Everyone does, but it doesn’t seem like anyone is too keen to talk about it. To practice. Musicians of various genres spend thousands of hours with their instrument in the course of their careers without really looking for regular exchange with others and asking what he or she is practicing.
The process of musical advancement is hidden behind a large portion of mysticism, the veil of which nobody really wants to lift. Be it out of shame, competitiveness or simply because you never really get to talk about this topic.
But wouldn’t it be interesting to know what the fellow student, fellow player or friend in the club and band is currently working on on their instrument? How high is the likelihood that you might be practicing the same thing yourself and benefiting from tips and advice? How high is the probability that an experienced player can give you new inspiration and impulses for your next practice session, shows you a new piece or you get to know a new player through a conversation?
In the future, I would like to regularly try to answer all these questions, which are otherwise asked far too seldom, in the series “How do you actually practice …?”. Because learning from others always means learning something about yourself.
This month: Barbara Barth
This interview is special because it is all about a new section that has been on the blog since October. Namely the format “In the consultation hour”.
In it, experts answer your questions on a topic that changes every six months. The big topic “Mental Health” started. At this point, a big thank you to the psychologist Nathalie Mong, who answered the first questions as an expert.
If you are still wondering what mental health has to do with your everyday practice, then look forward to the conversation.
Barbara and I still know each other from the Saarbrücken University of Music. What I didn’t know for a long time, however, was that before she began studying singing at the Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen, she was already successfully studying the bachelor’s degree in psychology.
Today she combines her two passions and works one day a week as a psychologist in a practice and offers special resilience training for musicians.
What exactly the term means, what you can hope for from your training and why the topic of mental health is currently so present in the music industry, we talked about in the podcast.
You can find more information about Barbara Barth at: www.barbarabarth.de
The interview: Complete the following sentence: For you, practice means….
Have a goal and pursue it. So to know beforehand what I actually want to learn and how do I get there. For me, practicing always means having structure. I needed that a lot during my studies and is also what I am conveying to students today.
Therefore, for me, practicing means first of all being clear about what, how, when and also for how long. For me it always needs a good setting.
Which music (album / artist) is currently playing in a loop?
I still listen to the singer Tierney Sutton, sort of a long-running hit since I started singing jazz. I liked her from the start and have come to appreciate her more and more over time, as I was able to listen more and more to what she and her band were actually doing.
Would you say that she is then also the musician who has shaped you the most for your game?
No, mostly not. But certainly strong – especially when it comes to composing and arranging. I also notice that when I want to give students examples now, I often end up with arrangements made by their band.
You can then show: that was the standard, that is what the band made of it and why does it suddenly sound so different.
Who I can definitely name in particular are Maria Pia De Vito, Theo Bleckmann, Sidsel Endresen or, more traditionally, Fay Claassen and Al Jarreau.
You are currently part of two trios, a duo with the pianist Manuel Krass, your quintet, the JassLabb de Cologne and sing in the Blue Art Orchestra. You also have a teaching position in Saarbrücken and at the Osnabrück University of Applied Sciences and are part of the PENG collective. How can you imagine your typical everyday practice?
The time I practiced the most in my life was really the study and the time before it. You had time every day and it’s your “job”, so to speak. When you have both feet on the job – and you have just listed a few projects – a lot, a lot of time is already filled. That means, you have to “tweak” the time here and there.
Of course, it always depends on what is going on. Last week I sang with the Fuchsthone Orchestra, for which I had to learn a huge program. Since all the pieces were new to me, I of course took a lot more time to practice in preparation.
So I mostly practice at concerts. When I have more time, I notice that there is also space again to practice things that interest me. Then I like to transcribe a solo or take a transcribed solo back off the shelf.
On the other hand, I continue to work regularly on my vocal technique. I visit my technology teacher once a month for this purpose. I usually record the lesson and then try to understand it again afterwards.
So I can’t tell you an exact everyday practice routine, which is always in a certain way. I can only say that there are always breaks when practicing. And practice is also everything that you consciously absorb and reflect. With voice technology in particular, a lot is about understanding physiological processes, or feeling what happens when I think this or that. How does my body react? How does my voice react? This is also a lot of mental practice.
Do you then also consciously practice mentally when, for example, you are out and about?
No, when I practice specific pieces now, I have always been practicing them on the instrument. But to the question “How does my instrument actually work and how do I make it sound?” – a lot more happens here before the actual singing. For example, with the attitude towards the instrument, how do my muscles feel – am I free or does something make my voice tight? In any case, these questions have a lot to do with the head.
For example, my technology teacher says she only practices thinking. She stopped singing while practicing a while ago. She only thinks the tones and the vowels and has a very strong sense of what happens to the vocal folds and in the larynx. She practically only trains to keep calm. She’s a classical singer, so it’s something different here.
But I can also sing my scales up and down for an hour a day without having practiced anything. Or I think the right thing a few times and program my body in this way and then I have achieved a lot more in comparison.
Excitingly, I just discovered Renate Klöppel’s book “Mental Training as a Musician” two weeks ago and in this context I dealt with mental practice on my instrument for the first time. It’s really exciting to get into this mindset and imagine “How do my muscles feel when I play”. So in any case a super interesting topic, but which is perhaps becoming too extensive for this framework.
But because you just asked about the concert preparation. One is learning the tones. Learn the pieces. Do I have a place to improvise? Then I practice this point.
But the other thing is to adjust to it, what kind of fears, doubts and fears do I have – and what does that do to my voice and my musicality? This is at least as important as practicing the right notes.
How do you manage / How did you manage to structure your practice in the long term?
Phew, that’s a very all-encompassing question (laughs). Then I always built exercises for myself. For me it was always in the foreground that I want to learn to improvise. In the end, so much flows together in what and how you practice something and what you learn in the process.
If I now practice improvising, then I learn something about harmony theory, I have to accompany myself on the piano – so I practice playing the piano – I learn aural training and learn to hear intervals and scales. You usually practice a lot together and then see where the whole thing will take you.
It is also important that you should be able to adjust your goal from time to time. You can’t say now “I want to achieve this and that in two years” and then realize along the way that the interest may have changed. Big goals are therefore definitely important. But even more important, in terms of practicing and, above all, perseverance, are the small goals. That you say, for example, that you want to write your own piece, that you would like to learn a certain piece or that you want to use more chromatics in improvisation.
Did you record that in a kind of practice diary at the time?
Yes, I always wrote down the exercises very specifically in order to have clues and then to make progress step by step. You then see “now I can do it and can then go a step further”.
I think a lot of people don’t really know how to practice and then sing / play around “just like that”. They then wonder why things are not getting better and quickly lose motivation. That is why it is so incredibly important to give yourself a structure.
For example, if I want to learn to improvise over a piece on a certain scale, it may not be enough to just lay down the chord and then sing and see what happens. It is better to really practice the notes and to create a structure for myself how to do it.
I think then you have to accept that practicing doesn’t necessarily mean being able to express yourself creatively on the instrument. But maybe to break something down first and have the feeling of getting worse for a short time. You know that for sure: When you deal intensively with something, you suddenly notice all the things that you can’t yet. Or you’re so focused on wanting to get it right that you feel like you’re getting worse. But I think that’s part and parcel of practicing. You should have the confidence that if I consciously deal with something, it will have an effect – even if it still takes some time.
I think practicing – or getting better – is something that doesn’t just happen, but that I really have to work through.
Exactly, do I actually make myself aware of what I’m singing. This is at least the case for the process “I can’t do something yet and would like to practice”. Of course there is also a lot that develops when you play with other musicians, when you listen to music or go to concerts.