Practice, practice, practice!

The origins of the joke are obscured by time. But the message remains clear and a current as ever:

New York tourist to man carrying violin case: How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
Violin Man: Practice!

We’ve all read articles and blog posts about how performing artists have suffered during the pandemic. Aside from the very serious financial ramifications of not being able to do what we love to do, what we’ve trained most of our lives to do, and what many of us have counted on for the greater part of our livelihood to do, practicing our art is how many of us define ourselves, regardless of whether or not we are fulltime artists, or have another, additional (or even primary) source of income.

One aspect of this that I haven’t really read much about is the effects of not practicing our art over an extended period of time. I mentioned in an earlier post that trained singers are not unlike athletes in that the muscles they use require regular training to stay in top shape. I also related that I and some of my colleagues found it difficult to maintain regular practice routines without any future performing opportunities.

There are actually some “silver linings” to this:

  • Time to rest! Singers who have fairly busy operatic careers (this doesn’t apply to me personally) can find it hard to schedule downtime to spend with family, or plan an actual vacation. A self-employed artist is often forced to choose a paying gig over non-paid downtime. Yes, it’s important to keep working, but the body and mind also need time to recharge. The pandemic made some such choices for many.
  • Time to practice. There’s a difference between a busy rehearsal schedule (especially for those with part- or full-time side-gigs) and time spent honing certain aspects of one’s singing. Maybe there’s a two-measure section of your most-performed role or audition aria that you always wish you could sing better. (Don’t tell anybody what that is, though!) Now you have time to analyze how you can make it better! Maybe you need to spend five minutes a day following Joyce DiDonato’s advice on developing a serviceable trill. Back when I commuted to work each day, I started doing her five-minute drill in the car and it was actually improving my trill! [Blogger’s note: Yes, I just took a five-minute break from writing this to practice trills. Yes, I had a decent trill when I was in my 20’s. Yes, it’s inexplicably harder on certain vowels and certain pitches in your range, unless you’re Joan Sutherland or Marilyn Horne. Acoustics and physics can be a b*tch!]
  • Time to study. If your voice teacher is offering Zoom/Facetime/Skype lessons, maybe you can take one occasionally, time and finances permitting. But you can also find plenty of YouTube videos of well-respected artists giving masterclasses. As a young singer, Maria Callas used to attend the lessons of all her voice teacher’s students; she said she could learn something from all of them, whether the singer was more or less advanced than she.
  • Time to teach. So many of my colleagues and friends have been voice teachers, and can attest to how rewarding it is to help other singers explore their art. It’s not only “paying it forward,” but it’s also a means of self-discovery at times. My hat’s off to those who forge ahead even in these uncertain times!
  • Time to enjoy! There has been a ton of digital content made available, much of it free, during the pandemic. The Metropolitan Opera has been streaming a free performance of an opera from its broadcast archives each day, some from as far back as the 1970s, going into the era of their Live in HD broadcasts to movie theatres. San Francisco Opera recently streamed its 2018 performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle over four weekends. There’s plenty out there to find. And YouTube continues to be a potential rabbit hole down which one can become lost for hours. But it’s also still a valuable tool for study and enjoyment. I wasn’t even looking for anything operatic when YouTube presented me with this performance of Leonard Warren singing “Largo al factotum.” The thought of singing this aria still gives me night-sweats, but Warren not only makes it look easy, he looks like he’s having the time of his life singing it.

Practice Makes Perfect Practice Makes Permanent!

I learned this aphorism from Richard Crittenden, who used to teach valuable classes and workshops in acting skills and stagecraft to young and aspiring opera singers. It’s an important message: Be careful how you practice, because whatever you repeat–and however you repeat it–will become ingrained. Put another way, it’s hard to undo bad habits. But it’s okay to be creative, and try new things! Richard told the story of when he was singing the title role of “The Barber of Seville,” and got over his fear of singing “Largo al factotum” by sheer repetition: he’d break it up into smaller chunks, sing the aria (or parts of it) faster, slower, at a lower pitch, at a higher pitch (!), until its terrors were greatly diminished.

Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 Hour Rule” has gained popularity in recent years, but it has also been widely debunked in certain circles, so I won’t post any links, pro or con. In a nutshell, yes, achieving excellence in any field requires putting in lots of hours of practice. But especially in our very busy lives, it’s more important to spend whatever time you can devote to practice to actually practicing well.

As I mentioned above, this may be a good time to focus on specifics in a way that’s not practical during a busy “career,” whatever that is for you. I have found it very enjoyable to re-study scores of pieces I’ve sung for decades, sometimes discovering details I had missed or glossed over, or might look at in a new way.

In a different area, I am preparing to have a [virtual] piano lesson for the first time in many years. While preparing Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 49 No. 2, which I studied with my last piano teacher in college, but have occasionally trotted out in the intervening years, I paid close attention to both the fingerings printed in the score and those written in by my teacher. In some cases, my mind and fingers had abandoned these over the years, and I actually enjoyed spending a few minutes playing certain phrases over and over to try out different fingerings. It was very concentrated work, and I felt a sense of accomplishment afterward.

This article on the website has some interesting observations about mindful practice.

Just Do It!

No, I haven’t been offered an endorsement by Nike. But if I’ve learned anything in the past year of quarantine, it’s that it’s important to make ourselves do whatever it is we’ve been thinking about. I’m a good one for thinking, planning, rationalizing, but need constant prodding–from myself or someone else–actually to get things done.

My friend and colleague Christine Thomas-O’Meally has organized a two-day event for this coming weekend: World Voice Weekend is an online series of Masterclasses and Workshops and Concerts. I’ve signed up for it, because I need a kick in the pants! I suggest you check it out if you’re looking for some external motivation.

So now, it’s Bach to basics! (Groan)

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