Practicing correctly can speed your progress greatly, but singers often wonder how to get the best from their voice during these sessions.

In this episode John gives his best advice for having a successful practice session.

Practice well and you will sing well!

Episode Transcript

Episode 29 – How to Practice

Hey there! This is John Henny. I want to welcome you to another episode of the Intelligent Vocalist. Today, I want to talk about how to practice.

It’s a question I get asked a lot by singers, “How best can I spend my practice time?” And as in most things in life, it depends. Man, I hate that answer. I’ve said this before. But I get pretty into playing poker number of years back. I was trying to study to get better and better, and I would ask someone who knew more than me or on a message board, “How do I play this hand?”, and they would say “It depends.” Ugh. I hate that. Just tell me exactly how to play it.

But the truth is, it does depends. There are many variables that come in. And the same is true for your voice. Remember your voice is a human instrument and it’s changing everyday. And it can almost seem like every moment of everyday. It is responding and reacting to how much sleep you’ve had, what you’ve eaten, when you’ve eaten, are you stressed, are you hydrated, are you parched, do you have allergies, what kind of medicines you’ve been taking – all these things affect the vocal folds. So taking that into account, what you need to do is you want to take each practice day, set aside a time – it doesn’t all have to do with one block. The voice often responds well to practice periods broken up through the day, maybe you’re going to do a shorter practice in the morning, and then another one late afternoon or evening – however you want to structure it. I don’t really recommend a super long practice sessions all in one seating. You do have to remember, again, it’s human tissue, it’s your body, it’s going
to fatigue at some point. You also have to get very in tune with your own voice. What works for one person isn’t necessarily going to work for you.

Now having said that, I like to break up practice sessions into a few key events.  The first one is warming up. Some people need to warm up for a lengthier period of times, some people can do it rather quickly. Kind of the rule of thumb is maybe five to ten minutes. If you’re not feeling particularly well, if your voice is tired, you may have to go a little longer to get your voice ready for the next phase of your practice.
What you’re basically doing when your warming up is you’re getting all these little muscles, and ligaments, and tissues ready for the act of singing. And singing is pretty intense. Remember, your cords are opening and closing hundreds of times, even over a thousand times a second. If you’re a female or a male who can sing really high on really high notes, that’s very very intense. Hundreds of times a second, in case you’re counting, is a lot.

So you want to get everything ready. Warm-ups basically are lower impact. The vowels tend to be more close OOH’s, OH’s, EE’s. You don’t want to worry during the warm-up phase about how perfect your voice sounds. Is there a little break in your voice when you’re going up? When you’re warming-up, is your voice getting that little flip? It’s not a big deal. You need to think about the goal of each section of your practice. And the goal here is just to get the voice ready. You’re stretching things out.

The idea is as you begin this gentle phonation, this gentle opening and closing of cords, is actually helping reduce maybe swelling that you have on the cords, kind of get everything going and primed. Don’t make it about singing perfectly, balancing vowels, worrying about your sustains, and certainly not about power – not at this part.
I will tell you the mistake that many singers make is they want to go for power right away in their practice sessions. I tell my students don’t worry about trying to sing strong. Save that later in the practice sessions. And if you never get to that, it’s okay. You’re still doing a lot of good. What you don’t want to do are things that are not good for the voice, that takes the voice in the opposite direction where you want to go. You want your voice healthy, number one. And then you want to be agile, supple, balanced – all of these things. And yes, ultimately powerful. But we have to be careful about that.

Some favorite warm-ups that I use are things such as semi-occluded exercise. There’s your fancy word for the day. Semi means partial, and occluded means blocked. So they’re partially blocked, if you will. Popular ones are lip bubbles, tongue trills, doing things on Z’s and V’s, TH’s, and then the increasingly popular, Straw, which I may get into another podcast. But basically this taking a drinking straw of varying diameters, but if you just take a drinking straw and basically playing through it like a kazoo. There are some reasons why that helps.
In general, what semi-occluded exercises are doing is they are creating a certain amount of resistance to the air and the sound energy that you are making. That resistance is either by the lips opening and closing, or the tongue, or the thinness of the straw, because now everything has to be funneled through that very very narrow straw and creates a back pressure, and back pressure is very very good for the voice. It is an energy coming back and helping the vocal folds resist air in the straw in particular. It’s almost like a mini masseuse in there, kind of massages your cords that’s all very very good. On these, take them as high as as comfortable. Because you are doing these semi-occluded exercises, you generally can take them rather high. The lips bubbles, etc, they’ll tend to glide up pretty high into your range without using much effort. Don’t push on them. Don’t try and shovel a lot of air. Just let them be nice and easy. You can move from them into rather closed vowels. And by closed vowels, I’m talking about OOH’s, OH’s, EE’s.

Again, let the voice because the voice needs to break a little bit. Let it break a little bit. Do these until the voice starts feeling a bit better. You’ll feel like “Okay, now my voice is starting to maybe feel a little lighter, it’s less croaky, a little more agile.

And then you start to move into the next phase which is essentially whatever vocal exercises you like to do. These can include running up and down scales, combinations of vowels and consonants, sirens, glides. Sirens are OOOH-AAAH, usually a fixed pitch. You just kind of going up into your upper register and back down. With the glides, maybe you’ll be doing them over a fifth or maybe an octave, they’re a little more focused.

