Sunday, January 25, 2009

How to teach (and learn) a song by ear

the oral tradition

For thousands of years all over the world people have sung — to express joy, celebration and grief, to accompany work and devotion, to aid healing. People sung before writing was invented and before musical notation developed. People continue to sing in cultures where there is no written language. People were singing complex unaccompanied harmonies long before Western classical music evolved. Singing is a natural, joyous activity which anybody can do any time.

Long ago, all cultures were oral cultures: there were no books, no writing, no advertisements, no TV. All stories, songs, information, history, secrets, gossip, news, facts were passed on by word of mouth. From their birth babies would be exposed to the same old songs time and time again. They would become familiar with the sounds, feeling and context of the music long before they understood the lyrics or remembered the melodies. But slowly and surely they would begin to join in, and very soon they would know all the songs inside out. It was a very natural, but long drawn out process. Simply put: it was rote learning by repetition.

teaching by ear

When teaching a song by ear, you are trying to short-circuit this long process and compress it into a relatively few hours. So you need to be clear, precise and accurate whilst maintaining an atmosphere of concentration, relaxation and fun. Yes, people are drilling (like when you learn your times tables), but you need to make it a pleasure!

In this post, I’m assuming that you’ll be teaching a song in parts, i.e. with different harmonies, and that it will be unaccompanied, i.e. with no piano or recorded backing. I’m going to cover everything that I think is important, but not all of it will apply to you as everyone will be at a different stage and each group will have different abilities. So excuse me if you think I’m sometimes teaching my grandmother to suck eggs!

find your starting notes

Before you even start to teach a song, make sure your arrangement is within the range of the particular group you’re teaching it to. Then ensure that you have the starting notes for each part at hand (see: start as you mean to carry on). How will you find them? Make sure you have a piano or pitch pipes or a portable keyboard or a tuning fork or whatever else you need. There’s nothing worse for singers’ confidence if you pick a note out of the air and get the wrong one!

who starts?

There might be four or more parts to a song. Which is the best part to start with? It’s not necessarily the tune! If the group aren’t familiar with the song beforehand, then all the parts seem like the tune to them. Often the bass part is useful first as it anchors the song’s harmonies and/ or rhythm. Or perhaps you might start with the main tune and teach everybody so that they get all a sense of the song and its timing.

call and response

Basically teaching a song by ear is call and response. You sing out a line and the choir sing it back to you. The easiest songs to teach then are those which are call and response in any case. Many African songs fit this bill.

One thing that I hadn’t really thought through when I started my first choir way back when, was that I would have to sing solo in front of a group of people! This is something you’ll have to get used to as you’ll need to sing confidently and accurately whilst teaching. It will come in time, so if you are nervous, start with easy songs.

breaking the song into small chunks

One of the worst things you can do is to teach, say, the whole of the Alto part in one go, especially if it’s quite a long song. The other parts will get bored, lose concentration, and even worse, get the Alto part so solidly in their heads that when it comes to learning their own part, they’ll get very confused!

So you’ll need to break the song down into short, manageable chunks. Sometimes it is quite obvious where these chunks are. They often coincide with breathing points. But at other times, there is no obvious break, so you may not stop at a natural pause, but in the middle of a run. In this case, you will have to overlap the next chunk when you come to it so the join is made clear.

By choosing small chunks, you can get the harmonies up and running in a very short space of time. People will begin to feel they are all part of the song as it builds and they will get more satisfaction and fulfilment. Parts won’t get bored or tired hanging around. People will become familiar with the nature of the harmonies more quickly.

If you do have to teach a fairly long chunk to one part, then get the other parts to either hum their own harmony quietly at the same time or, if you’ve not come to their part yet, they can speak the words in rhythm quietly to get familiar with how they fit in. This will help stop the inevitable chit chat that can occur while teaching!

using hand signals

Not everyone learns in the same way. We have become a very visual culture and people are less accustomed to listening to things attentively. In which case, some people might initially find it hard to follow what you’re singing. It is useful to accompany your own singing with some kind of visual aid (no, not a musical score!).

The most obvious one is hand signals. Use the flat of your hand horizontal to the floor and move it up and down to correspond to the pitch going up and down. If you want to indicate a big jump in notes, then indicate a bigger gap between one hand position and the next. If you want to indicate a very small interval, i.e. a semitone, then maybe just incline the hand slightly to show the notes are very close together. The Kodály method takes this one step further and has a different hand shape for each note.

As an aside, it’s a good habit to learn to take nothing for granted. I was once teaching a song to someone using hand signals, but he looked very puzzled. “Why are you waving your hands in the air?” he asked. “When my hand goes up it means the note is higher and when my hand goes down it means it’s lower” I replied. “What do you mean ‘higher’ and ‘lower’?” he asked. Then I realised that it is just a convention that we have adopted. If someone is used to playing the piano, then high notes are to the right and low notes to the left, not higher and lower physically!

teaching separate choir parts

Each different part may require a slightly different tactic. There are different issues for a mixed choir if it’s a man or a woman leading. If a woman is teaching a mixed choir, then she probably won’t be able to reach the bass notes. When she sings the tenor line, the men in the tenor part might end up singing too low as they perceive her to be singing low in her own range. Correspondingly, if a man sings the tenor line at pitch, he might confuse the women in the tenors who perceive him to be singing high in his own range. You’ll need to adapt accordingly and respond to the particular group you’re working with.

You’ll also need to decide which order you teach the parts in. You’ve already decided which part to begin with, but which part is it best to teach next? You might also change the order as the song is built up. You need to adapt to each particular song.

where are the words?

For some simple call and response songs, you’ll not need to hand out lyrics. There are often very few words, and in any case, you sing them first and everyone else repeats them. However, if a song has lots of words, what do you do? One option is to put the words in large format up on the wall (see: the writing’s on the wall). This helps people to look up and to see you clearly. If you hand out lyrics, there is a danger that everyone buries their head in a piece of paper and stops paying attention!

This can’t be avoided though with songs that have many verses. I often teach a song just using the first verse words, then when the parts are under their belt, I hand out the full set of lyrics. This does have its own problems though.

beyond the first verse

If you keep rehearsing the first verse of a new song, people will struggle when it comes to subsequent verses (see: words are flowing out like endless rain ...). The words will be unfamiliar and they may have difficulty fitting them to the tune. However, if you overload people with too many words when they’re first learning the song, then it may become overwhelming and too difficult.

One solution is to teach the first line of each part, say, then to practice that melody with the first line of words for every verse before moving on.

There is a similar difficulty with teaching in small chunks. As you build the song up, the first chunk ends up being sung far more times than the last chunk. That means that the ends of verses are sometimes not learnt as fully as the beginnings. One trick that I use in subsequent sessions when learning a song is to build up the song backwards. i.e. sing the last chunk first, then add the one before it and so on until the whole song is sung.

it all takes time!

Some people believe that ‘real’ singers only have to hear a melody once then they can repeat it and have ‘learnt’ the song. When I tell them that professional singers take many months before a song is really under their belt, they are often surprised. As I mentioned at the start, we are trying to short-circuit a process which would have taken several years in our small community hundreds, or even thousands, of years ago. We would have heard and rehearsed the same song many, many times as we were growing up. Now we are expected to learn a song in just a few sessions!

When someone new joins the choir, I point this out to them and tell them that we will be returning to the song we are learning for many weeks. Even when we think we have learnt it, we will run through it each week until it sits comfortably inside us without having to think too much about it. We might do it in different ways each time, try it faster or slower, do it in an operatic style, build up the parts slowly from verse to verse. The more ways we can explore the song, the more likely it is to stick.


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