Recently, I asked my teacher if she had any advice on how to practice.
First off, she stressed the importance of silent work for a singer. She advises that when practicing, a singer should do as much of the work as possible without actually singing. In fact, she says that one of her favourite places to learn in relaxed and cozy in bed with a small keyboard. A lot of silent work comes through text work and she is a big believer in separating notes and words. So when approaching a new piece, one should begin work on the text by writing out the IPA, translating the text word for word and then writing out the text over and over again in order to learn the rhyme scheme and physical shape of the poem, learning to read it as a piece of literature. After that, she suggests speaking the words in rhythms to the piece without singing it. In the meantime, the singer can begin to work on learning the notes. Since sitting at the piano is a fundamental part of getting notes in your head, it is important not to sing properly but rather croon or do light singing down the octave on various vowels. She says you should only sing properly once those notes are fully in your mind since only then can one think technically and musically. Once all those steps are completed, a singer can begin to sing the piece with melody and words together.
Not following the steps described above could result in bad habits in the muscle memory. Muscle memory is important for singing, but it should not be accomplished during the note learning part because it becomes tiring on the voice and teaches the muscles bad habits since the singer is thinking more about the notes than how they are producing sound. In terms of listening to recordings, my teacher suggests it is fine to listen to a recording of a respected singer once before starting a new piece in order to get an idea of the piece and be inspired to learn it. It is not okay to learn a piece by osmosis, listening to a recording over and over again. After listening to the recording once, a singer should learn the piece well on their own before listening to any other recordings again. In this way, the singer’s ideas are already formulated and she can listen to recordings more objectively and critically.
I was especially interested in hearing what my teacher had to say about how to find balance in practicing technique and learning new repertoire. She admits that it can be tough to find that balance especially when you are in a music program. However, she did have one excellent strategy to offer. She says that you can use your repertoire to practice technique by turning your pieces into technical exercises. What an excellent idea!