Sunday, February 04, 2007

Papa's got a brand new song

The beginning of any term is always shaky as I usually start three or four songs at the same time. We don’t finish a song in a single session, but keep a few on the go for several weeks. I personally believe that this variety is a better way of learning (but what do I know??!!). Hence in the first few weeks of term we often don’t have a clear grasp of where a song is going or what the final version will actually sound like. Some people have suggested that I play the choir a full version of the song before I start to teach it, but often I don’t have a recording or perhaps it’s a new arrangement that I’ve not tried before.

Another issue is that I’m not familiar enough with the song yet, despite the fact that I’ve spent ages on it at home! I practice and practice and think I know it inside out, but then in front of the choir when everyone’s a bit tired and we’ve already begun two new songs that evening, I suddenly realise that I’ve not totally nailed a particular interval or part of the harmony and it all goes pear-shaped

Unlike most people in the choir, I get to learn all the parts of every song. This is mainly due to simple repetition. I now know all the parts to over 500 songs! People often ask: “how do you manage it?”, “how do you remember them all?” Maybe I have some talent for it, and I know I have a good ear, but the main thing is that I get to repeat each song/ part at least four times when teaching a new song – that’s four times more than most people!

So here’s a hint when learning a new harmony song: listen to the other parts attentively while they’re being learnt (resist the temptation to natter!), you then learn the words more easily and can also sing your part in your head at the same time and see how the harmony works. In short, you get to repeat the new song/ part more times.

In many of the cultures that we source our songs from, people start “learning” songs from when they are children. They repeatedly hear others singing the same song, over and over again from a very early age. Even if there’s no conscious effort to learn it, a song will get into the brain of those around despite themselves. We see a similar effect on children of choir members who hear their parents singing their parts around the house, and before we know it, they know the song better than we do!

Basically, we are trying to short circuit years of repeatedly hearing a song in different contexts, so what we are doing is slightly artificial. To make things easier, musical notation was invented and people started using written scores instead of really listening and relying on their own memory. But then you never really get the song inside you!

It turns out that some people believe that they can “sing” because they think that “proper” singers only have to hear a song once before they’ve learnt it perfectly. It often comes as a surprise when I tell them that even professional singers take a few months before they really get to grips with a new song.

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Chris Rowbury


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