Conditioning – the first phase of Practicing

I’ve recommended that you set aside 3 30-minute blocks of time each week to practice. By this, I mean thirty minutes when you’re on your feet working, making sound, moving about. There is a great deal of mind work to be done each week as well, and time needs to be made for this sort of work as well: analyzing songs, answering Stanislavski’s “fundamental questions” and doing the forensic work that will strengthen and deepen your understanding of each of your songs as a dramatic event. But it is equally important that you routinely make time to practice the most important work of the singing actor:  creating behavior that communicates the dramatic event phrase by phrase.  In order to do this effectively, you need to spend part of your practice time – most logically, the first part – working on the singer before you go to work on the song: that is, working on building proficiency with the skills and techniques you need to be able to apply to every song, cultivating “maximum SAVI” (behavior that is specific, authentic, varied and intense) and learning to coordinate your choices and changes with a musical score.

To help you structure your workout, I’ve created the SAVI Workout slide-show. Check it out now!

It’s built on the intentions and principles that are embodied in the following checklist of activities, things that have proven to be most beneficial in the “conditioning” phase of a practice session:

ACTIVATE all three behavior channels: voice, face and body. Begin by activating each one individually:

Breathing: summon up the dynamic singer’s breath. Deep belly breaths that stretch out the muscles of the abdomen as well as deep breaths into the chest that expand and lift the ribcage. Sustained hisses, sharp “huh’s,” and panting are all breath exercises that excite the abdominal muscles. Sniffing, sucking, sipping, puffing and blowing all give the opportunity to explore the dynamic relationship of the diaphragm, abdomen and intercostal muscles in respiration. Gasping = startled quick intake. Sighing. Spend a few minutes on your back, feeling the rise and fall of your belly as you breathe. The Pilates “One Hundred” (a second example) is a terrific exercise for strengthening your core (including the abdominal and ilio-psoas muscles) and awakening the breath-body connection.

Vocal: Sustained closed mouth sounds (Lip trill, mm, nn, ng), sustained vowels (all of them), scales and slides. Work high and low, loud and soft, staccato and legato. Use different timbres and types of resonance. . Enjoy the physical act of making sounds and playfully explore the variety of sounds you can make.

Face: spend at least thirty sections “gurning,” vigorously flexing all the muscles of the face. Isolate individual areas of the face and stretch and activate them in turn: the forehead, the muscles around the eyes, the cheeks, the nose, the lips, the tongue and the jaw. Work in front of a mirror or the camera in your laptop. Make some exaggerated facial “masks” and practice holding each expression for a few seconds. Enjoy these examples of “gurning!”

Eyes: the muscles of the eyes deserve some moments of attention during your conditioning work. Stretch the muscles around the eyes, opening your eyes wide and squeezing them tightly shut. Leaving your head and neck still and easy, pan your gaze left and right, up and down, in a big circle or on a random path, like following an insect. Fix your eyes on a particular target while adjusting the position of your head: lower your chin so that you are looking out under your eyebrows; raise your chin and look out the bottom of the eye; turn your head left and right and look out the corners of the eye. Close your eyelids and experience the sensation of your eyeballs moving freely in their sockets. Extend your arm and hold up your thumb, then trace a sideways number 8 (the “infinity” symbol) while following your thumb with your eyes. Pick some different “targets” in the room and practice moving your gaze from one to another.

Neck: a few moments spent freeing the neck will be time well spent. Roll the neck, raise and lower your chin in a rocking motion, turn your head and look over your left and right shoulders, raise and lower your jaw and notice how this movement affects your neck. Enjoy the feeling you get when your skull is balanced comfortably on the top of your spine.

Body: stir your heart and breath with 30 seconds of jumping jacks or running in place. Stretch and enjoy a full range of motions. Explore every joint in your body – the jaw, the neck, the shoulders, the elbows, the wrists, the hips, the knees and the ankles, all the spots that connect the pieces of your skeleton. Flex and move each one, looking for ease and range of motion. Shake yourself vigorously like a wet dog or a rag doll. Pick up your feet and put them down again, adjusting your stance each time. Walk around the room, changing directions and stopping and starting at unexpected intervals. Activities that strengthen different groups of muscles (like squats, crunches, push-ups and the “plank”) may be useful, but you should emphasize flexibility, ease and liveliness rather than strength.

After some minutes of this sort of activity, you should feel lively and buoyant, not just ready but eager to create behavior in the face, voice and body.

If you haven’t done so already, begin to combine the voice with the other behavior channels:

Voice + Face: try different vocal exercises with varying facial expressions. Stretch and activate different parts of the face and enjoy how the sound is “colored” by these changes. Include both random facial movements and facial expressions associated with particular emotions. Look at pictures of faces and let your own face change in response to each picture while you vocalize.

Voice + Focus: match your gaze to each phrase, moving your eyes in between phrases. Look at different targets while you sing, sustaining your focus during the phrase, then shifting focus just before the new phrase begins.

Voice + Neck (Alignment): Allow your neck to remain easy as your face and focus vary. Sing legato and staccato, high and low, loud and soft and notice how this affects your alignment. Deliberately lift and lower your chin, then level your gaze and look for a sensation of ease and balance in the relationship between your head, neck and back as you sing.

Voice + Body: try a variety of gestures and body language while you sing. Walk in the room, change direction, change tempo, pause, adjust your stance. Explore the classic “heroic” singer’s stance and every possible alternative to it while you vocalize. Practice the pattern of “ouch and flop,” initiating new body language at the onset of a phrase with an “ouch-y” impulse and letting that behavior fall away with a “floppy release” as the phrase ends.

Bring your imagination into play as soon as you’re ready. Inhabit each face and gesture you make, bringing authenticity and commitment to each choice. Use words (adjectives, action verbs, random bits of sung text) to practice singing with subtext and using your imagination to arouse your behavior. Explore the qualities of weight (heavy/light), tempo (quick/sustained) and direction (direct/indirect) in your sound and movement, noticing how a change in any one of these qualities effects your emotional life. Combine these qualities together to create the eight Laban “effort-actions,” and use each one in turn as you vocalize: press, punch, slash, wring, float, glide, dab and flick.

As you work through this conditioning phase of your practice, strive to bring Maximum SAVI to your work, asking the following questions:

  • Can I be more SPECIFIC? Specific in the muscles I’m using, the way I’m using them, the choices I’m making?
  • Can I be more AUTHENTIC? Am I inhabiting each phrase, living in the moment truthfully, unbraced and easy in my body, initiating my choices impulsively?
  • Can I be more VARIED? As I move from phrase to phrase and exercise to exercise, am I exploring a full range of possible choices?
  • Can I be more INTENSE? Am I committing full energy to my voice, face and body? Am I confusing intensity with tension? Is there any way to bring “more” to this moment?

As you continue to work, you should feel energized and organized, well-coordinated in your ability to make strong behavior choices and change those choices when you please. At this point, you’re fully ready to enter the next phase of the practice session: Exploring.

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