocal warm-up – 3-5 minutes
  2. Standup practice of a section of a speech or song – 5-7 minutes
  3. Recorded run thru of that section of speech or song – 5 minutes
  4. Review – 3-5 minutes

In the studio, I wrap each lesson with a discussion of what the next week’s work should be.  Ideally, that plan is converted into a series of micro-practices to be conducted throughout the week.  Any given day there should be practice, how much depends on what you are working on and your available time.  It means that on a particularly busy day you may only have time for one micro-practice.  On another day, you may be able to schedule three or four.  It is adaptable and completely under your control.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to plan for practice but also to be realistic about practice.  It doesn’t matter if you practice an hour a day if that practice is unfocused or if you are just shoving it into a day where you are physically and mentally spent.  Realistic, steady, and focused is the path towards mastery of your vocal instrument.
Lastly, I am going to encourage you to make the review part of your micro-practice, a journaling practice.   We have quite a lot of data now telling us that writing longhand stimulates and supports learning.  Beyond the data, I can tell you that I still learn from practice journals I kept in college.  The way you interpret and catalog your experience is the most valuable teacher you will ever have.
See you in the Studio.

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