Recently, I’ve been having a glorious time in Sandy’s Thursday evening Core Curriculum Class. I’m learning and applying music theory lessons while having a lot of fun. And… one of our class members suggested that we each take turns performing for each other. I’m not in the habit of singing and performing as an adult, and I now need to identify, learn, fill out and perform songs that I think will work for my voice and resonate with me and don’t all sound the same as each other. . . That can be a tall order!
To learn a song from the ground up thoroughly and properly, see Sandy’s post Steps I Use to Teach Someone to Learn a Song.
Step 1: Choose a Song
I look for a song I can sing reasonably well. I won’t try to reproduce it perfectly note for note according to the sheet music. After all, I’m the only person singing, and I’m working with a backing track. I do want to sound good, and I need to be able to follow the melody of the song well by ear. Each of us has our own criteria for choosing songs. I like to sometimes choose songs that are right in what I would call my “sweet spot” — songs that will be easier and simpler for me to figure out and convey; other times, I challenge myself with a song I wouldn’t ordinarily try. Right now, I’m working on “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).”
Step 2: Check Out Other Artists’ Versions of My Song
I look for the song on YouTube (or Spotify or Apple Music). I often have a version in mind that I like, but when I look for different versions to see what other artists have done, I often find treasures. Right now, I’m preparing to sing “Bang, Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down),” and I hit the jackpot with my research! I’ve included YouTube recordings below for four different artists with five different versions of “Bang Bang…”
- I absolutely fell in love with the original, sung by Nancy Sinatra — spare voice, with a little echo, lonely, very little adornment. But there was a lot more to come…
- Daniela Andrade chooses to go to town on the “downs,” but stays with a lot of the feeling of the original (she sings in a higher key).
- Cher really pumps up the story and gives it a driving rhythm, making it feel like an entirely different song. It’s not really for me, but I had fun watching her and admire what she’s done with it.
- Which brings me to Lady Gaga. This woman can perform a song — wow! I had to include two separate performances because each of these is quite different and fabulous. She tells a story each time, honors other musicians on stage, moves beautifully, and what a belting range! That last verse that she sings an octave up is out of this world!
I am now sufficiently inspired. I wish I could put across Lady Gaga’s version, but I think that may be out of my range.
Step 3: Find a Backing Track and Download Onto Phone
I did some looking around, and my backing track is most likely going to be the Nancy Sinatra version. I’m okay with the limitations this imposes. I can decide how much to fill out within this framework. I download the backing track onto my phone or some other portable device so I have it with me wherever I go. I also keep it on my computer.
Step 3: Learn the Melody Cold
And now it’s time to memorize the melody.
Depending on the level of difficulty and how familiar I am with the song at this point, I learn the melody first so I understand where my voice will be going and when. If I need to take time to sing along with the full track before dropping out the singer, it’s okay with me to take my time. I slowly, bring myself along until I know the melody well. I never force the words until I’ve really got the melody down!
Step 4: Print Out the Lyrics and Memorize Them
Once I know the melody well, I print out the lyrics BIG on a sheet of paper. It’s very easy to search lyrics online, I search the song title. When the lyrics come up, I copy all of the lyrics, paste them into Google Docs at 14pt and print out. When the type is nice and big, I can see the words to cue myself as I get more familiar — I can look away and look back.
I drill the lyrics by themselves, just speaking at first, then with the backing track. If there are rough sections, I go back and sing only those sections.
Step 5: Practice In the Car
Remember that backing track I downloaded? Now that I’ve memorized everything, this means that when I get in my car, I can put my backing track on and sing my song to my heart’s content whenever I’m driving. Most songs are less than three minutes long, so I can practice my song many times a day in my car. It’s a terrific way to practice and a fantastic way of getting the whole process to be second-nature!
Step 6: Make the Song My Own
This is perhaps the most difficult to define and the most important step of getting a song ready. I need to live inside the song, make the story mine, feel every word make sense as it comes out of my mouth. I often stand and move with the music, letting my arms and hands flow. My entire being must believe in what I am doing — my body, my heart, my brain, so that it all finally will show itself in my voice and face. Because as you see in the final step, the stage/screen on which I will be performing is very small.
Step 7: Final Rehearsals Before the Performance
My performances have been on Zoom, so my final rehearsals are sitting in front of my computer screen facing the camera. I stay with my song just as above when I “made it my own.” These sit-down rehearsals in front of my laptop feel a little strange, but are beyond helpful! You can record yourself ahead of time to see how your performance comes across.