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PermaThread: Learning Songs - A Summary

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Les in Chorlton 23 Apr 13 - 04:19 AM
Marje 23 Apr 13 - 11:19 AM
Les in Chorlton 23 Apr 13 - 01:54 PM
Les in Chorlton 24 Apr 13 - 04:06 AM
Jim Carroll 24 Apr 13 - 04:10 AM
Les in Chorlton 24 Apr 13 - 05:39 AM
Les in Chorlton 26 Apr 13 - 02:21 AM
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Subject: Review: Learning Songs - A Summary
From: Les in Chorlton
Date: 23 Apr 13 - 04:19 AM

Learning Songs

This is a summary of advice offered on Mudcat:
from people who learn and sing 'Folk Songs'. All were responses on the thread 'Fastest way to learn a song'.
Perhaps the question should have been @Most effective way to learn a song.

Introduction – I think this advice from Steve T makes a good introduction:
The real question, for me, is how to learn a song so that you really know it; so that you can sing it in a way that means something (and so that you can sing it without having to read the words off a bit of paper, which I have always thought of as disrespectful to the song itself, not to mention any audience who have to wait when you lose your place
for me it's repetition which is important. Transcribing the words helps, otherwise just listening to a song until it's ingrained and then singing it until it's thoroughly embedded does it for me.

Short specific points
•       I have 'aide memoirs' for some songs - the first couple of words from each verse, it helps jolt the grey matter.

•       WRITE it out (don't type it), that usually works for me. I imaging I'm reading the words I've written as I sing it. Also, if you stumble over a line, don't stop, just move on to the next bit you CAN remember, it's a musicians trick, even though you get it wrong, never stop, eventually you'll get all of it right.

•       I used to have to learn songs very quickly. I used to listen to the song if I could and learn it as quickly as possible and then make a recording of me singing it.

•       One thing that helps one's performing a lot is recording it, then listening carefully to the playback. I used to use a little portable cassette recorder which was very handy. Now I have a Zoom H2, which is even handier.

•       Another good method is to learn the words, then recite them like a poem rather than singing them. Then, of course, you add the tune later. But sometimes you learn things about a song that you might not have noticed any other way.

Longer collections of advice

From Phil
1. Listen properly to a recording of the song - play it several times in a row. You're not trying to learn the song at this stage; you don't even need to be concentrating on it. The idea is to ingrain the tune in your head, and the way the tune fits together with the words.
2 Sing it (essential). - while walking, washing up, waiting for a bus, whatever. If the tune's not there or it doesn't seem to fit, try step 1 again. The words probably won't be all there; if they are (maybe it's only a short song), go to 4.
3. Print a copy of the lyrics and put it in your pocket. Then sing the song some more - walking down the street, hanging out the washing, whatever - but stop and check whenever you go blank.
4. Sing it some more, but concentrate on what you're singing. Do you mean what you're singing? Have you got a feel for how the song fits together? Are you stressing the right words, i.e. the words you'd naturally stress if you were speaking the lyrics in conversation? (If the answer's No, can you stress the right words without screwing up the tune? And if the answer to that is No, can you keep the conversational stresses and make the tune fit round them?)

From Fergus
1)   I get a recording and listen until I have the basic tune.
2)   I transcribe the words into a Word document.
3)   I arrange the document so that each verse is numbered and stands alone.
4)   I sing the song from the words a number of times to absorb it.
5)   I record the song from the document until I'm happy with a version.
6)   I sing along with myself till I get the bones of the song.
7)   I sing the song out loud referring to a printout when I stumble.
8)   I listen over and over to my own recording when I am in bed.
9)   I practice over and over.
10) I sing it to friends when I'm 95% sure I can sing it through.
11) I sing it at least five times daily to be absolutely sure I know it.
12) I go public.

