The 5-30 Practice Programme: The Results, Part 2

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On Sunday I reported on how the participants in the June singing practice experiment wrote about their experience of maintaining the habit of five minutes singing practice a day.

Feedback on the effects of the practice regime

By definition there’s less of this, since only those who did much practice were able to feed back on it.

The headline result is that, yes, five minutes a day does seem to make a difference. And the difference is discernible after a week. One respondent who fell by the wayside towards the end of week 2 reported that she was ‘starting to think it was all very helpful’ at the end of the first week. Another noted at the 1-week mark that she:

Noticed at rehearsal that I'd retained odds and ends we worked on the week before (correcting notes, where to breathe etc) because I'd practised it several times. I felt quite virtuous!

And two weeks later, the same respondent reported that:

Generally finding myself doing the odd breathing exercise or ng humming a few bars of a song at lots of moments through the day now – just generally more likely to practice.

This reminded me of my prediction no. 5:

The people who do manage to practice regularly will find after only three or four days that the music they have worked on in their practice time is running through the back of their minds a lot during other daily activities (especially non-verbal ones like cooking, gardening, showering, or exercising).

This resonates with the points about time and attention. The reason five minutes a day is enough to make a difference is that it’s not just about the five minutes itself, but about winning that space in your head to keep the things you need to work on ticking over.

As to what kind of difference the regime makes, this was different for different people. Some found that bubbling had improved their breath control, others found they were better at bubbling, but noticed no particular difference to their breathing overall. One respondent reported finding the bubbling useful for counting beats in bars, but found the slowed-down singing less helpful as an individual activity than a group one. Another, however, found they were much more aware of details like vowel shape and how they were approaching/leaving notes from doing this.

It is probably not surprising that a generic practice regime plays out differently with different individuals. It was designed to be clearly a set of processes applied to repertoire rather than just singing through things, as this engages attention in a more focused way than slipping into autopilot. And it is notable that people expressed the results in terms of their experience on specific bits of repertoire that they had been working on.

But the mixed responses clearly show that generic practice regimes, even those using good all-purpose exercises, can be a little hit-and-miss in how well they fit an individual’s needs. And a month is possibly too long to stay with one regime without developing it to take account of the evolving needs of the individual singer. Even if the exercises themselves are still useful for that singer’s current skills, there is a mismatch between their sense of improving skills and a practice regime that stays still.

General Conclusions

Overall this exercise has confirmed a number of hunches, and brought some interesting new perspectives in understanding why those intuitions may have been valid.

First and foremost, it has suggested that anybody who tells you that ‘only a few minutes a day makes a difference’ is telling you the truth. But that throw-away phrase is also rather disingenuous, making it sound like slotting in a few minutes is an easy thing to do. But the reason that just a few minutes can really make significant improvements is also the same reason that it’s surprisingly difficult to commit to regularly.

Because it’s not just the five minutes itself that you are committing to. You’re committing to wrenching your attention away from all the other important things in your life and accessing all the knowledge and behavioural patterns from choir all by yourself without the usual triggers of time, place and choral routine to reactivate them. It’s not surprising if it makes you a more autonomous and self-aware singer, but it’s also not surprising if it takes considerable mental energy to achieve.

I’m generalising from a very small sample here of course. But the size of the sample itself is part of the evidence that five minutes a day isn’t something to ask of people lightly. I think the most important thing I have learned from this is the insight into the degree of personal sacrifice is entailed to do something that is usually presented as a moderately trivial challenge. I was grateful to my respondents when I started this analysis, but I am even more so now I understand how much of themselves they have had to give to participate. But I’m also pleased to know that their efforts have been rewarded.

So the question for the choral director who would like to get their singers doing more independent practice boils down to one of motivation. What can we do to make the idea of committing that extra chunk of their self to the craft seem sufficiently desirable to be worth the effort it will take to achieve it?

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