Following our philosophy of valuing everyone as a unique individual, Tim asked the singers to share their method of learning the season’s songs in an email. 45 people responded, sharing their chosen ways of learning the songs. People were free to write in their own personal way about how they learn the songs. The only downside to this is in collating and feeding back the information. I may be stating the obvious, but I can only report back what people have written, and maybe sometimes the obvious was not stated – for example, if someone said they listened to the track until they knew it, should I assume that they sang along with it? I have collated the factual information, for example, “x number of people listen to the tracks in their car”. Most people use a variety of methods at different points in the season. I have included the different methods people use, but have not reported how many methods each person uses or the order in which they use them, as this was so diverse that it would have needed a report for each person. I included direct quotes made by individuals where there seemed to be a message that someone wanted to pass on to others.
I have made my own comments on the information provided, including some suggestions. However, the most important message is that however many people use a particular method and whatever suggestions are made, everyone is a unique learner who must find ways to learn that suit them. Everyone’s circumstances are also very different, so their methods are often determined by that; a very busy person with a long drive to work each day is likely to use that time listening to the music and singing along in the car.
We really hope that the wealth of experience that members of the choir have shared will help everyone to confidently develop their own learning.
Tools for learning songs that are provided by BeVox
The tools provided by BeVox for learning songs are all designed to help each singer’s personal learning, in, but particularly out of, sessions.
- Tracks with the lyrics sung by professional singers accompanied by a basic piano backing, with one’s own voice part predominant. These can be downloaded by each singer onto their preferred device or provided as a CD.
- Musical score with notation and lyrics for all voice parts. These can be downloaded by singers onto their chosen device or printed out. Alternatively they can be provided in hard copy by BeVox.
- Weekly emails to singers with reminders of work covered in that week, especially any tricky parts, and advance notice of what will be covered next.
- Just listen to the tracks
34 people (76% of respondents) just listen to all of the tracks at some point in the season, especially at the very beginning. 19 of these people listen in the car, 11 whilst doing various things in their home, and 4 when they are out and about. Many of these people continue to listen repeatedly to all of the tracks, sometimes “in the background”. It may be worth pausing for a second to think about the difference between hearing and listening. The dictionary definition of the two is helpful:
“Hearing is an event; it is something which happens to us as a natural process, listening is an action; it is something we do consciously”.
Hearing does not engage the brain in the same way that listening does, so it is less likely to have any lasting impact. Learning is an active process and just hearing things could make it more difficult to actively listen, which is necessary to really embed stuff in the brain, to really know it.
Other people concentrate on one song at a time, usually the ones being worked on next in sessions. Others hone in on parts of a song that they find more difficult to learn. A few people concentrate on listening to the tune only first.
Another very different aspect of listening was captured by one singer: “Sometimes I put on my headphones and recline on the settee, not sing, not look at the music, even close my eyes and just allow myself to be enveloped in all the lovely sounds. It’s actually allowing yourself to enjoy all the components of it, to relax and not be ‘wound up/under pressure’ to learn it, but to enjoy the process”. One of my personal mantras throughout my career has been to “enjoy the journey”.
2. Listen and sing along to the tracks
25 people (56% of respondents) said that they sing along to the tracks (without the score). For many of these people this is their main method of learning – listening and gradually joining in. A few people concentrate on songs that are due to be covered in the next session and a few after they have been covered in session. This method requires people to actively work at their learning but it also includes a challenge, as it is possible to sing along, skimming the surface, relying on the track without actually knowing all the notes or words or dynamics. The more this is repeated, the harder it becomes to do any further learning. One singer said, “I was concentrating a bit too much on singing along as I have always done to CDs and the radio and skimming over the surface and not going through the actual music… probably concentrating too much on what I was hearing, and needed to study the music and words more. I was missing some of the detail and nuances. I now make myself go back to the music and study it from time to time. Just singing along is enjoyable, but does not help in doing the all-important checks as to whether it’s actually right”.
