Let’s talk about the concept of practise.
I was having a conversation with someone outside of sessions recently about the concept of “practise“. They are not a musician/singer, nor do they have a particular hobby that they have spent years practising, so do bear that in mind as I relay the jist of the conversation.
During the exchange, they made the following seemingly innocuous statement:
“Practise Makes Perfect”
Now, as someone whose entire career focuses on training people in acquiring a finely controlled skill such as singing, I happen to have a few thoughts on this. Namely, that this statement – if left unqualified – is not true.
Let me explain why, and we’ll look at both aspects of this statement:
When we talk about practising, we usually mean the following that someone is repeatedly doing a particular set of actiosn in order to ingrain such behaviour and make it permanent.
Often, there is also an implicit assumption, that the actions being repeated are actually improving someone’s skills. But is this always the case?
In some cases yes, in other cases no. Really, practise only relates to repetitions to ingrain behaviours. Practise builds habit, and that’s it. It does not guarantee that such habits are good or bad, it simply ingrains those habits.
It is therefore important to consider the quality of the practise. If the acts being repeated are imperfect, or have inherent flaws, those too will be ingrained. (NOTE: This is to some extent unavoidable, but we will discuss this in point 2).
I encounter singers all the time who have ingrained particular habits in their voice that allegedly worked once upon a time, but no longer have any benefit for them. In fact, their old habits have landed them in a hole.
Without knowledgeable guidance, the act of practise by itself provides absolutely no assurances that the behaviours being ingrained are good or constructive.
We need to practise the RIGHT things, in the RIGHT way, as much as is possible.
At a macro level, this can seem like an impossible task, but in reality, it’s not as negative as it sounds. We need to practise as best we can in the moment, whilst always looking out for things that need to be “course-corrected”. That way we tweak and refine our practise routine as we progress, weeding out inevitable flaws before they become permanent features we have to unpick from our voices.
Here’s another seemingly innocuous statement:
“Ah, but you’ll never get to 100% perfect, so…”
While attaining perfection is of course not humanly possible, good practise is more about refinement of the process than it is the destination. As such, this statement misses the point. It’s often a “truism” that people who are less acquainted with long-term skill development tend to trot out.
In any case, something that is worth noting is that some imperfections in our practise are of greater consequence than others.
Sometimes people that are practicing (say) 99% correctly can find themselves getting increasingly derailed by the 1% that they are doing wrong. And yet, some people can only be practicing 80% correctly, but the 20% they are getting wrong isn’t as big a deal for their voice or the material they are singing. As such their practise is more than functional enough for the material they want to sing.
For example, if you are a high octane rock singer with a light and nimble voice, being 1% too heavy when singing up high can destroy your voice over time. The tolerance for error is just too small, so even 1% out is too much. Small errors compound over time in a very serious way. In some cases, it can lead to severe vocal damage and a ruined instrument.
In contrast, if you are a Sinatra-style crooner who sings in a narrower and more spoken vocal range, being 20% too heavy or too light won’t necessarily be a dealbreaker. The range you need to sing over can give such a huge tolerance for error that there’s space to maneuver.
Conclusion: Practise Makes Permanent
Practise doesn’t make perfect. Partly because unqualified practise does not guarantee improvement, and partly because perfection is an impossible goal.
Practise does make permanent. The actions we undertake seep into our bodies, and it becomes the default way we do things… for better or for worse.
We should practise as best we can, whilst also being constantly willing to assess the results we are getting from that process and tweak it accordingly. We should make such tweaks small, and should do so glacially so that we can see the results of such tweaks.
Remember also, that some errors are more egregious than others. This is something that is very evident to those who have undertaken years of study of their chosen craft, but I thought it worth diving into for those who haven’t been through the same journey.