World Choir Games Flanders 2021

How to teach (and learn) a song by ear 1

  • [this is a version of a post which first appeared on my blog From the Front of the Choir]


    To make singing as accessible as possible, I don’t use sheet music when I teach. This often freaks out people who are used to having a score in their hands!



    This post is about how to teach and how to learn a song by ear. I’ve broken the subject into two, with the next part next week.


    the oral tradition

    For thousands of years all over the world people have sung — to express joy, celebration and grief; to accompany work and devotion; to aid healing.


    People sung before writing was invented and before musical notation developed. People continue to sing in cultures where there is no written language. People were singing complex unaccompanied harmonies long before Western classical music evolved. Singing is a natural, joyous activity which anybody can do any time.


    Long ago, all cultures were oral cultures: there were no books, no writing, no advertisements, no TV. All stories, songs, information, history, secrets, gossip, news, facts were passed on by word of mouth.


    From birth babies would be exposed to the same old songs time and time again. They would become familiar with the sounds, feeling and context of the music long before they understood the lyrics or remembered the melodies.


    Slowly and surely they would begin to join in, and very soon they would know all the songs inside out. It was a very natural, but long drawn out process. Simply put: it was rote learning by repetition.


    teaching by ear

    When teaching a song by ear, you are trying to short-circuit this long process and compress it into a relatively short time. So you need to be clear, precise and accurate whilst maintaining an atmosphere of concentration, relaxation and fun. Yes, people are drilling (like when you learn your times tables), but you need to make it a pleasure!


    In this post, I’m assuming that you’ll be teaching a song in parts – i.e. with different harmonies – and that it will be unaccompanied, i.e. with no piano or recorded backing.


    I’ll try to cover everything that I think is important, but not all of it will apply to you as everyone will be at a different stage and each group will have different abilities. So excuse me if you think I’m sometimes teaching my grandmother to suck eggs!


    find your starting notes

    Before you even start to teach a song, make sure your arrangement is within the range of the particular group you’re teaching it to. Then ensure that you have the starting notes for each part at hand (see Tuning up – where do start notes come from?  and Which single note do you give your choir to start a song?).


    How will you find the start notes? Make sure you have a piano or pitch pipes or a portable keyboard or a tuning fork or whatever else you need. There’s nothing worse for singers’ confidence if you pick a note out of the air and get the wrong one!


    who starts?

    There might be four or more parts to a song. Which is the best part to start with? It’s not necessarily the tune. If the group aren’t familiar with the song beforehand, then all the parts seem like the tune to them.


    Often the bass part is useful first as it anchors the song’s harmonies and/ or rhythm. Or perhaps you might start with the main tune and teach everybody so that they all get a sense of the song and its timing.


    call and response

    Basically teaching a song by ear is call and response. You sing out a line and the choir sing it back to you. The easiest songs to teach then are those which are call and response in any case. Many African songs fit this bill.


    One thing that I hadn’t really thought through when I started my first choir way back when, was that I would have to sing solo in front of a group of people! This is something you’ll have to get used to as you’ll need to sing confidently and accurately whilst teaching. It will come in time, so if you are nervous, start with easy songs.


    breaking the song into small chunks

    One of the worst things you can do is to teach, say, the whole of the Alto part in one go, especially if it’s quite a long song. The other parts will get bored, lose concentration, and even worse, get the Alto part so solidly in their heads that when it comes to learning their own part, they’ll get very confused!


    So you’ll need to break the song down into short, manageable chunks. Sometimes it is quite obvious where these chunks are. They often coincide with breathing points. But at other times, there is no obvious break, so you may not stop at a natural pause, but in the middle of a run. In this case, you will have to overlap the next chunk when you come to it so the join is made clear.


    By choosing small chunks, you can get the harmonies up and running in a very short space of time. People will begin to feel they are all part of the song as it builds and they will get more satisfaction and fulfilment. Parts won’t get bored or tired hanging around. People will become familiar with the nature of the harmonies more quickly.


    If you do have to teach a fairly long chunk to one part, then get the other parts to either hum their own harmony quietly at the same time or, if you’ve not come to their part yet, they can speak the words in rhythm quietly to get familiar with how they fit in. This will help stop the inevitable chit chat that can occur while teaching!


    part 2 next week

    Next week I'll finish this subject by looking at hand gestures and lyrics. Stay tuned! In the meantime, do let me know what you think of it so far, and feel free to chip in with your own ideas and experiences. Leave a comment and share your thoughts.




    Chris Rowbury:

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