I've been teaching a collegiate vocal pedagogy class this semester, and it's been an absolute blast. I have a great class who asks really interesting questions. One thing we've talked about a lot it how singing teachers are not really teaching singing, as such. We're really teaching singers how to practice. I think there is still a great deal more we can do to help the teachers of the future teach their students how to practice effectively, and perhaps one day I'll write about that.
One of the things that will make practice more effective is to make it as similar as possible to the performance conditions as we can. But most of the time, our singers don't have easy access to the venues where they will be performing, and many singers will do performances only once in any given venue. So how can we really make practice conditions beneficial to our students? Does it really matter at all?
I think one big thing we can do is to shift that mindset a bit, and instead of making the practice like the performance, think about the performance being like the practice. One of the biggest differences between performance spaces and practice spaces is acoustics, and our brains will analyze what it hears and sometimes change our vocal output to counteract any changes. That's why singers will push when they get into a bigger space without realizing it. The slower reflection times and the psychological effect of a bigger space can lead a singer to want to fill that space, and over-singing is the result.
But, if their practice is such that they are focused on how the technique feels in their body, rather than how it sounds, they can get into a performance space and connect with the sensations they have developed over time. Those sensations are going to be much more stable and repeatable than what they hear. And that way, performance can be more like practice.
Of course, adding in elements like an audience, even with just one or two people, can mimic the experience of singing in front of people and the performance anxiety that can produce. Practicing that so you can identify strategies that work can be really helpful. The more you can get into larger rooms to practice, the better to learn how your voice works in those kinds of spaces. You can even do dress rehearsals in the shoes and clothes that you'll be wearing for the event. There are recent studies examining the use of virtual reality for creating realistic visuals of performance spaces during practice that are finding positive results. (See references for links for further reading.)
For most singers, singing is something they do for fun and personal fulfillment, and not as a career. Performance might be a once-in-a-while thing, or maybe a never thing. I used to think singing for others had to be a part of the singing lesson experience, but I don't believe that to be nearly as important anymore. Any person can sing for any reason they choose, and if they don't want to perform for anyone else, that's fine with me. But for those who do want to perform, giving them an opportunity to practice the skill of performance is important for success. The more we do it, and the more normal performance becomes, the less scary it will be for a lot of singers. Simply producing more opportunities to sing for others and observing how it goes can be enough to make practice more like performance.
I'm certain I'm missing things, so tell me your ideas! I'd love to share them with my students, and to talk more about them with you. Drop me a line through the chat feature on this page, or join the site and comment below. Let's keep talking!
Bellinger, D., Wehrmann, K., Rohde, A. et al. The application of virtual reality exposure versus relaxation training in music performance anxiety: a randomized controlled study. BMC Psychiatry 23, 555 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-023-05040-z