Monday, May 14, 2018

Why my singers don’t use recorded parts to learn songs

Some choirs make recorded parts available to their singers and expect them to know their part when they come to the first rehearsal of the song.


For me though, learning together in the same space is more important so I don’t use recorded parts. Here’s why.

Some people learn songs from recorded parts. I always teach songs ‘live’. I only make recorded parts available after a song has been learnt.

It’s then a resource for people when we revive a song for a concert, or for new choir members who want to catch up with old repertoire in their own time.

I feel strongly about singers learning together in the same space at the same time.

why I think learning together is important

  • social bonding – being part of a choir is an innately social experience. Learning a song together helps strengthen social bonds and creates a sense of community and ‘ownership’ of the song.
  • understanding harmony – teaching a song live allows me to break it up into small chunks and bring harmonies in as soon as possible. This allows singers to understand and experience the harmonies as they go along, as well as getting familiar with the structure of the song.
  • ‘duetting’ as we go – I always teach songs by involving all the parts as soon as possible. This allows me to ‘duet’ the harmony parts together (e.g. the tenor and alto part are sung together) so singers can get a sense of how the harmonies work. It also gives those singers not singing a chance to learn by listening. Liz Garnett has written about duetting very clearly on her own blog.
  • blend and dynamics on the fly – by learning a song together, it’s possible to address issues of blend, dynamics, structure, etc. as we go along rather than trying to make adjustments later. It’s surprising how singers stick to how they first learnt a song and find it hard to change further in the rehearsal process! (see Why does the first wrong note you learn stay with you forever?)

why I think learning on your own can be problematic

  • can be isolating – singing in a choir is a team effort. Sitting at home learning a part on your own can feel isolating, but worse you can end up focusing so much on being perfect that you forget everything else: musicality, harmony, blend, etc. It can result in you feeling pressure to always get it ‘right’ when you finally rehearse with the other singers. That can also remove the fun element of singing together.
  • you can fall apart later – I used to work in the theatre and learnt my lines at home. I had them off perfectly, but as soon as I began working with the other actors and moving around, I forgot them all! Same with songs. You might think you have your parts down pat, but as soon as you hear the other harmony parts live (even if you’ve sung against them on a recording), you can easily be put off.
  • the focus is on you – back in my theatre days we were told not to highlight our own lines in the play text as that meant we would only think about our own part and have no sense of the whole. If you learn your part at home you never really get a sense of the whole song or how all the parts fit together. When you get to rehearsal you’ll need to learn all over again to focus outwards.
  • everything becomes fixed – it’s surprising how much first time you learn a new part becomes embedded. We’ve all had that experience of knowing a song really well and struggling when we’re asked to learn a variation of it. Learning your part at home means that it ends up being fixed whereas learning together at the same time allows for more flexibility and change whilst learning rather than trying to make changes at a later stage. (See Stop me if you’ve sung this before: learning different versions of songs you know already)

what do you think?

This is my personal opinion of course. I know lots of people prefer to learn their part on their own. And with certain genres (e.g. barbershop) where competition and precision are paramount, it’s maybe important.

What’s your experience? Have you tried both methods? What works best for you and why?

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Chris Rowbury



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