Audition season is in full swing, and the holidays are just around the corner. At this time of year, singers often find themselves shuffling from planes to trains to subways to Ubers and resting our heads in a dizzying array of hotels, friends’ couches, or relatives’ spare bedrooms. None of these locations are ideal practice spaces, and in many of them, it would be disquieting for your neighbors if you started singing an aria. The chaos of travel doesn’t mean, however, that you need to stop practicing. Here are a few handy silent practice techniques to keep your voice in tip-top shape without singing a note.
Sitting in a car, train, or bus is not necessarily the ideal situation for singing posture, but it is a good opportunity to check in with your body’s natural alignment. Slide forward on your seat so you are not touching the back of the chair, do a quick body scan, and try to realign anything that might be out of place. Pay particular attention to your neck and shoulders. While you’re checking in with your body, you can also pay attention to your breathing. Make sure you are breathing properly for singing, and then experiment with taking short, quick, but efficient catch breaths and longer ones. This kind of focused body work will translate to the practice room and to the stage!
It can be dangerous to listen to one recording over and over again – you run the risk of copying the singer’s interpretation – but listening to a wide variety of recordings can help you hone your unique version of a piece. Listen to as many singers as you can, including singers who are not your voice type, to help yourself decide what you like and what you don’t. Be as specific as possible: if a recording works, why does it work? If it fails, why does it fail? Just be sure to use your headphones!
It seems basic, but singing through something in your head can be a very useful skill. As you audiate, you have more time to think about technical issues you want to implement, you memorize, and you will immediately realize if you aren’t quite clear on some notes.
If you are starting new repertoire, a long car or train ride is a great time to get your translation done. Make sure you know the literal translation of every word, not just a generalized poetic interpretation. For those of us with language skills, sometimes it is easy to let one unknown vocabulary word slip, but make sure you look up the pesky little words that might be outside your linguistic scope. Good dictionaries are always an excellent resource, but if you’re looking for something a little more portable, there are great online translation resources beyond Google Translate. WordReference and Collins both provide multiple translations for different contexts and often have IPA as well.
If you don’t know about the fabulous language website Duolingo and its companion phone app, you should definitely familiarize yourself with it! It’s an excellent resource to help you practice a language you are already comfortable with--or start learning a new one--and its game-like organization makes it fun. The latest update of the Duolingo phone app offers “Can’t speak now” and “Can’t listen now” options, making it possible to use Duolingo silently, even without headphones. Sharpening your language skills will not only help your performance, but it will also make it easier for you to travel for auditions and take international opportunities. If you sign a contract in Italian, you need to know what it says!
You may have hoped to leave music analysis behind in your last theory class and consigned poetic analysis to high school English, but they are both useful tools! On the theory front, you do not need to do a Roman numeral analysis for your entire piece, but take notice of modulations, interesting chords, and rhythmic and melodic devices. The composer used them for a reason, and this analysis will inform your interpretation.
Even when we are thinking about acting, sometimes we forget that most art songs and arias are sung poetry. If you dig into the words, you can use them much more expressively and make better acting choices. Pay attention to the meter and how the composer uses or does not use it. Also look for poetic devices like simile, metaphor, allusion, alliteration, and onomatopoeia. If your piece is not in your native language, make sure you do this work with the original text as well as the translation.
Memorization takes more than staring at a piece and hoping to absorb the material. For aural learners, listening to recordings and audiating can be helpful tools. Visual and kinetic learners might like writing out the text by hand. Pneumonic devices or digging into the poetry might help; for example, noting an alliterative line might help you remember it better. With all memorization, test yourself earlier rather than later! Try to audiate or write down the lyrics from memory. Finding the gaps in your memory allows you to focus your efforts and facilitates the rest of the memorization process.
No piece of art is created in a vacuum. Every art song and aria you sing is a product of the political, social, and personal climate in which it was written. Do you know the composer’s backstory? The librettist’s? When and where was the piece composed? What was happening in history at the time? Are there any records of the work’s premiere? Did the composer ever write or speak about the specific piece you are singing? The historical context and the composer’s intentions do not have to be treated as absolutely sacred, but they can definitely help inform your interpretation. If the opera or art song is based on a historical person or set in a specific time period, it’s worth your while to do a little digging beyond Wikipedia. Are you singing a role in an opera based on a book or a play? The original source can be your travel reading; Carmen, Manon Lescaut, Le nozze di Figaro, Falstaff, and La traviata are a few of the many examples of literary operas. The book often contains more details than the libretto, and reading it will help deepen your understanding of your character.
There are plenty of silent practice techniques to fill a train ride or an evening tactfully avoiding your aunt’s love of Andrea Boccelli, so the frantic end-of-the-year travel season is no excuse for letting your practice regime slide. Safe travels, and happy practicing!