From there, as you get those going, then I would start to work into sustains and balance. So this is now your moving into what I would call the third phase. The first phase is the warming-up, the second phase is just general vocal exercises, getting the voice going – maybe you’re singing into it a little bit more, you’re starting into a little bit more open vowels, maybe some AH type of vowels, maybe a little bit of agility exercises, things like that. Then I kind of start maneuvering into balancing phase – Phase three, that’s going to be sustains, vibratos, just making sure your vibrato is working well, working sustains on different vowels, blending one vowel into another vowel. It can be very helpful for people to go from more closed vowels to more open vowels. So on a sustain maybe you want to do an OOAAH. And as you sustain, just hold it then open to the next wider vowel, and open again. If you can keep that balanced, see if you can keep that vibrato nice and spinny. If all of that is working, then I start focusing on a little bit more power. You can start to increase intensity on those sustains, lean in a little more. Start opening the vowels a little bit more, and see if you can keep that same balance again while increasing the intensity level. Or you may decide “You know what, I’m not going to go for power today. I’ve done my warm-up, I’ve done my basic vocalizing, I’ve done my balancing. Now I want to work on extending my range.” So you can work on your upper range, your lower range. You kind of just want to make deliberate decisions based on how long you’ve had that day. Don’t rush anything. Don’t engage in mindless practice. Mindful practices are really really much more effective practices where you’re mentally engaged, where you’re paying attention, and you’re really focused on your practice.

Now, as a quick side note, one thing I see singers do when they are practicing is when they don’t do something right, they get frustrated. It’s very easy to get frustrated with the voice. Quite frankly, it’s a frustrating instrument. But let me tell you why you don’t want to do that. When you get frustrated, you have thrown away that moment, you’ve thrown that event away.

Here’s how you want to practice, this deliberate mindful practice is: You have a goal, then you make an attempt at achieving your goal, your vocal exercise, and then you analyze how close you got to that goal. And then you can make adjustments for your next event, your next run on your vocal exercise. If you don’t do well and you just get frustrated, 1. You’re going to tend to just over-correct. You’re going to start bringing intentions, you’re going to start rushing things. But more importantly, you’ve thrown away the learning event because you had a goal, hopefully, you had an event which didn’t hit your goal, but then you missed the next crucial step which is analyzing how to get to the goal, why you didn’t get there, and what you need to adjust. That’s how you get better.
You dont get better by being great right off the bat. That simply doesn’t happen. You get better by having a goal, then an event, analyzing that event, adjust, and then continuing. And you have thrown that away, you have not analyzed, and there is no thoughtful adjustments. And you’re just going to start getting yourself into crazy town, and over-correcting. Trust me, I’ve been there.

My first serious instrument is drums. I studied the drums like crazy and worked with it. I had an amazing legendary drum teacher who taught all these famous people like Neil Peart of RUSH, etc. And I would get frustrated here or there on the drums but voice, oh my gosh, this is the only instrument where I’ve literally thrown my books across the room and swore that I’d quit, I cannot do this, It’s over – more than once. The voice can be incredibly frustrating, and you have to have the right mindset in order to progress. Now, once you get all that going, then you can decide if you want to go ahead and work material. My practices will shift depending on my goals.

Back when I was performing more, if I have a performance, yes, I would get to the material much more quickly. And I would have to learn and work through very very specific pieces because I had to perform this, or because I had to audition with this. But let’s say you don’t have that pressure on you – well then, you can actually use material as an extension of your voice development in that, you don’t have to work the whole song. You can just work the chorus of the song or bridge of the song. You can just work one line of the song that sits on the problem area, and you can use this to balance, to work through vowels. You can play through shifting the keys, to see how that works your bridges or your balance, your vocal registration – all these funny singer terms that we teachers can argue about.
But you don’t have to just work a song from top to bottom. And I’m going to talk about working a song very very quickly. Let’s say that you do need to work on a song. You have a very specific goal to audition or perform this, or maybe you just want to have this song in your back pocket. This is the mistake I see singers make over and over and over. They run the song top to bottom, and then they go back and run the song top to bottom, and then they just repeat that. They keep repeating their mistakes.

If you observe a musician, not that singers aren’t musicians, but as someone who plays an instrument to learn a song, they isolate and focus and work on problem sections. And they work them slowly to get them into their fingers. And then they start to work on the speed back up. Then they start playing a little bit before or after. They are very very specific and very very methodical. You need to take a page from the musician, from the instrumentalist. Don’t try and work songs top to bottom. Yes you need to do that in order to get the text, to get the melody, to work on your phrasing, and all of those deeper things. When you work with technical issues you just need to isolate. And if all you do in your practice is just work a few measures but work them well, that is a successful practice.

I want you to be mindful. I want you to be goal-oriented. And be kind to yourself. Singers are just, we are so hard on ourselves. Be kind during your practice. Be positive.
You know, it’s said that, psychologists have looked at optimists and positive people. I try more and more to be more optimistic. And they say, they’re a little delusional at times but they do so much better in life. So I think it’s a nice trade-off. Be a little delusional with yourself, but occasionally at least be kind to yourself, and let your practices actually mean something.

Hey, if you like more information on what it is that I do, please visit I have blog posts there, the other podcast episodes there. I have some courses on vocal science and singing that are available there. If you have any questions or comments for the show, you can reach me at [email protected]. I always love to hear from you.

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And until next time, to better singing! Thank you so much. Bye.