From The English Folksinger edited by Sam Richards and Tish Stubbs.
Via Jim Carroll
Finally, a few ideas for singers. Lifting songs off the printed page is a vastly different process to learning them by hearing them. We offer a few of our own tricks in the hope that they are helpful and that singers might also discover their own.
1. Listen critically to traditional singers from many countries. There are plenty of commercial recordings available.
2. Speak songs first, out loud. Note the speech rhythms of the words.
3. Decide what the intention of each song is. Our headings might help.
What is it all about? What does it have to say? How? If an old song, why is it worth singing now?
4. Decide whether you want to sing it free or in time, fast or slow, loud or soft, decorated or plain or somewhere in between. And think about why?
5. Learn it gradually and unaccompanied. Take time.
6. All this time there should not have been a musical instrument in sight other than, perhaps, to pick out the melody. Accompaniments are the last thing to think about.
7. Sing it somewhere. Look for signs of how people react to it. Be prepared to start again.

Thanks to all the other contributors - I trust I have made a reasonable summary.

    This is an edited PermaThread, edited by Les in Chorlton. Feel free to post to this thread, but please be aware that your posts to this thread may be edited or deleted.
    Many of our PermaThreads are summaries of information posted in other threads. That's what Les says he wants to do in this thread, so it seems a particularly good candidate to be a PermaThread.
    -Joe Offer-

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Subject: RE: Review: Learning Songs - A Summary
From: Marje
Date: 23 Apr 13 - 11:19 AM

Thank you, Les, that's a very helpful summary. I suppose much of it also applies to re-learning or revising a half-forgotten song, which is what I seem to be doing just as much as learning new ones now.

And I hope that people who simply say, "But I can't learn words" will read all that's been written and realise that people who do learn words put in quite a lot of effort to do so, and that there are lots of tips and tricks to help you learn. The important thing is to try out different ways of learning and find what works for you.


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Subject: RE: Review: Learning Songs - A Summary
From: Les in Chorlton
Date: 23 Apr 13 - 01:54 PM

"The important thing is to try out different ways of learning and find what works for you."

Good point - thanks Marge

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Subject: RE: Review: Learning Songs - A Summary
From: Les in Chorlton
Date: 24 Apr 13 - 04:06 AM

Although repetition is essential, it can also be time-wasteful and even counter-productive if applied in the typical fashion. For greater speed of learning and deeper retention, memorization should be reinforced through a variety of other cues and imagery techniques, and your focus should be on the bits you have the most trouble with (just as with efficient instrumental practice) rather than running through the entire song (or even verse) each time.

Ironically, I find the use of formal techniques also helps one focus more on meaning, even when a technique is primarily lexical, since one ends up analyzing the text more closely.

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Subject: RE: Review: Learning Songs - A Summary
From: Jim Carroll
Date: 24 Apr 13 - 04:10 AM

Can I just state the obvious and say that the longer you work on a song before you sing it publicly, the more chance you have of making a good job of it, and the more chance you have of keeping it in your repertoire. I wish I had a £ for every time I dropped a song because I made a hames of it the first time out.
MacColl reckoned he never sang a new song in public until he had worked on it for three months - he was prone to exaggeration, but I know for a fact that he put a great deal of time and effort into learning.
The only times I have ever seen him sing anything 'hot off the presses' was when the Singers Club moved to new premises; he wrote a song entitled 'The Song of the Travels' after its first move and added a verse and sang it on the opening night of the move each time they moved .   
There are other 'tricks' to making a song your own forever - Sam and Tish's seemed a good overview.
Jim Carroll

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Subject: RE: Learning Songs - A Summary
From: Les in Chorlton
Date: 24 Apr 13 - 05:39 AM

Thanks Jim -

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Subject: RE: PermaThread: Learning Songs - A Summary
From: Les in Chorlton
Date: 26 Apr 13 - 02:21 AM

Ok Folks,

under the obvious weight and responsibility of managing a Permathread can I encourage as when as will to read what has been posted and offer further advice on learning songs or advice on how best to edit and or organise what has already been posted?

Best wishes


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