I have a weird job. Some days it's weirder than others, like the day I got to work with a Highway Patrol deputy to teach him how to yell without hurting his voice. And sometimes my job is phenomenal, like the day I got to watch a client who couldn't even match pitch when we started, belt out "Let It Go" imperfectly in front of his coworkers because they had dared him to when they accomplished a big goal. It was wonky and glorious. And of course there are all the normal times in between when I work with folks who are looking to hone their singing technique in a specific way or to reach a certain industry-standard goal.
The one thread that goes through every one of these scenarios is that each of these people were already singers. They came to me "to learn how to sing" or to sing better, but in reality, I didn't need to teach them how to sing. They are humans. They already know how to sing.
What they really needed was to learn how to practice.
Singing is a motor learning skill, as well as a mental and emotional task. But in order to achieve the singing voice we want to have, we have to be able to reliably execute the singing tasks required at any given time. That takes time, repetition, and sleep to get things to be automatic in our neural pathways. And that takes practice.
We aren't teaching people how to sing. We teach folks how to practice. When we suggest tackling a certain passage in a song in a specific way, we are giving ideas to our students on how they can work on it in between their sessions with us, in hopes that the task becomes easier or more automatic. But I think teachers could often do a better job at being more clear about what we are actually doing in the singing lesson.
I have asked so many singers if anyone taught them how to practice, and about 99% of them said no. That's not great, y'all, but it's really easy to fix! When we are meeting with clients, being very direct and clear about what they can do in between sessions can help take any ambiguity out of it. We should not assume that singers know how to practice well. And it is not fair to assume they know how to practice, and then get frustrated when they aren't making progress on the things we are working on together. We can help our clients to be more self-sufficient and take ownership of their singing when we help them know how to solidify their technique.
I explain to my students that learning anything new takes time. We need to fling arrows at the bullseye a few times to see how it works. Most of those attempts will likely be failures, but occasionally we'll get it right! But don't stop there!!! (This is the REALLY IMPORTANT PART!) It isn't enough to have ten attempts at something, do it correctly once, and then move on. Once we have figured out how to do something right, we have to repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat in order to strengthen those neural pathways. This is where students can really excel in their practice sessions! If they are repeating the things that are working, they are going to make their singing more reliable and consistent. When you both identify what is bringing about the success, be very clear about how the client can continue to do that until you two meet again. You are teaching them how to practice, and this is how we help our clients get the singing technique they want to have!
Even in the singing lesson, repeat things. We all tend to do vocal exercises by moving up and down by half steps, as our teachers did before us. That's not a bad thing at all. When I'm working with a student and they have a wobble on one of those half-step repeats, we do it again. Usually three or four times in a row to really get some good repetition in. If they do something extraordinarily well, we also do that several times in a row to reinforce it. It's become a normal thing for my clients when I ask them to repeat something multiple times. And because I've told them why several times, they understand the reason behind it. Doing vocal exercises in this way has made a big change in how effective our time is together. I would suggest you try it!
How do you teach your clients how to practice? Do you have any handouts or resources that you use? I think I'm going to make one pretty soon, and I'd love to see your ideas. Feel free to send them to me. And if you would like to talk through how to make your singing sessions more effective, reach out and book some time with me. I'm your Personal Pedagogy Professor, and I'm here to help you be the kind of teacher you want to be!