Learning a New Song
It’s honestly crazy how many songs exist. And there are more being created every day. The choices that singers have when choosing their repertoire is virtually limitless. There will always be something to suit your voice in the massive canon of international music. It just takes a little time and patience to find. However, after selecting a few or even just one song, many people become stumped; how do I start learning a new song?
This is a fair question to face, and can often be surprisingly difficult to answer. You may have never learnt a vocal piece before, and you are confronted by the sheer task of learning it. You may even be a seasoned singer unable to conquer a new song. No matter who you are, it can be very difficult to know where to start when learning a new song. For each person, there are individual types of learning that work especially well for them (visually, kinaesthetically, etc.), but there are some key things that everyone should consider when learning a new song!
Start with Some Background Reading
The first thing to do after you discover a song you want to sing (which will work for your voice and you are passionate about), is to get a bit of background history on the song. Research the life of the composer. Find the inspiration for the lyrics. Learn about why the song was composed. Who or what influenced the composer while they were writing it? This gives you a bit of insight into the state of mind the song was written in and the climate of the era. Finding out bits of information such as the inspiration for the lyrics can help you understand the emotion and tone of the music, and aid you in performing it to a more authentic standard.
Analyse the Words and Music
Next, it’s a good idea to look at the words and the music. Writing out the lyrics once a day until you remember them off by heart can really solidify them in your memory. Looking for and identifying patterns in the melody, the structure of the song (chorus, strophe, verse, bridge, instrumental interlude) and the range of the song lets you become well acquainted with some of its twists and turns.
A psychological approach to the work allows you to start to combine the facts and the proof: what chords has the composer used, how do they relate to his life, his lyrics? If you’re doing a song in a foreign language, it’s best to stick to one you know won’t present too much of a challenge. And if you can’t speak or understand the language, an important part of your learning process would be to contact a professional in the language. Ask for a recording of them speaking the lyrics slowly. You could also ask a repetiteur to lyrically discuss the music with you.
Test the Waters
So, now you have collated some facts and background information about the song, and understand the lyrics and their ‘journey’. Next step is to give the song a quick run through on a hum or a ‘laa’. This is a quick way to just hear the song and obtain another glimpse into the music’s progression and structure. Don’t expect to be able to sing the song as well as you have imagined. This is your first encounter physically and vocally with the music and your mind and muscles are unfamiliar with how the song operates.
To start with, go for maybe three runs. The first time, try to really listen to the chords and music and attempt to find the melodic line and follow it. The second time, show a little more confidence and maybe sing with more strength during the chorus, or any repeating patterns. Don’t try to hit any notes that are too difficult for you at the moment; just focus on what you can do. The other bits will come with time and attention. In your third run through, start to think about where you want – and need – to breathe. Make a few annotations on sections which may be tricky in the future. Consider where you want this song to go in regards to dynamics and musicality: where are the peaks, and where does the melody take you emotionally? How will I portray this in a true manner to my audience?
Listen to Someone Else Perform the song
A final, somewhat contentious step that some choose to do and others blatantly refuse to do, is listening to another artist perform/sing the song. There are a few negatives and positives to this step when learning a new song. On one side, it gives you a very good understanding of how the song should go in regards to elements such as tempo. However, it can also deceive you into believing that the way the artist you listen to performs the song is the only way it can be done.
Listening to many artists can expose you to a range of interpretations and styles and arrangements of the song. This can enrich your own ideas for how you want the song to evolve. On the other hand, over-exposure can confuse you and make you lose your individual spin on the music if you aren’t careful. For some, listening to someone else sing a song and singing along with them can be a valuable aid. For others, it can cause them to shape and mold their voice around the artists’, hence merely imitating a singer rather than creating an individual interpretation of the music.
There you have it, the beginning of the simple but necessary process of learning a new song and perfecting it properly! These steps may not work for everyone, but they are quite standard methods that many professional vocalists will use when learning a new song. Try using these steps as a helpful guide next time you learn a new song. It will really enrich your learning process and help you take your new song to its full potential!