Once upon a time I was invited to participate in the Tallis Scholars Workshop put on by Carnegie Hall. For me, this is heaven on earth – getting to sing with the world-renowned Tallis Scholars, singing early choral polyphony for five hours per day with 23 of my nerdy singer brethren? Yes please! Day one was amazing. I sang my little heart out and couldn’t wait for the rest of the week.
Day two. I wake up at the hotel with no voice. I mean, NOTHING. I could not produce any sound besides the odd squeak or two. CURSE New York and its germy public transportation. What’s worse is that I felt completely fine otherwise, no other symptoms at all – and I knew that I hadn’t oversung or used poor technique on the first day. Some mean virus just decided to attack my cords directly and there was nothing I could do about it. Though let me tell you I tried. I have never drunk so much ginger tea in my LIFE.
I had hopes that I would get my voice back in time for our concert at the end of the week. The problem was, I couldn’t sing in rehearsals. There wasn’t enough time for me to sit out and catch up when my voice returned – the concert was in six days! What could I possibly do?
Answer: Plenty. There’s plenty you can do when you don’t have a voice but simply must continue to learn your music. As it turns out, you can do an awful lot of practicing without singing a note. Don’t get thrown off of your practice schedule. These three silent practice methods saved my bacon on more than one occasion.
Audiation is being able to hear or sing music in your head when there is no music playing. Think of it as the musical equivalent of thinking in a foreign language. As I fly a lot between gigs, I often use audiation on the plane. I can prepare for my next gig in silence without disturbing my fellow passengers.
This method is best for learning notes and rhythms. All you need is a piano/pitch pipe and your brain. Play your starting note, then sing through the music in your head, checking any problems you have against the piano. I find it more helpful than simply playing through the line on a piano, as your brain is more engaged.
If good pitch isn’t your strong suit, use this as an opportunity to test yourself. Play the starting note, audiate the phrase, and then check your ending note. How did you do?
2. Sing, but without sound
Hear me out on this. There is so much that makes up singing besides the actual coming together of the vocal folds. There’s breathing, mouth/tongue/soft palate position, posture, energy… Get in front of a mirror and “sing”! Do everything short of actually allowing your cords to phonate. Breathe as you would, form all of the words (you can still do unvoiced consonants!), and keep an eye on your technique just as you would if you were actually making sound.
This method is best for working on your technique when you can’t sing. Good mirror work will keep you on track for anything physical. What you see in the mirror should look exactly like you would when actually singing, but as if someone has pushed the mute button.
Bonus! You can’t judge your sound, because there is none! All that’s left is the objective part of your technique. But a word of caution: Be aware of any sympathetic muscle work causing bad tension. This is a great way to find out if you’ve been involving any unnecessary neck muscles in your day-to-day singing.
By the way, this technique is what I ended up using all through my week of rehearsals at Carnegie. I participated in the rehearsals exactly as I would have had my voice not deserted me. I marked my music, used facial expression, breathed appropriately, and my consonant game was ON POINT. By the time the concert rolled around, I felt extremely prepared even though I hadn’t been able to actually sing a note all week.
Did you know that many studies have shown that going through things mentally is just as effective as doing those same things physically? I turns out that our brains can’t tell the difference. This is why basketball players are told to imagine taking a perfect free throw shot over and over again. By the time the pressure’s on at the foul line, their brain already “knows” how to make that perfect shot.
This method is best for polishing your performance if you still have no voice. You know your music and you know how you want your performance to go. Close your eyes and imagine going through your audition or recital in real time. This is critical. You can’t be on fast-forward in your life, so the only way to trick your brain into thinking you’ve done it before is to do it in real time.
One other critical point: Imagine the piece/phrase/moment going as you want it to. It’s funny how many times I’ll try to use visualization to help me hit a high note better, but imaginary me encounters the same problems, because that’s just what I’m used to and what my brain expects. Train your brain to see what you want the moment to be, and you will reach that level more easily when you sing out loud. What is the phrase? Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect. And in your mind, there’s no reason you can’t be absolutely perfect.
So even if you lose your voice when the pressure’s on, these three silent practice methods can keep you from falling behind on your practice plan. But don’t stop there! Try silent practicing as a way to get in extra practice time when you’ve already stretched your voice far enough for the day. Or if you have to practice in a thin-walled apartment. Or if you have a sleeping baby in the house. What reasons can you think of to use silent practice? Let me know in the comments below!