Singing is like a language, a body language, if you will. When learning a new language, one often hears the advice to study every day. Does the same advice hold for singing? Setting aside the catastrophic financial expenses that would come with that, wouldn’t it be great to take daily voice lessons? You’ll get the hang of it in no time, right?
Unfortunately, the language of the physical functioning of the voice works a bit differently. I maintain that it is NOT advisable to take daily voice lessons, and that the highest frequency should be twice a week. Let me explain why.
The world class soprano Renée Fleming states in her book “The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer”:
“I’ve finally accepted the fact that singing takes ten minutes to explain and ten years to accomplish.”
That is because there is a significant time gap between the moment we comprehend a technical principle and when our body masters it.
We are not stupid, we get it when we hear it the first time: relax your shoulders, reposition your tongue, breath low, expand your ribs sideways, and so forth. That shouldn’t be so hard! But still our body takes its time to follow. That is how muscle memory works. If you want to train your body to get used to an activity it is not used to, the secret is repetition.
And where do we do that painstaking work? At home. Not with the teacher, but with ourselves, a mirror, a keyboard and four walls. That is where the magic happens. We take the teacher’s instructions (which we may or may not have followed during the lesson) and drill that into our systems. That is THE secret.
To put it plainly: going to lessons without practicing in between is a waste of your time and money. Do yourself a favor and practice at least 5 times a week, will you? Practice a maximum of 6 days week, you need a day of rest 🙂
How often for beginners
You are probably at a stage when you are not always sure if you are singing correctly or not. You barely have any idea about vocal technique and you might feel helpless without your teacher. In this case, take two lessons a week if you can. Practice no more than 20 minutes a day, to make sure you don’t do yourself any harm. Playing around with your voice is fascinating, but it can also be dangerous, if you don’t know what you are doing.
**Important principle! Even though you don’t know what you are doing, you know when your throat hurts! Pay attention while you sing at home and if something is uncomfortable, STOP, and try something else. If it feels weird, but not painful or like an effort, it’s cool. Weird is good, you are trying to form new habits, which by their very nature won’t feel familiar.***
More advanced singers
After you’ve learned some things and practiced some, you’ll begin to realize when you are doing it right and when wrong. You can then reduce the frequency to once a week, and keep the same practice routine. The more you are able to judge by yourself what you are doing wrong and the more tools you have to fix it, the fewer lessons a month you can take. Provided that you keep up the work at home and repeat the exercises with your lovely instrument.
How seldom can you take a lesson?
In a time of an existential crisis, after years of intense vocal training, I figured this idea out. You don’t have to be dependent on the teacher all the time. I was in a lesson where I learned a very basic technical element for the first time, or, to be fair, realized it for the first time. I began doubting myself as a singer, as a student, as an intelligent person!
I went home and decided I would not go back to my teacher before managing to pull that trick off. I practiced every day for a whole month, and when I went back my teacher was impressed, to say the least. We both understood that once a month was the deal from then on. She might get paid less, but the lessons would be much more satisfying. To be honest, there were times in which I took one lesson every two months, or even less frequent. It worked for me, as I was at the time advanced enough to know when I needed the feedback.
I hope the point is clear by now: your progress depends on your ability to be your own tutor. Is your understanding of basic technique sufficient to correct yourself on the battle field, aka, your practice room? This understanding will progress, with time, enabling you to take lessons less often and have more effective, long lasting changes in your singing.
Will I ever be able to stop voice lessons altogether? Hmm….no. And yes. Our voice sounds completely different from the outside than it does in our head. Therefore, we cannot rely on just our ears when practicing for long stretches. It is very helpful to record (better still – to film) yourself and examine the results.
Maybe some would argue that this is enough for advanced singers. Still, in my opinion, one should have an extra set of eyes and ears. Go to a teacher once in a while, or exchange lessons with a colleague of about your level.
This piece is an extension of the broader article about how to practice singing.