Let’s face it, some of us singers can be an ill-disciplined bunch. Especially when you find that you have quite a naturally good singing voice. The idea of practicing can go right out of the window and at best we’ll commit time to singing through a couple of songs and call it “practice”. This will probably happen in the shower. Not good enough.
Studies show that the most efficient and effective practice has to be specific and targeted.
Sometimes it can be helpful to think of things on two separate scales, one is talent (assuming that talent is innate and not cultivated – whole other blog right there!) and the other is functionality.
You can grade yourself 1-10 on both of these scales.
Let’s assume for a second that talent is set and therefore doesn’t change, you can be a 10 in talent but only a 2 in functionality, which probably doesn’t make for a very consistent singer. A “2” in functionality could mean that the singer is prone to losing their voice quite consistently, and therefore has to cancel gigs because of this. This person could also run a high risk of acquiring a vocal injury. This could also makes recording the voice a long process due to fatigue and general inconsistency. Practice becomes an irrelevancy because they can do what they do very naturally. At best they may warm up the voice and cool down.
On the other hand, the singer who has a 5 in talent and a 10 in functionality is soon going to overtake our first example because of their commitment to improving their abilities, making sure that their vocal health is excellent and consistently challenging their voice. These singers will rarely have to cancel gigs and will never be afraid of trying new things and will always keep pushing the boundaries of what they can do.
A perfect example of this type of singer in my opinion would be Madonna. Very few people would say that Madonna has an “amazing” voice, but again I don’t believe that many people would accuse her of not working extremely hard at what she does. She constantly reinvents herself and always performs to an exceptionally high standard.
A really great example of a singer who has a 10/10 in talent and functionality would be Beyoncé. That woman is a machine. Nuff said.
Now, because I don’t particularly want to name names, I reckon we can all have a think and come up with a few examples of very talented people who have a low functionality that has caused them problems professionally and medically.
DISCLAIMER, these examples are just my humble opinion and I’m not intending to put down anybody, especially a singer who has sold millions etc.
There’s an awesome book and it's called “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle, which deals with the idea of innate talent and explores “talent hubs” around the world that have produced awesome tennis players (Russia), amazing soccer players (Brazil) and fantastic singers (USA).
In his book, Coyle talks about the “Myelin Sheath” which is an essential part of how our brain works. A “Myelin Sheath” is a bond that wraps itself around the electrical impulse that fires between two neurons in the brain. In the most simplistic sense, every time you perform an action that fires between two neurons, a “Myelin Sheath” wraps itself around the created pathway and reinforces it. The more that action is repeated, then the more Myelin secures and reinforces the pathway, which is why we can learn to do different and new things, like learning an instrument for example. At first even the most basic scales on a piano can be really difficult to get your fingers and head around, but over time, the more Myelin that wraps around those neural pathways, the easier things become.
Interestingly enough, some animals are born with certain amounts of pathways already secured via Myelin, which is why some animals can walk from birth.
What does this mean for the singer?
Well, rather than singing a song through from start to finish, you need to target specific phrases and sections of the song that require practice. It could be that you need to spend a significant amount of time, say 20 minutes, on one particular phrase, making sure that you’re in pitch, that your diction is good, that you can reach all of the notes etc. One particular skill we can develop through targeted practice is that of riffs and runs. Remember every time you perform an action, the pathway in the brain is reinforced and the more you practice that action, the most secure that connection becomes.
20 minutes is the optimum time for practicising one particular phrase. After 20 minutes you will start thinking about your grocery shopping or what you're having for dinner that evening. Now, if you manage to nail that phrase after 13 minutes of practice, stop what you're doing and walk away. It's better to leave on a high than try and do the same thing again and end up practicising the wrong way again. Does that make sense? You want to leave you brain and your muscle memory with the memory of you performing the phrase correctly!
So remember, 20 minutes of targeted and specific practice and don't just sing through a song! Analyse your Talent vs Functionality scale and see if you can get yourself up to the 10 in functionality! Happy practicing!