During my first year at the conservatory, I barely practised. Two, three times a week, mayyybe? I’m embarrassed to admit it, but there, I’ve said it, and here’s why: I am convinced that loads of fellow students and even professionals are doing the same thing.
I have talked to multiple colleagues who, shame-facedly, admitted to barely practising at all, even though they tell their teachers that they do. You can see how that happens. Where singers are at a disadvantage when sight-reading, we are at a distinct advantage when it comes to reproducing a melody: we only need to memorise one melodic line. With other instruments it’s immediately, glaringly obvious if you haven’t studied. But singers can get away with it, right…?
What I tended to do is memorise a piece over the course of one or two weeks – simply by putting it on repeat on Spotify – and then working on it in those few hours allotted to ‘practice’.
It seems inconceivable to me now, but back then, practising regularly just wasn’t in my system. I didn’t have time for it. I had back-to-back classes, rehearsals, I had to work or I was too stressed, too tired, too hungry, too unbalanced.
In all fairness to my former self: the first year was brutal. There was always other homework that would seem, if not more important, then at least more urgent – an assignment to be handed in, a piece of paper to be filled out, tons of classes, all with their own homework, not to mention the music theory that was very, very new to me. But I should have prioritised when the school didn’t. Yes, I showed up for every class and I did get better at singing, slowly – but when it came down to it, I was often neglecting to do the one thing I should have actually been doing.
‘What you need, is to set yourself a goal,’ you’ll often hear. But the difference between people who succeed and people who fail, is not that the people who succeeded set goals. The people who failed set goals as well. They just didn’t reach them.
My attitude changed dramatically at the beginning of my second year. I read a couple of books, most notably ‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear (seriously, go read it) and I started to realise that it’s not the incidental two hours of practice that makes a singer – it’s the regular, structured, deeply ingrained habit of it.
Now, a year later, instead of spending an incidental two hours in the practice room every week, I’m committed to singing every day. It doesn’t even need to be a specific length of time, as long as I show up. Of course, there are days that it just doesn’t happen. When my sister was having her baby, I didn’t leave the hospital to go practise. When I got violently sick and couldn’t stand properly, I didn’t sing for a week. When I’m on holiday and there’s no place to study, I do mental practice or some reflecting.
But other than that, I don’t do this thing anymore where I “try to find time to practise”. I make time. I plan for it, the day before, or even a week in advance. And because it’s the most important thing on my calendar, I stick to it. I plan my meals around it (I cannot sing when hungry – just me?). And then I just get started.
The best part is that it has gotten so much easier. Practising every day is a hundred times easier than practising twice a week, I promise. It’s more fun, it’s way more motivating because you can track your own progress better, and the days where my voice is ‘just not at its best’ are now few and far between. And, of course, I’ve gotten better at singing. Not in the first week. Not even in the first month. But one year in? Holy shit.
I’ve realised that one of the main things that was holding me back from studying, was that I wouldn’t be motivated to do it unless there was a specific thing to achieve: practise this new aria, prepare for that duet, make sure I’m ready for tomorrow’s rehearsal. I wasn’t going to make time just to work on my technique. ‘Those exercises are really dull – I’ll study when I have something interesting to work on.’
I know, I know. And maybe I’m the only person to ever bluff their way through their first year (I’m not), but in my case it took books to realise that just because something is dull, that doesn’t mean it’s not useful. You need to be okay with not feeling entertained all the time. You need to be okay with boredom, so time will become your friend instead of your enemy.
It’s not setting the goal that will make you great at something. Sure, a goal can help to decide what process you need to follow in order to get there. If you want to run a marathon, then you need to run regularly, not do 120 push-ups. But what if you don’t reach your goal? Do you then abandon the practice entirely? If that’s the case, you must not have liked it in the first place. The other danger of ‘I want to run a marathon’ is that you run the marathon… and then what? Mission accomplished, throw out your running shoes, spend the rest of your life on the couch?
A goal tends to be so far away on the horizon that working on it today seems pointless. Instead of setting yourself a goal, why not try setting yourself an identity? Don’t say: ‘One day I’ll be a singer’, say: ‘I am a singer.’ You’re far more likely to stick with your practice if it aligns with what you already are, rather than what you would like to be one day. To stay motivated, to keep learning, to be clear about what our priorities are, we don’t need a goal – we need to fall in love with the process.
Assume that all great ideas in this article are by James Clear, and that any bad ones are my own. Go read Atomic Habits and have your life changed. Also, many thanks to Henk Neven for pre-reading this and encouraging me to publish it.