Singing is one of those things that many people take for granted. You walk around with a built-in instrument—you use it all day to speak. Seems like you should just be able to sing too, right? Non-singing musicians especially think it's easy to be a singer. Um, no way! Singing well is a skill that takes time to develop. As for anything physical, it takes practice and preparation to get good at singing. Especially since many people are not confident about how they sound, being motivated to practice and get through the icky stuff can feel overwhelming—even discouraging.
But there's good news! Since you're serious about improving your singing, practice is the way there. And regular practicing does more than improve your technique and ability to sing various songs. It's also good for your health! Really! Several studies have shown that singing can boost IGA, which is an antibody blood protein found in the mucous membranes of your mouth and digerstive track. It's a part of your immune system that fights off illness.
The key is, how you practice is really important. I'd say at least 60% of my students admit to doing only a short warm up before they get to songs. They also know that when they put a solid half hour of warm ups and skills-exercises into their practice session before getting to songs, they sing the songs a lot better. Here's a typical conversation with my students:
ME: "How much do you practice in one session?"
STUDENT: "Oh, usually 45 minutes to an hour."
"How much of that is warming up?"
"Oh, about 10-15 minutes."
"What is your warm up?"
"I do lip trills, sing 5-4-3-2-1 (Sol Fa Mi Re Do) on "ah," stuff like that."
"How many days a week do you practice?"
"I know I need to practice more. Maybe three days? Or four. Something like that."
"Do you put in 45 minutes to an hour each time?"
"Well, sometimes it's only 30 minutes."
In the above conversation, you can see the student isn't putting in enough practice time. As you've been learning in this series, your voice truly needs time to get warm and supple in order to work at its best. And skills only show up when you work on them, actually, physically—it's not enough to just want to sing better, or only to work on songs.
So how you find the discipline and motivation to practice?
Let's compare it to something we all work on: shifting to a new and healthy everday diet. For example, have you decided to be healthier, to cut out sugar and soda from your diet? If you eat and drink sweet foods regularly, it's hard to just give them up cold-turkey. Waking up one morning and declaring that you're totally off sugar is great, but maintaining that commitment is hard for most people. That's because there's a period of about two when you still crave those sweet foods, before your body adjusts and you find your need for a cookie has gone away. It can make you feel like you're denying yourself, and you might regress and grab a cookie anyway. Your body actually craves the sugar because it's used to it, until it doesn't anymore. But after about two weeks without eating sugar, you'll no longer want it so badly—or at all. You don't crave it anymore.
How does this compare with practicing your singing? Well, instead of going for the cookie, you're going for the song. You know you're supposed to do warm ups and skills-building exercises first, but that can be boring! It can also be discouraging as we've said, because building skills takes time. So, you do a brief warm up because you know you're supposed to, and jump into the song. Thing is, without having developed singing skills, it's going to be harder to sing a song well. In my interview with celebrated vocal coach Mark Baxter, in my book Your Singing Voice, Mark explains that people practice backwards: They work on songs and style, not technique. Then, when they get on stage where there are new and distracting variables, they don't have the technique learned by their body, and they may not sing as well as when they're at home alone.
What you need is motivation to practice. Create a way to love it, and embrace practicing as a positive habit you're developing for yourself, for your health, for your satisfaction and even joy! with hearing your voice. There's nothing like results to keep you going. Are you putting a lot of pressure on yourself to sound amazing? That doesn't work so well. Instead, find curiosity when you practice. Why is the exercise harder today than yesterday? Was it something you ate, or you're tired, or you're expecting your voice to be better today? It's amazing how much subtle shifts can affect your voice. So, go for mindfulness. Appreciate that fact that your body can sing and communicate language with musical expression, that touches people emotionally—how incredible!
You might be thinking, "but Jeannie there are some people who brag that they don't practice and they sound amazing." They are the exception, not the rule. (And they may have vocal damage they're not talking about.) What each person needs will vary. It's like going to the gym. Some people can bench over 150 pounds, while someone like me can lift about 60. That's a big difference! We're not built the same, and it's silly to expect your singing to follow any kind of timeline that you read about on the internet. You know, "follow this program and you'll sound amazing in 30 days!" That's just BS. Sorry folks. (You can't become an expert golfer in 30 days, either.) Remember, you're not in a competition—you're following your bliss!
Another important tip is to create a firm weekly schedule for your practicing. Make this schedule as solid as any other commitments you have, like work or school. This is a schedule for you—for your own improvement and growth. Just do it. Decide to do something wonderful for you!
One more tip: Write down a list of what you love about singing. How does it make you feel? Why do you want to improve your singing? For most people it's incredibly joyous. For some people, they heard when they were young that no one wants to hear them sing—and it did a number on their confidence. Usually that's just not true! They're coming back to singing in spite of how they were hurt, for themselves, and because they love it. (That happened to my mother, who actually had a gorgeous voice, and got up the courage to begin voice lessons at 60 and directing a choir for 20 years!)
LOVE YOUR VOICE!