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How To Practice the Voice as a Musical Instrument

How To Practice the Voice as a Musical InstrumentOne of the most often asked questions from my voice students is how to practice -says Bob Stoloff.

The answer to this quandary depends on what your short and long-term objectives are and how much time you can allocate for the purpose of reaching your musical goals.

Since the voice is quite vulnerable to wear and tear, it is important to keep in mind that practice time must be limited in order to preserve vocal health.

In fact, all musicians need to be cautious of extensive muscle repetition. It’s nice to be enthusiastic but overdoing it can provoke fatigue, injury or more severe problems requiring medical attention.

But there are many musicianship skills that can be practiced without playing your instrument. These competencies should be folded into your daily practice regimen, as they will ultimately contribute to your overall musical profile. Here are some tips I have for vocalists on how to practice:

1. Write Down Your Goals

The first and most important thing to do is write down all your goals as a musician

The first and most important thing to do is write down all your goals as a musician including performing, teaching, composing, arranging, authoring books, etc.

If your aspirations include more than one instrument make a priority list including all venues that will complete your professional dream profile.

For me, it was performance, teaching, studio work, authoring books and my practice day included voice, drums, trumpet, flute, puccolo (whistling) and acoustic bass.

You can further break these down by style if your musical tastes and proficiencies are diverse (eg: classical trumpet, jazz vocals, R&B drums, etc).

2. Envision the Future & Prepare For It

Next, imagine yourself in 5 years and 10 years and list the scenarios you envision as a performer, teacher, etc. (eg: teaching college level musicianship skills to vocalists, writing a book on body drumming, playing drums in a contemporary jazz-funk band, playing trumpet in a brass ensemble, touring as a lead or background vocalist with a famous rock band, etc.).

Now list all the things you will need to do to reach your short-term and long-term goals.


Take some time to research the things you need to reach your goals

This will take some research in addition to imagination. But somewhere along these two paths the word “practice” will inevitable appear. After all, it’s how you get to Carnegie Hall!

The first subheading under “PRACTICE” should be the word “WHAT” followed by “WHEN,” “HOW” and perhaps “WHERE” (particularly if you are a drummer or play the tuba).

“WHY” is moot if you are truly a dedicated musician who is drawn like a moth to the flame.

What you need to practice should include a list of resources provided by the teacher(s) you decide to study with.

If you have no formal schooling you might want to start with ear training and basic theory and harmony-for these skills you will need to become familiar with the piano or guitar. If you already have some musical training and/or performance experience, ask your teacher for a list of appropriate textbooks.

This should include technical studies, etudes, repertoire, solo transcriptions, play-along CD’s, orchestral excerpts, rudiments/patterns, stylistic literature, etc.

You can build this list gradually as you go along but these books will be permanent fixtures in your practice woodshed! If you don’t read music yet there are plenty of CD sing-along resources available for rote learning.

3. Learn How to Practice

Finally we come to HOW to practice and my suggested protocol comes from 50 years of a shedload of practicing! So consider following the following schedule:


