How to learn a new song

The lifeblood of any choir is the music which it sings.  For me there is a balance between keeping a good number of songs in your repertoire versus introducing new ones.  Most of my choirs love the excitement of new music and the challenges which this brings.  But equally, they also love singing through the songs they know.

Choosing the song

Before you can learn any new music of course you need to choose a song to learn.  Normally this is done by the choirmaster, although I do like to give my choirs input at this stage. After all, without the choir members there would be no choir, so it’s important to learn music they want to sing.  This also helps the learning process, if the song is at least in part familiar to some of the members then learning it will be a little quicker.

Listen before you start

Listening comes before speaking, or in this case, singing.  Once you have been given a new song, go and listen to it as often as possible. Find a recording or look online.  Even if it’s not the version of the song you are going to be singing provided it has the correct words and tunes it will be beneficial.  This applies just as much if you are singing one of the inner parts in your choir or the bass line.  You may not be able to necessarily pick those parts out by listening to a recording, but this doesn’t matter.  Take the opportunity to get to know the song, understand the story and listen out for any changes of dynamics.  

Listening applies equally as much to the choirmaster as to your choir members. Don’t expect to know the songs straight away. The first time or two that you play a new song, ask the choir members to listen and to do the gestures with you. You can also do simple activities such as passing a ball around or playing rhythm instruments in time with the music. As they do this, they’ll be learning the song. After a few times, without any prompting from you, you’ll likely find them singing along!  

Break down the elements

Think about what a song involves. It’s not just a bunch of notes, there are several elements which come together to make a song:

  • Words
  • Rhythm
  • Melody
  • Dynamics

So many choirs jump right in and start with the notes. But actually, before you start, have a good look at the song. What’s it about? What story is it trying to tell? This is really important because when you sing the song you will then be responsible for sharing that story with others. If you don’t actually know the story behind the music then you won’t be able to convincingly sing it to anyone else.

Rhythm can be a tricky thing to master, particularly in some modern songs which are more of a transcript of how someone else has sung the song rather than what the original composer intended!  So again, before you rush in trying to learn everything at once, look at the passages with rhythmic interest. In a lot of modern songs a rhythmic pattern is repeated several times. By spending a bit of time looking at the rhythmic ideas without trying to worry about the notes and words as well will probably save a lot of time later.  You can tap the rhythm out using your hands or feet or even incorporate it within a warm up exercise.

The melody, or the tune, is of course the bit which most people tend to associate most with learning a new song.  But if you go away after rehearsal singing the tune to yourself, theres a good chance you’ve also got to grips with the words and the rhythm as well!

Whilst it’s a good idea not to leave the dynamics too long before incorporating them into your song, this is part of the detail which comes once you know how the basis of the song goes.  But dynamic variation is incredibly important. Not only will it make your singing sound more interesting but it will often relate to the words and thus the ‘story’ of the song. The conductor will typically tell you what dynamics he or she wants and often, if you use music copies, this will be marked in the copy.  But more often than not, just reading the words and understanding the story of the song will be sufficient for you to come up with at least some idea as to whether the song should be loud or quiet at a particular point.

Repetition

Learning notes with the rest of the choir has the potential to be quite dull.  There’s no easy fix for this, particularly if you don’t have the option of splitting your choir and sending some parts off to rehearse with an assistant musical director for example.  But the way I get around is is to focus on small chunks at a time part by part but building it up quickly  Then after each section once everyone has some idea of their part, go back and sing it in context. If you do this as you go through the piece, then in fact by the end of the piece you will have sung it through several times. So as you learn a new bit you are still focussing on the previous bits of learning.

This repetition will not only speed up the learning of the song but it should also make it more interesting for choir members. After all if you are in a choir, one assumes its because you want to sing. I always try to ensure that my choir members get as much chance to sing through music as they do to learn notes.  That way, repetition actually becomes variety, which is always more interesting.