Recently at the beginning of a choral rehearsal I was music directing, one of the altos, when I said we were going to learn a new song, said: “Can we just sing through it! It’s so excruciating to pick everything apart so slowly. We’re not THAT bad!” I was slightly put off. When teaching music, I always go slowly enough so that the folks with the lesser musical skills won’t be left in the dust. I believe that woodshedding parts, meaning working on something over and over until it’s perfected, is key to an ultimately polished performance. If one patiently plunks out notes when first learning a song, there are less problems when you put it all together. I explained to this alto that it wasn’t that the group was “bad.” It was so that those who weren’t such quick studies as her would be able to keep up. This got me thinking about how people respond to the idea of learning a new song.
How a student responds to learning new music can depend on both age and one’s relationship to meeting challenges. In the voice lessons or singing lessons for kids I give in my Marin County studio, I’ll ask, “Do you want to work on a new song?” Sometimes I hear a hesitant “yes,” followed by fearlessness as she stumbles through the notes. Other times a resounding “yes” is followed by only wanting to go through it once and then he’ll want to move on to another song. And, occasionally, I’ve heard “no,” in which case we end up singing the same old song until I catch them on a good day – or find a creative and/or sneaky way to introduce a new one!
However, through the years I’ve also learned ways to make the sometimes-tedious process less painful. There’s a time to woodshed and a time to just move through a piece of music, “fixing” along the way. With children’s classes or shows, I now find that singing through new songs over and over, the latter approach, is more effective than working in my preferred way: learning and perfecting “in chunks.” Children are much more liable to find singing fun this way and that, I believe, is key to keeping children singing as they grow older. However, I do notice that the ability to woodshed depends on personality and musical experience. For instance, young instrumentalists, who practice and are proud of their musical skills, in their singing seem to lean more toward perfecting melodic phrases and wanting to get it “right” before moving on. Learning an instrument teaches you this discipline and patience.
Avoidance or hesitancy in learning new music in voice lessons can signal shyness or lack of confidence. It can also, especially with younger students, signal that perhaps singing lessons aren’t a good fit. That’s because learning the music is only the first step in being able to sing a song. Once you learn the notes, then there are the singing skills for which you come to voice lessons. Someone who is ready for voice lessons easily moves on to the second phase – the technical work. If a young person resists learning about the breath or resonance or how the vocal folds work, they probably belong in a music appreciation class, chorus or theater program, where they can happily sing with others without the pressure of learning technique. Surprisingly, age doesn’t always dictate this readiness. I’ve seen children as young as 8 say that a 30-minute lesson is too short, wanting a 45-minute one because they want to learn more about the voice.
And, in adult voice lessons, I may restructure the hour as my understanding of the individual deepens. A student may say they want to learn technique to sing better but then it is revealed that the more songs we sing, the happier they are with their lessons, even if they are musically “messy.” For instance, in an hour lesson with body and vocal warmups, we may have time to work one or two songs deeply. Upping that to one song worked deeply and maybe two or three songs to “just sing” helps them move energy and fulfills them spiritually. Many of my older students – over 70 – seem to appreciate the latter approach, the opportunity to sing more. Other adults may not want to work a song deeply until they’ve worked out the notes at home. This is fine and probably wise, as it can be frustrating to try to work vocal technique when you don’t know the song. That is when the famed recording devices become so essential, e.g. I play the melodies on the piano and they record it for home practice.
Learning a new song is a multi-sensory experience. We are tuning the ear, coordinating our breathing, laying down a “mental track” to be repeated over and over. It takes patience and can be a bit boring, depending on your personality. However, if we can be patient and precise during the process, the final product will be something we can be proud of. And, most important, our repertoire will grow.