Sunday, May 26, 2013

How can you possibly teach songs without a piano??!!

“You can’t run a singing workshop here, we don’t have a piano.”

Broken Piano
photo by Thomas Quine

It’s amazing how many people can’t get their heads around the fact that it’s possible to teach songs without a piano (or sheet music). How is it done?

There are several reasons why people might think that a piano is needed:
  • singers have to hear a song in order to learn it
  • piano accompaniment is needed to keep the singers in tune
  • how else will people know what note to start on?
  • when you hear a recorded song, it always has instrumental backing
These are all myths.

call and response

To learn a song without sheet music, people obviously need to hear the song. The easiest way to do this is to sing it to them.

You sing a section, then those learning the song sing it back: you call, they respond (see How to teach (and learn) a song by ear).

It is possible to play the tune on an instrument (like a piano), but then the singers can’t tell how the words fit in. It’s also easier to relate to (and copy) a human voice than an instrument.

a slippery slope

When people first start singing as part of a group — especially if they’re singing in harmony — the song will often slip in pitch and end up lower than it started.

However, this is not the end of the world as long as all the parts stay in tune relative to each other. Over time, singers will get better at maintaining the pitch throughout the song. It’s not necessary to have a piano to keep singers on track.

what’s my starting note?

Lots of people think that the starting note of a song is a fixed thing and if you don’t get it right disaster looms. But you can start any song on any note (as long as everyone starts on the same note!). If it ends up being too high (or low) for the singers, then just stop and try a lower (or higher) note until everyone’s comfortable. You don’t need a piano to do this.

Once you’ve found a comfortable starting note that works for a particular song with a specific group, you might want to remember it so the next time you start the song there won’t be any faffing about.

If someone has perfect pitch (i.e. they can consistently and reliably sing the exact same note every time you need it – a rare talent), then use them. But us mere mortals usually have to find another method.

The next best thing is to have some kind of small portable sound-making device.

You can use a small musical instrument like a harmonica or recorder. Or a device that is designed to play all the notes in a scale. I use one of these. You blow into one of 12 holes to get a particular note in the scale. It’s called a chromatic pitch pipe.

‘Pipe’ because you blow into it to make the sound, ‘pitch’ because it plays single notes each at a different pitch, and ‘chromatic’ because it plays all 12 notes in a chromatic scale.

If you’re clever (!), you can use a tuning fork. When tapped on something hard it plays a single fixed note. You have to be ‘clever’ because then you have to work out (i.e. sing in your head) how to get to the note you want (see also Start as you mean to carry on).

there ain’t much a cappella in the charts!

You can create beautiful music in harmony with just a group of human voices – no piano (or other instruments) needed. This is called a cappella (in the chapel style).

Unless you go looking for it, you won’t hear many songs without instrumental accompaniment – not on the radio, not on X Factor and not on The Voice. It is out there though: in sacred Western choral music, in South African singing, in Bulgarian choirs, and in contemporary a cappella.

just voices needed

The main joy of my job is that I don’t need any equipment, pieces of paper, special room, electricity source or any other paraphernalia.

I just need a group of people (and preferably a roof!) in order to create beautiful music, any time, any place. Simple! And not a piano in sight.

Chris Rowbury’s website:

Chris Rowbury


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