The trick is to constantly check what is already known and challenge oneself – for example, stop the track when a mistake is made or something is not remembered, then listen or look at the score and try again. Indication of where in the track a certain phrase occurs (ie how many minutes into the track it comes) could be indicated on the score to help people find tricky sections easily. Singing to the track with the volume down or with other voice parts being louder than your own gives a clearer indication of what is known and helps to strengthen confidence. This can be achieved on some devices by altering the volume coming from each speaker or by using only one headphone or by downloading the music onto a free programme called Audacity. Singing without track or score really tests one’s knowledge. It is also important to know where one’s voice part fits in with the other parts, and in some tricky sections it may be the key to understanding one’s own part. A singer said, “I have been having difficulty with a section, so I listened and did not sing but looked at the other parts, and the penny dropped. Basses and Tenors were starting before Altos. Eureka! What I have learned is that it’s not enough to just know my own part, I need to have some idea of where the other parts are fitting in”. One singer said that she learns by hearing how her part fits in with the others from the beginning.
Of course these steps need to be taken gradually and initially leave one feeling very exposed, but knowing where we are in our learning and being proud of it ensures further success.
3. Use of the musical score
I assume that the vast majority of people use the musical scores (sheet music) during most of the sessions, this assumption being made from my observation during the sessions that I attend across the choirs. 31 people (69% of respondents) made reference to the use of scores in their email response. 7 of those people make notes on their score and 2 highlight their voice part. Just 2 people look at the score first and 19 people follow the score whilst singing along to the track. Of these 19 people, 3 only start to use the score for the songs that have already been covered in session and 7 use the score after learning the songs in order to check on words and dynamics. 10 people never use the score in session or stop using it early on so that they can really benefit from all the help given by the conductor. A few people who use the score when practising on their own pointed out that they are not able to fully read the music, but have found that the more they use the score, the more they learn how to use it and the more helpful it becomes. Obviously people with limited time listen and sing whilst doing other things, so could not also be looking at a score, but I wonder if people who think of themselves as ‘non-musicians’ are wary of musical scores and so learn by listening and singing along as it is a more familiar thing to do. People report that they find learning the words harder than the music, which is interesting as words are a more usual way of communicating for ‘non-musicians’, and the written word is a universal way of communicating. Some people may find using the two sensory methods of hearing and seeing together a little demanding, but the words and notes of a song are intrinsically connected, so would it make most sense to learn them together by sound (the track) and sight (the score)?
The score does give a lot of useful information and can be a real aid to learning without the need to be a fluent music reader:
- A visual ‘picture’ of the words linked directly to the notes
- The pattern of the notes each voice part takes and how they fit in with each other
- Places where voice part(s) do not sing
- Breaks in the singing, also places to breathe
- Volume and expression
Some of this information needs a little musical knowledge but is not too technical. It may be possible for a quick guide to be provided along with the music, explaining some of these basic musical symbols, in a way that supports the learning of people who don’t already read music.
An aspect of the score that requires more detailed musical knowledge is the pitch that each note on the page is indicating. Singers who don’t ‘read music’ can get this information most easily by listening to the track.
Whilst the score is a major learning tool, it has its time and place. Just as singing along to the track can be superficial, the score can also be a hindrance to learning. If one constantly reads the words for example, there is never a need to learn them. Using the score in sessions is useful when the director is giving information, and making personally meaningful notes on the score helps the information stick, but a head in a book cannot also look at the directions and help being given by the conductor. This is particularly true in performances. Many people say that they need their book as a prop during performances, but personally I would find it scarier having to rely on a static piece of paper than relying on the skills and expertise of the director who takes the responsibility for a live performance. One singer said, “I start putting my book down at choir sessions so I get used to watching Tim. This is a learning curve in itself and I do get some of it wrong, but it gets less and less. I do think people who use their book until the end of the season would be amazed at how much they actually know if they had the courage to watch Tim”. 8 people said that they use the score to learn but put it down as soon as possible.
