How I transformed my singing through deliberate practice

Susanne Bargmann shows that deliberate practice improves singing

Can you dramatically improve your singing in mid-life? Danish psychologist Susanne Bargmann committed to a strict regime of deliberate practice to find out.

As a child Susanne Bargmann dreamt of becoming a singer but, riddled by self-doubt and anxiety, she shelved this ambition and pursued her second love – psychology – instead. She became a successful therapist, but one regret lingered: she’d never reached her potential as a vocalist.

That all changed when Bargmann decided to test the theory that “it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert”. This concept, popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, can be traced back to K Anders Ericsson. The Swedish academic studied top performers in sport, music, mathematics and business and found that what set them apart from their peers was deliberate practice. Those who reached the top of their respective fields had engaged in more deliberate practice – that’s good quality, goal-oriented practice, not boring, mindless repetition – than their counterparts.

Bargmann, by now a mother-of-two in her 40s, committed to deliberate singing practice for at least an hour a day. It took bucketloads of resolve and motivation to stick to the strict regime but after much hard work something incredible happened – her voice changed dramatically and she found the confidence to launch a singing career. She spoke to iSing.

iSing: How did you find the time to practise for one hour a day?

Susanne Bargmann: It was hard at first because I had my job, my children and my friends – and practising singing is noisy. You can’t practice in public without bothering people, and I couldn’t practice for long at home without bothering my family. The first obstacle was to find a way to fit it into my daily life. Fortunately, I drive a lot for work and nobody can hear me sing when I’m in my car. Once I figured out how to practice in my car, it became easier to get one hour of practice done every day.

iSing: What is “deliberate practice”. Does it differ to what a singer might normally refer to as “practice”?

SB: There are four elements of deliberate practice:

  1. Solitary practice
  2. Practising to achieve a specific goal
  3. Working with a coach/ mentor
  4. Getting feedback on your performance

All four elements are necessary parts of what is called “deliberate practice”. I think it may differ from what singers do when they rehearse with their band or when they sing a song at home. Deliberate practice is taxing in a way I haven’t experienced before. Most of the time I can only practice for about 30 to 45 minutes then I need a break either because my voice needs the rest or because I’m exhausted and can no longer hear if I’m doing it the right way. I need to rest and get “fresh ears” before I continue. For me it has also meant focusing on my voice in a much more specific way, singling out specific elements I wanted to learn instead of trying to master everything at once.

iSing: How do you stay motivated?

SB: Deliberate practice isn’t necessarily fun – it’s repeating the same thing over and over again, focusing on a single word or a specific sound. There are times when I’m just so driven and motivated that I can’t stop myself from practising and there are times when I don’t feel like it at all. I’ve found I need “commitments” to motivate me. For example, if I have a performance coming up I’ll be much more motivated to practice out of fear that it will sound bad.

iSing: You worked closely with a vocal coach to improve your voice. How did he help?

SB: Working with a coach is a crucial element of deliberate practice. He has been able to guide my practice in terms of what to start with and how to introduce things. He’s also my “ears”. I will sometimes listen to something I’ve done and just feel it’s horrible. But he helps me be specific and identify what I want to change. He guides me with exercises aimed at changing that specific sound. He’s been very supportive and cheered for me when I was about to give up because I just didn’t see the changes I wanted. Without him, I wouldn’t have a story to tell.

iSing: What were your specific vocal goals? Did you achieve them?

SB: I’ve always admired the divas and their big voices: Whitney Houston, Christina Aguilera, Celine Dion. I loved the way they could belt out the big notes. My first goal was to change my voice to sound more like the divas. I have changed my voice completely – not only in singing but also in speaking. I do a lot of teaching in my job, and I used to have a problem speaking loudly enough for everybody to hear me. Today I can speak really loudly and I can sing really loudly. In that respect I reached my goals. But the problem is this never ends. I recognise that I can now sing in a completely different way from when I started, but I want more. I still have goals I’m trying to reach today.

iSing: You recorded yourself singing throughout the process. How important was it to do this?

SB: Listening to myself on the first recordings was a shock! I sounded very different to how I thought I sounded. Recording myself was tough but it was necessary to figure out what I had to work on. We sometimes talk about it as “synchronising with reality”. The first step to improve a skill is to get a sense of what you can do. In my case, my self-image was distorted. Recording myself has helped me stay humble to the fact that I still have a long way to go and helped me be specific about what I wanted to change in my voice. It has also helped me track my progress. I may feel nothing is changing but then I listen to a recording that I did a year ago and I notice that a lot has changed.

iSing: Singers are often described as being “naturally talented”. Do you believe there is such a thing?

SB: I sometimes feel the idea of “natural talent” misses the point and it played a part in why I didn’t pursue singing as a kid. It gives you the idea that if you are not a “natural talent” you might as well stop. It gives you the idea that without “natural talent” you will never make it. And that’s a shame. Of course, there are children who are better or faster at learning how to sing. There are children that impress all of us. But our fascination with “talent” makes us miss the importance of practice. No matter how talented a performer is, they practise for hours to be able to do the incredible things they do. Nobody becomes a superstar without it. Ericsson’s point is that it’s the amount of practice – not the talent – that makes the difference. For me, this message has been liberating.

iSing: What’s your biggest achievement as a singer?

SB: I don’t know if I have a “biggest achievement”, but I feel very proud of some of the things I’ve done. I’ve co-written several songs for my EP and for my upcoming album. One of the songs I wrote for my EP was played extensively on several radio stations in Denmark. A friend of mine called because she heard it on the radio, that made me so happy and proud. Last August I fulfilled another dream when I went to Nashville and recorded two songs for my upcoming album with local musicians and songwriters.

iSing: What advice do you have for a singer who fears they’re too old to find a place in the music industry?

SB: This is a concern I’m faced with too. I’m getting ready to promote my album and I’m trying to figure out how to best do that given that I’m not 18. Right now, I’m working on a promotion plan for my album and I’m looking at different options that may not be “mainstream”, such as digital marketing. I think my approach so far has been to do things even if they seemed impossible. I’ve tried to get help from people who know more about the music industry than I do. In the story Pippi Longstocking there is a wonderful quote. She says: “I have never tried that before, so I think I should definitely be able to do that”. And in some ways that has been my approach so far. I don’t know where this will take me or my music, but I’m going to do my best to get my music out there.

iSing: What’s next for Susanne Bargmann?

SB: I’m recording the last songs for my album at the moment. This will be released under my artist name “Sus B”. The plan is to start playing concerts once I have enough original material, so that is next on my list: putting together a band and finding venues to play my music. This is all new territory for me and I’m looking forward to exploring that. I’m also a little frightened by that next step.


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Bronwyn Bidwell is an Australian journalist and editor based in London. She enjoys writing about music, books, history and popular culture.