Steps I Use to Teach Someone A Song
After over 20 years of teaching voice lessons, I have settled on something of a method to helping someone learn to sing a song. Whether someone is a complete beginner or a working professional, I use the same steps. It’s just that the professionals can usually go through the steps faster than a beginner. If you’re considering taking voice lessons at The Music Loft, perhaps it will give you courage to know what sort of support you will be receiving upon arrival in my lesson room.
Here are all the steps:
Have the person give me a wish list of at least 8-10 songs that they would be interested in learning how to sing.
Listen to the person sing through their entire range.
Yes! No matter your skill level, everyone has at least one sweet spot that should be showcased, and I’m out to find it.
I pick a song from the Wish List that seems like a reasonable project according to the skill level of the student.
I import a recording of the original artist into an app on my iPad and play the recording first in the original key and have the student sing along. If the melody hits the student’s sweet spots at all the important moments in the song (usually the climax of the chorus), then we leave it in the original key and skip to the next step and go directly to “Create Two Tracks”
If it seems like it would be easier (and therefore sound better) for the student to sing the song in a lower or higher key, then I use an app on my iPad to transpose the original recording until the student can easily sing the melody and until the climax note of the song hits a sweet spot in his or her range.
At that point we make note of the original key as well as the key that works better for the student.
I create two tracks: one of the original artist transposed to the new key and one of the karaoke track transposed to the new key. I put them in a DropBox folder that I share with the student. Sometimes, if it’s an obscure song, karaoke tracks do not exist. If it’s an easy enough song for me to play on guitar or piano, then I create a recording for the student.
I buy the sheet music in the appropriate key for the student. If the sheet music doesn’t exist, I sometimes get Ultimate Guitar Chords (if they’re accurate) and sometimes I write them from scratch. Sometimes, someone the student knows (a musician parent or friend) can write the chords for them. Sometimes the student is already working with other musicians who can help or play the song for them.
Now that we have the key, the sheet music and the accompaniment track, often the student can start to sing the song on his or her own, and we can skip down a few steps.
If a student needs help learning the melody we start by writing it out with solfege syllables (do, re, mi, etc.) I often make recordings of myself singing the melody very slowly with the solfege and piano accompaniment and add those recordings to the student’s shared DropBox folder. Stripping away all the distractions of drums, guitar solos, and whatever else is happening on the accompaniment track helps the student focus on hearing past the melody and shaping their voice around it. Some students need me to help them with the entire song in this manner. Some students only need help with one part (usually the bridge) and some with only tidying up a few spots. With more experienced singers, just putting the song in a good key takes care of everything.
Once we have the mechanics of the melody worked out, we can move onto getting a good groove. If a student struggles with keeping time, I have a system of counting out loud that can temporarily be used in between phrases to help him or her stay in time. Once the student can stay in time by counting out loud, it can be internalized and not said out loud.
Now the goal becomes singing through the entire song from beginning to end with the accompaniment track using the sheet music if needed.
By this time, some students already have their song memorized. Some students just need to write a few lyrics from each section onto a “cheat sheet” and use that for a while and then they can make the leap to singing from memory. Some students (like me) need a lot of help. In this case, we move on to creating the song map and incorporate lyric reminders into the song map and work on a section at a time, slowly combining sections until the student only needs a few lyric reminders and then they can make the leap.
This is what I consider the most important part. An audience will respond to someone who is speaking directly to them from his or her heart. I work with each student help them sound like themselves and not like someone imitating someone else. Sometimes I feel like I’m peeling back layers of an onion to get at the real message the student wants to get across. Sometimes we have to go back to the drawing board and adjust the wish list a bit.
I have this idea that each person comes into the world with a message to deliver. The more a person can get in touch with what that message is and choose songs that are centered around that (short of writing their own), the more success he or she will have connecting with their audience.
At this point, if it hasn’t been done already, I like to create a combination song map, chord chart and lyric reminder that will fit on one page. The student can then take it with them to use in working with other musicians.
I would be delighted to help a student develop a repertoire of at least 20 songs for which they have summary charts created. At the same time that we are working on songs and creating charts, I especially enjoy teaching the rudiments of music through my Tiny Books and Core Curriculum so that a student can go on to do all these things for themselves and feel confident in any musical setting.
What’s the Goal?
I want to help the student successfully perform a song that is meaningful to them from memory, with live accompaniment, in front of some kind of audience. The measure of success would be whether the student felt they were able to connect with their audience through the message of the song. Things like technique, rhythm, and intonation, while helpful to master in order to feel successful, are not the goal.