It’s very important to prime your vocal cords at the beginning of each day


  1. Vocal Warm-up: (10 minutes) You should have a few rotating routines because it’s very important to prime your vocal cords at the beginning of each day for whatever rigors you plan to put them through. Recommended: Vocal Workouts For The Contemporary Singer, by Anne Peckham (Berklee Press)
  2. Melodic Ear Training: (10 minutes) Using a keyboard or guitar for support, practice singing all melodic intervals. Play a note, sing the interval to the next note by ear, check accuracy by playing thetarget note on the piano (or guitar). Recommended Text: Intervallic Ear Training For Musicians, by Steve Prosser (Advance Music).
  3. Rhythmic Ear Training: (10 minutes) Purchase a metronome and practice written (or recorded) syncopated rhythmic patterns at various tempos using prescribed vocal syllable articulations, tapping, clapping or playing a practice drum pad with sticks (highly suggested). Recommended Texts: Rhythmania, by Bob Stoloff, Syncopation For The Modern Drummer, by Ted Reed, Big Band Figures, by Jake Hannah (Try Publishing).
  4. Harmonic Ear Training: (10 minutes) Theory and harmony are rather dense topics but nevertheless essential tools for all musicians in training. The best way to learn how to hear harmony is to practice playing triads, 7th chords and 7th chords with extensions in all keys. Learn how to voice these configurations on the piano or guitar in all keys. Recommended texts: Sing Your Way Through Theory, by Kris Adams (Gerard/Sarzin), The Jazz Piano Book, by Mark Levine (Sher Music), The Jazz Piano Handbook, by Michele Weir (Alfred Music).
  5. Characteristic Patterns/Etudes: (10 minutes) Instrumentalists have the advantage of having many resources as there are few books with contemporary patterns and etudes for voice. To practice scat singing more effectively, I simply adapted instrumental technique books by adding vocal syllables to the various examples beginning with the Arban Trumpet Method. I have since written many books with technical exercises designed for singers interested in practicing patterns and etudes if appropriate for their goals and objectives. There are some etude-like pieces for voice including “Vocalise (20 Daily Exercises)” by Max Spicker, “School of Sight Singing” and “50 Lessons,” by Giuseppe Concone and Nicola Vaccai’s Practical method For Singing Italian (all published by G. Schirmer). For more contemporary exercises check out my publications including Scat! Vocal Improvisation Techniques, “Blues Scatitudes” (gerardandsarzin.com) and “Rhythmania”.
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    Practice can be enhanced using an instrument such as piano or guitar

  7. Repertoire: (30 minutes) Your repertoire should include all the songs you plan to perform but may also include vocal works that will help you develop better technique and increase your library of musical styles and languages. There are too many books with standard vocal literature to mention here and this should be determined by your teacher.
  8. Break Time: (10 minutes) Interspersed as needed throughout the practice session.


Singers have different endurance thresholds but it is my opinion that you should not sing for more than 90 minutes per session and no more than 3 hours total per day. Also make sure to take intermittent breaks to keep your voice from tiring or becoming damaged.

 Always combine practice objectives whenever possible to make the most of the time you have

One trick I learned is to always combine practice objectives whenever possible to make the most of the time you have. For example, you can practice playing different chord types and voicings on piano or guitar during your warm-up.

Most vocal warm-up patterns move chromatically (in half-steps) so this gives you the opportunity to practice both harmonic ear training and basic piano skills simultaneously. If piano or guitar is your second instrument then you can study theory and harmony on those instruments while you rest your voice.

Rhythmic ear training can be accomplished with a drum pad and a pair of sticks. There’s no need to sing everything you need to practice!

My Reaction to This Week's Singing Competition Entry

Gary Willner Gary Willner - The Summer Wind

Gary is a very professional performer who demonstrates significant performance experience. Careful of being too camera-conscious, you are there for your live audience! I like your stage marking-moving from the chair to a standing position and I would like to see you take it up another notch by using more right and left stage positions. This gives you the command and presence needed for a solid performance.


Bob Stoloff is a world-renowned guest conductor, workshop clinician and ensemble performance adjudicator. His unique and comprehensive approaches to teaching include traditional scat singing, group improvisation, “Instru-Vocal” articulation and body percussion. Bob’s books and information about his Vocal Jazz Academy in Europe can be found at bobstoloffmusic.com.

  • Anne

    Hi, I’m only a hobby singer and my time for daily practice is limited to about 30 min. Should I just cut down the practicing time to 5 min (besides for the warm up) or rather vary the exercises from day to day (doing some on one day, others on the next etc)?

  • Angel of Song

    Vary the exercises! Your voice is like a muscle. If you keep using the same workout it gets used to it and it’s not as effective. A minimum of 30 minutes for a workout is a good starting point.

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  • I don’t really practice. However, I sing a lot when driving in my car. I have all my songs stored on a USB plug and start softly with an easy song that doesn’t require much force and doesn’t have extreme highs and lows. Then I slowly increase volume and accentuation with each song. Finally I do the “loud” songs full force, always engaging my chest, not just my vocal cords and throat. This works for me, but everybody has different ways.