4. Write out the lyrics
18 people (40%) write out the lyrics of a song, and this is another method of engaging directly with the thing to be learned. A few of those people do this on a small, easily accessible notepad, which they keep on hand for quick reference whenever and wherever they sing (if it is safe and practical to do so). For tricky sections, for example when phrases are repeated almost identically but with one word different, a few people find their own way of writing it down, making links with words or pictures that work for them, maybe distinguishing between verse and chorus and noting repeats. Again, this is an example of people owning their own learning. Some people are then able to visualise the score or their written version in their head when they are singing, without needing to have it in front of them.
What’s most important?
There are lots of great ideas reported in this blog but there are two vital messages that I want to pass on:
- It is crucial that people find ways to learn the songs that work for them.
- The more active the learner is in finding out what they do and do not know, and the more actively they connect with the next step in the process, the deeper and more sustainable the learning will be.
A good check whether methods are successful is how much progress is being made, and if the stuff learned sticks. If the answer to either of these queries is not as good as you wish it was, it may be time to try another way.
Some of the methods used by people encourage active learning more than others do. Whichever method is used, it is important to really engage the brain, continuously checking how much has really gone in, actually owning the knowledge rather than just participating in it. One singer finds that “the pressure of the big concert plus the extra rehearsals is a motivating factor”.
Singing along and reading the words is enjoyable, but it has no comparison to the sense of joy and deep satisfaction of knowing that you can sing, and that the ability to do so will just keep developing. This is the ‘wow’ of true learning which transfers to other aspects of one’s life.
This has implications for the way that songs are worked on in sessions. One singer said, “I try to go to the sessions prepared as much as possible, as this enables me to get the most from the teaching on the night”. Another said, “It definitely helps to prepare between sessions to learn any difficult bits note-wise”. At the end of each session Tim lets people know what will be covered in the following week. It may be helpful if singers could have a copy of the plan of when each song will be covered across the season.
The method of Tim singing a section and people singing it back allows less time for him to use his expertise to help people understand more about their singing, and to help with the things that people are finding hard to do. It also assumes that everyone is starting from scratch, and does not require people to have identified what they need to be working on.
The level of time and commitment that each singer gives to learning is of course a personal choice and will be determined by a number of things. However when methods of working are successful, the community takes on a momentum of its own; success leading to more confidence and a need to keep on doing more and more. It drives the group ever onward and brings with it a desire to take everyone along with it.
One singer summed it up, “Having always been a keen participant of teams, it has always been fun and satisfying to know that each member contributes towards the end result, in different ways, and with different styles. I believe the best is often brought out of individuals when they are able to offer their style in a comfortable learning environment”.
Personally, I like the analogy of a cake. Each ingredient is valuable in own right, but combined in the right recipe, they are transformed into one glorious whole.
Here is a list of all the methods that people use, for easy reference. They could be used as a menu from which to choose something that appeals. One could also look at each method and think about how much it encourages active involvement. If it is a method you use, it may be useful to think about how actively you engage with it.
- Just listen to the tracks
- in the car, whilst doing various things in the home, when out and about.
- listen repeatedly to one song at a time.
- concentrate on songs that will be worked on next in sessions.
- concentrate on parts of songs that one finds more difficult to learn.
- work out how your part fits in with the others.
- the tune only first.
- purely for enjoyment.
2. Listen and sing along to the tracks
- listen and gradually join in.
- concentrate on songs that are due to be covered in the next session.
- concentrate on songs that have been covered in previous sessions.
- stop the track when a mistake is made or something is not remembered, listen or look at the score and try again.
- sing to the track with the volume down.
- sing with other voice parts being louder than your own.
- sing without track or score.
3. Use of the musical score
- follow the score in session
- make notes given by Tim in the sessions.
- make own notes on score.
- highlight own voice part.
- look at the score first.
- follow the score whilst singing along to the track.
- learn words from score alongside learning tune from audio track.
- check on words and dynamics after learning songs by ear.
- stop using it as soon as possible.
4. Write out the lyrics
- hand write the lyrics.
- write out on small, easily accessible notepad, keep to hand.
- write own notes, pictures.
- write out as verse and chorus, mark repeats.
- visualise the score or notes in your head.
Whatever methods you choose, enjoy the journey.