World Choir Games Flanders 2021

How to teach (and learn) a song by ear 2

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


    Last week in How to teach (and learn) a song by ear 1  I wrote about the oral tradition, teaching by ear, starting notes and breaking a song down into manageable chunks.



    Photo by niclindh


    This week I’ll consider the use of hand gestures while teaching, dealing with different parts, song lyrics and the most important aspect of all – patience!


    using hand signals

    Not everyone learns in the same way. We have become a very visual culture and people are less accustomed to listening to things attentively. In which case, some people might initially find it hard to follow what you’re singing. It is useful to accompany your own singing with some kind of visual aid (no, not a musical score!).


    The most obvious one is hand signals.


    Use the flat of your hand horizontal to the floor and move it up and down to correspond to the pitch going up and down. If you want to indicate a big jump in notes, then indicate a bigger gap between one hand position and the next. If you want to indicate a very small interval, i.e. a semitone, then maybe just incline the hand slightly to show the notes are very close together. The Kodály method takes this one step further and has a different hand shape for each note.


    As an aside, it’s a good habit to learn to take nothing for granted. I was once teaching a song to someone using hand signals, but he looked very puzzled. “Why are you waving your hands in the air?” he asked. “When my hand goes up it means the note is higher and when my hand goes down it means it’s lower” I replied. “What do you mean ‘higher’ and ‘lower’?” he asked.


    I realised that it is just a convention that we have adopted. If someone is used to playing the piano, then high notes are to the right and low notes to the left, not higher and lower physically!


    teaching separate choir parts

    Each different part may require a slightly different tactic.


    There are different issues for a mixed choir if it’s a man or a woman leading. If a woman is teaching a mixed choir, then she probably won’t be able to reach the bass notes. When she sings the tenor line, the men in the tenor part might end up singing too low as they perceive her to be singing low in her own range.


    Correspondingly, if a man sings the tenor line at pitch, he might confuse the women in the tenors who perceive him to be singing high in his own range. You’ll need to adapt accordingly and respond to the particular group you’re working with. See also Singing the same note – differently!


    You’ll also need to decide which order you teach the parts in. You’ve already decided which part to begin with, but which part is it best to teach next? You might also change the order as the song is built up. You need to adapt to each particular song.


    where are the words?

    For some simple call and response songs, you won’t need to hand out lyrics. There are often very few words, and in any case, you sing them first and everyone else repeats them.


    However, if a song has lots of words, what do you do? One option is to put the words in large format up on the wall. This helps people to look up and to see you clearly. If you hand out lyrics, there is a danger that everyone buries their head in a piece of paper and stops paying attention!


    This can’t be avoided though with songs that have many verses. I often teach a song using just the first verse words, then when the parts are under their belt, I hand out the full set of lyrics. This does have its own problems though.


    beyond the first verse

    If you keep rehearsing the first verse of a new song, people will struggle when it comes to subsequent verses. The words will be unfamiliar and they may have difficulty fitting them to the tune. However, if you overload people with too many words when they’re first learning the song, then it may become overwhelming and too difficult.


    One solution is to teach the first line of each part, say, then to practice that melody with the first line of words for every verse before moving on.


    See also (see: How to deal with song lyrics)


    There is a similar difficulty with teaching in small chunks.


    As you build the song up, the first chunk ends up being sung far more times than the last chunk. That means that the ends of verses are sometimes not learnt as fully as the beginnings. One trick that I use in subsequent sessions when learning a song is to build up the song backwards. i.e. sing the last chunk first, then add the one before it and so on until the whole song is sung.


    it all takes time!

    Some people believe that ‘real’ singers only have to hear a melody once then they can repeat it and have ‘learnt’ the song. When I tell them that professional singers take many months before a song is really under their belt, they are often surprised.


    As I mentioned last week, we are trying to short-circuit a process which would have taken several years in our small community hundreds, or even thousands, of years ago. We would have heard and rehearsed the same song many, many times as we were growing up. Now we are expected to learn a song in just a few sessions!


    When someone new joins the choir, I point this out to them and tell them that we will be returning to the song we are learning for many weeks. Even when we think we have learnt it, we will run through it each week until it sits comfortably inside us without having to think too much about it.


    We might do it in different ways each time, try it faster or slower, do it in an operatic style, build up the parts slowly from verse to verse. The more ways we can explore the song, the more likely it is to stick.


    how do you teach by ear?

    I’d love to hear from others who teach by ear. Do you follow any of the methods I’ve outlined or do you have other suggestions? Do leave a comment and share your ideas. I can always do with some new ones!!




    Chris Rowbury:


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