For all the shy students of vocal arts out there, please know: I feel you. You've been in lessons for a couple months (*cough* years) now and haven't had your burning question answered. A question that you probably never asked with your vocal apparatus. Because, I can tell you, as a teacher, I don't hear this question, like, ever. But I know the question is there, like a painting of a giant hot-pink giraffe on a wall. It is there in your eyes, and in your voices week after week: "How do I practice?"
So, just how do I practice?
Well, this may come as a surprise to you all, but there is not ONE way to do this. First, you have to identify your objectives for your practice session. Do you want to a.) work on technique or b.) learn music? Now, ideally you will always be doing "a" while you are "b", but for the sake of simplicity, lets just separate the two.
This one has people con-fuddled all the time. How do I know I am "doing it right"? Yes, well, simple answer: "Do your exercises."
That's right. You should be recording your lessons which contain all the exercises your teacher assigns. This way, you don't need to remember all of them and all the key modulations. If you don't record your lessons, start now, and preferably, make it a video recording.
When you begin your technique practice session, start with the recording of your most recent lesson. Repeat the exercises along with the recording. But this time, pay special attention to what your teacher is saying. Since you've already experienced this once live, you may be able to gain some cognitive distance and start to see things from a different perspective. Does your teacher keep telling you to open or close your mouth? Breathe quieter? Stand up with your sternum high? Take a moment, and assess what keeps being discussed. If vision is needed to correct a problem, please get thee in front of a mirror! Working through your exercises in this way will quickly speed up your technical progress. If something feels extra troublesome. Check your three main areas: Posture, Breathing, Registration. If you are confused about these topics, please ask your teacher for guidance (and stay tuned to my blog . . .).
You can also apply this method to repertoire that you work on repertoire with your teacher. Make sure you take the piece phrase-by-phrase, recognizing what your teacher is pointing out. Then, attempt to fix the phrase via sound, sight, and feeling, as you were instructed. At this point, I recommend recording questionable phrases. You can tell a lot from a recording, imperfect as it may be, and it will give you a clue on how much further you may need to go. Major things to pay attention to while practicing repertoire are breaths between phrases, vowel shaping, registration changes, and breath support.
How do I learn and practice music???
Now this will be a completely different target practice. In fact, for the early stages of music learning, I suggest you don't even sing. At this point, I suggest listening to whatever it is you are about to learn. Now, don't listen to just one recording, but several, to get a picture of different tempi variations, etc. Once you have a general idea of the tempi. Now you can get on to learning. . . If your repertoire is in English, you can jump right in and start speaking the text in rhythm. If your piece (or opera) is in a foreign language, I would start by translating and speaking through the text out of rhythm. As you get comfortable, you can add the rhythm to the speech. Once this is solidified, you can sit yourself in front of a piano and pick out the trickier pitches. (I often play through my repertoire several times to get the melody and rhythm in my head before attempting to sing.) If it is a particularly difficult piece, I suggest singing down the octave many times to be certain you are singing correct intervals.
If you need to memorize, break it down into sections. You can repeat these sections over and over again until comfortable. If the text is a problem, write out the text, separate from the music, several times. The act of writing commits the text to memory quicker. I also suggest listening to a recording, and try mouthing along with the text while imagining the pitches. By using all the memorization techniques, you will be better aligned to memorize naturally.
One Last Note . . .
When learning something new, take short, frequent breaks to allow the information to sink in. In fact, it is proven that learning music in small sections, with breaks, can improve memory retention! With technique practice, please don't hammer your voice to a pulp if things aren't working. Take a step back, sip some tea, and assess what may be going wrong. Chances are you know more than you think. . .