Sunday, November 06, 2011

Stop me if you’ve sung this before: learning different versions of songs you know already

A while back I taught a song wrongly. Not for the first time!

bird clones

Original photo by Brian Robert Marshall

Even though I corrected myself quickly, the original version stuck in people’s minds and now they can’t shift it.

songs become habit fast

It takes a long time to learn a brand new song (see Learning songs by ear). Yet it’s amazing how quickly a new song becomes habit.

You have to be really careful to make sure that a song is learnt accurately in the early stages, as it soon becomes engraved in your brain as if it’s always been there.

You might have learnt a fantastic African or Georgian song in your choir, only to go to a workshop or join a new choir and come across a very slightly different version of something you know really well. Maybe the rhythmic pattern of the melody is altered, or the lyrics vary slightly, or the tune is different at the end of the verse, or the alto harmony is changed a bit.

Having already learnt the song, it’s as if you have carved a deep track in your brain where the song lives and no amount of effort can change the course of that track even slightly.

Your version of the song has become habit and it’s a hard one to break. No matter how hard you try, you just can’t anchor the slight variations that are being called for. You keep reverting to the version you first learnt.

as if for the first time

This is partly because you are on automatic pilot (the song comes back to you without effort), you are not in learning mode (you’ve already done that bit), and you are not in the moment (no need to pay attention as you know the song already).

You need to behave as if it is the first time you have encountered the song. This also applies to rehearsing familiar material for a concert.

Focus, be in the moment, and you will discover new subtleties in a well-known song. You will delight in the small variations in rhythm and the different sound that results from the little changes in the harmonies. It will breathe new life into the song. And it keeps your brain working!

This ability to stay on the ball and respond to small changes are skills that become highly developed in small ensembles. The singers work off each other and respond to slight variations in each performance. Nobody can afford to be on automatic pilot as the song is a living thing that can change with time. The same applies to improvisation.

But even if you’re in a big choir you need to develop this fine attention to detail and be able to change direction at a moment’s notice. That means being able to change dynamics in a song from one rehearsal to another, and also to be able to change songs slightly whenever the occasion requires.

Stay on the ball and you will be a better singer and discover new depths in familiar material.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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