Every musician has a practice routine or ritual.
For me, it looks like this. I spend time warming up and doing vocalises, which are essentially technique drills; these usually take twenty minutes. I use the rest of the time to work on repertoire.
I am addicted to the pursuit of productivity; in my mind, it is not a good practice session if I do not achieve, improve, perform.
I recognize the desire to perform during the time that is labeled practice. I see my desire to be perfect during a time that is set aside for imperfection.
As a result, I center a lot of focus on the physical manifestation of the work — but not on the place whence the music comes. I pay a lot of attention to the sound of my voice, but not the whisper of my soul.
This week, though, my practice has started to take a new shape.
A few weeks ago, I had a rough audition at a graduate school, and last weekend that school sent me a rejection letter. I didn’t realize it until recently, but the audition and the feelings that come with it have been eating at my body and soul for weeks. I’ve felt a tightness in my sternum, which is where I feel stress first. It’s as if I can breathe no lower than the bottom of my rib cage. The fear creeps into my singing like a thief in the night, and I am left robbed before I realize what has happened to me. I’m a high soprano, with high notes for days, but over the last week, I’ve sensed apprehension in my body as I approach my less extreme high notes (oddly, the highest ones are fine). It’s like my heart rises into my throat and my breath tightens where my heart should be. And then my sound stops, or I crack. The only time I can get relief from this tightness is when I lie down at night, rising only to feel it cinch around my ribs once again.
I talked to my counselor about the fear I was experiencing, and she reminded me of the grounding exercise we worked on in one of our sessions — the session immediately after my rough audition, as it happened. Press your heels into the floor, then the outside of your foot, then the inside, so it feels like your entire foot is touching the floor. You have to be barefoot for this. Put a slight bend in your knees. It always helps me to assume a good singing posture. And then, just breathe into the floor.
She advised me to do this every single time I practice, before I even start singing.
I tried it on Monday. It helped, but not as much as I wanted it to, so I didn’t even try it on Tuesday. I am a slave to the culture's desire for fast results. Tuesday evening, at my weekly studio class, my studio’s graduate student showed me a good way to connect to my breath — and it worked. Encouraged, Wednesday I practiced grounding again, before I sang, again on Thursday morning, and briefly on Friday as I warmed up. Each day, it has calmed me, even if for a moment. It has reminded me of who I know myself to be in my heart.
I think I’m too close in the timing to realize the effects this exercise may be having on me or on my singing. But I know that every time I practice it, I feel connected to my body, to the earth, to my breath, to the present moment.
Maybe that’s the point? Or at least part of it?
I also know that it is changing the way I look at practice time. Since I’m a morning practicer, I rely on natural light from the windows to illuminate my practice room. So in the rising light of the morning, I face the window, ground myself, and simply breathe. Sometimes I speak aloud what I need to affirm. Sometimes I am simply quiet. But as I breathe and connect to my body, I am reminded that this time with me and God and the great composers whose music I sing — this is a sacred time. This is my calling; I am living it out. I am consecrating the next hour or more of my life, and any time I sing for the rest of the day.
What's more, I’ve started putting my phone on airplane mode when I practice. This is my practice time; it is sacred. You cannot have it. For a while, I am suspended in time. I hover above the earth, an island in the clouds — and at the same time, I am here, earthbound, doing the work I believe in and love.
This is sacred time, suspended between heaven and earth. You may not infringe upon it.
I cannot be a whole singer if I refuse to pay attention to my whole personhood. If I do not acknowledge my needs as a person, as adventurous Sara, then I cannot live out my calling. After all, it is the whole person that sings, that works, that is called.
I am learning that practice time is not only time to do the work, but time to examine my heart to see what is keeping me from doing it well.
It is not time to ignore frustration, but to delve into the depths of my heart so that I can examine what is frustrating me and deal with it -- not harshly, but gently, with kindness, because I am not a robot; I am a person.
Calling is sacred, because Christ has called us to it. He has called us out of our little worlds, close to Himself, and He has whispered in our ears.
Calling is sacred, because He has made it so.
Calling is sacred, and we need to give it the time it deserves and requires to grow.
May we treat our callings like a friend, not our slaves.
May we honor them and be kind to them, if only for the reason that they are gifts to us from God.
May we give them space within our whole person to grow and breathe -- and, yes, even sing.