Practice vs. Practish

SBO Staff • August/September 2017ChoralThe Practical Conductor • September 5, 2017

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By Brody McDonald

A great former student of mine, Kurt Zimmerman, once said something amazing. He said, “There’s a big difference in the way people practice. Some people practice and some people practish.”

Just think about the staggering simplicity of this phrase: .

“Ish” is part of our culture now, even part of our language. If you look up “ish” on, this is what you’ll see:


1. A suffix used to form adjectives from nouns, with the sense of “belonging to” (British, Danish, English, Spanish); “after the manner of,” “having the characteristics of,” “like” (babyish, girlish, mulish); “addicted to,” “inclined or tending to” (bookish, freakish); “near or about” (fiftyish, sevenish).

2. A suffix used to form adjectives from other adjectives, with the sense of “somewhat,” “rather” (oldish, reddish, sweetish).

If you go to, you’ll find something a bit different:

Kind of/sort of, usually added onto the end of a word or phrase

Well, did it work?


How was the opera?

It was good. Ish.

Are you hungry?


So what is the difference between practice and practish? Since we are starting a new academic year, it is important that we not only inspire our singers to practice, but also that we help them understand how to practice. Let’s take a look at some scenarios you can impart to your singers. These are written in a framework where the you (the director) are talking to a singer in your choir, therefore the YOU in each scenario is the singer who must examine their practice.

Focused work vs. Random Activity: As is the case with exercise, doing ANYTHING is better than doing nothing. However, working towards specific goals beats filling time. Students have a lot of homework, so practice can be “one more thing to do.” Just the act of setting goals will increase productivity. Create a series of smaller, achievable goals for better management. Too many singers work on a song as a whole, when not every section has the same challenges. One section might need work on tuning for chromatic passages, while another needs technique strengthening for a high tessitura. Whatever your needs are, lay them out and address them. Keep a log so that progress can be tracked over time.

Accountability vs. Letting yourself off the hook: “I did my best” is great, but if you are trying to learn ALL the notes to 2 pages of melismas, and you haven’t learned them all… your best isn’t good enough yet. It’s ok to have difficulty, and it’s ok to not “get it” right away. It is not ok to say “I did my best, and that’s all I can do.” Use a recorder to play back your singing and make notes on what is working vs. what isn’t. If you aren’t able to succeed on your own, that’s fine. Know what is stumping you and then ask your director for help. Be able to describe what you tried, and what’s bothering you. If you own your struggles, you also own your triumphs. Own your musical development.

It’s close enough for (fill in the blank): when singing in a choir, it’s easy to think “I didn’t get everything, but I’m close. But I’ll be singing with everyone else, so I’ll get the rest in rehearsal.” This happens sometimes, but remember that other people are also listening to you. Singing something “close enough” is like a cancer that spreads through the section, filling others with doubt. If you are tasked with learning something, learn it completely. All the growth is in the last parts that are toughest to master.

Varied practice vs. repetition: Science tells us that our brains respond more to change than to repetition. It’s why we get bored. Don’t just sing the same things over and over again “to cement it in your brain.” Work to make each repetition slightly different in a better way so that your brain is keyed in. Also, set your practice goals to be shorter periods of time that are varied, rather than larger chunks of time on the same material. Your musicianship (and sanity) will thank you.

There is no shortcutting the harvest: Cramming for exams is a bad idea and cramming for music even more so. Pace your practice and make it part of your regular routine. This is another way music is like exercise. You can’t work out once a month and be in shape any more than you can sit around for 6 weeks and then try to catch up on music prep right before a concert.

Once you begin to discuss various aspects of practice and how your singers can set themselves up for success, the word practish becomes so powerful. It’s just such an obvious, great phrase: “Practice vs. Practish.”  When your group isn’t doing so hot, lay “Practice vs. Practish” on them and blow their minds. How great to have such a concise key word to use that will let everyone in the room know that they should up their game…

“Hey! What’s up with this practish?”

“Did you guys practice this over the weekend, or just practish?”

Thanks, Kurt.

Brody McDonald is the director of choirs at Kettering Fairmont High School. Under his leadership, his curricular choirs have consistently earned the highest ratings at state level contest and have been featured at numerous conventions. He is at the forefront of the a cappella movement, serving as a founding member and the vice president of the A Cappella Education Association. His a cappella ensemble, Eleventh Hour, was the first high school group ever to compete on NBC’s The Sing-Off. Brody is also the author of A Cappella Pop: A Complete Guide to Contemporary A Cappella Singing. Brody has recently joined the faculty at Wright State University as director of a cappella studies. For more information, please visit

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