You remember the joke, right? A pedestrian asks someone on the streets of New York How do you get to Carnegie Hall, the reply is Practice! (Or just walk from Central Park, it’s two blocks away.)
Okay, you need to practice to become a great musician or excel at anything, understood. But what exactly is it that you need to practice? The same scales all over again? What is it really? It is important to realise what are the things that advance your musicianship and what are not. Have you ever heard of the term deliberate practice? The idea is to know what to practice and how.
If you want to learn more about deliberate practice, read this book: Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin. Or this study from Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson.
Or just get started without reading anything. I haven’t read neither of them yet.
Here is a glimpse of what I do when I learn a new song. Right now I have a few weeks to learn a new song for a recording session. Plenty of time, right? Sometimes you have a time limit, so maybe deliberate practice is the answer.
How do I start? Well, for one thing, I listen to the song. Since in this case it’s a gonna be a cover, I check out all the available versions on YouTube and compare them. I decide which one I like best and start listening to that one mostly. The version I choose might or might not help me establish the key. That’s not that important yet, I’ll get back to that later.
Next I google the lyrics. Then I check out the harmony on the piano or guitar or whatever I can find. Usually I can’t help myself, I check the range of the melody. I want to know what might or might not be challenging right from the start. Plus I want to know where the song lies, I mean which notes are used in the verse and where does it go in the chorus and bridge. Does it even have a bridge? I don’t really spend much time on the song form, by now it takes one or two listening times to know what is the song form.
So once I have a fair idea of the melody, I get back to listening to the song again. This time I have the lyrics in front of me. Next I listen to the timing of the lyrics. Then I start saying them, just saying them aloud, not singing and not even in time, just really blandly saying them. Once I’ve done that I listen to the song again, this time I pay extra attention to the rhythm. I continue saying the lyrics out loud and I clap my hands simultaneously. Meaning the way I say the words, I clap my hands in the same rhythm. Hopefully it is in the same rhythm as the original. If not I continue doing this until I get it right. Until I haven’t I don’t sing the melody. It might take a while, depending on how complex the song is rhythmically.
Finally I get to the melody. I do try and sing the song with the words a few times, but there are occasions when it just doesn’t fit. So I sing the song with lip rolls. It actually is a great way to start practicing the melody. The lip rolls help in regulating the air, you will have just enough for the phrases and it also prevents you from for example pulling chest. (read yelling) And I actually don’t sing all over again the song. Not even with lip rolls. I take the tricky parts under scrutiny. If there are problems,I come up with exercises that will help me get past them. In my case, I usually am too heavy, try to pull my chest voice to the sky or just have a too high larynx and it makes me stuck in chest. Or too light, I let go. Whatever the problem, I try to recognise it and come up with exercises accordingly. I mean I sing with ge,ge, ge or mi, mi, mi or whatever that helps me feel at ease.
Once I got the coordination right, I try the words. Not working? Back to the other syllables. It might sound tedious, but it’s actually simple and yet, so helpful. And it actually doesn’t require that much time. I usually do it more slowly then the actual song, until I get the melody and the rhythm right. No hurry. Eventually I get it right, rhythm, melody and coordination. (which doesn’t mean that I wont fall of the wagon occasionally, but I do have a reference now of how it should feel and sound like)
A few words about the key. I’ve notices that not all songs work in all the keys. Which might seem strange, why not? After all changing the key will still keep the same chord relations, it just changes the starting point. So why doesn’t it work? I have absolutely no idea. Is it just me who thinks this way? If you know the answer, let me know. But back to the key from a singers point of view. You want a key where you can showcase your vocal abilities at their best, that is not too high, not too low. But, you have to know what you are doing, what is your purpose. For years I put song in a key that I thought was showcasing my best vocal abilities, kind of they were. What I actually did was I put everything so low that I sang in chest all the time. I am still a soprano just as I was back then too. So be careful. If you don’t know how to hit your high notes, go to a good vocal coach that can help you with them. Transposing everything too low it not the answer.
When choosing a key I’d say you have to consider that even thought the verse doesn’t go really high, the chorus might and if you transpose the song a fifth higher, you might get into serious trouble. Not just technically, I mean it might not sound right and it wont do justice for the song. This of course depends on many things, for example is the original song sang by a guy or a lady.
Don’t know about you, but for me it takes a few days to get into the song. I guess the more you do it, the better and faster you get. I’m not saying that I can’t learn a song in a day, but to really get into the feeling and essence of it, that takes longer.
Everything I described here is deliberate. I listen to the song actively, it’s not just background noise. I try to dissect everything in it, the harmony, the melody, the rhythm, lyrics. And if I have time, I’ll leave it be for a few days and get back to it later. It usually helps to see the song from a new angle.
I’ve found that there is no point in listening to a song a zillion times, unless you really break it down. Yes, it’s okay to familiarise yourself with the song and just sit back and listen to it without doing much a few times, but in the long run, you have to start paying attention. And practice it deliberately. I’m sure there are other better ways to learn a song. This is just my version. Let me know yours!