How I approach learning a new song

One of the best things about being a musician is the vast wealth of music that is available. There are songs for every single mood, in a range of languages and from styles dating back hundreds of years right up to today. It is obviously impossible to “just know” all of these songs, especially new compositions, so it’s important to develop a technique to efficiently learn music, in order to be able to take a completely unfamiliar song, examine it and master it for a performance. Personally, I like to break the process down into the following four stages:

Stage 1: Learning the text

When I pick up a new song, the first thing I like to do is simply read through the text. For me, this is actually the most fundamental part of the process. You need to fully understand the text and uncover the meaning behind each word to be able to really bring the song to life.

No matter which language the song is in, I go through analysing and translating each line, first word by word and then as a whole. This helps me understand the character and emotion of lyrics. After all, the poet spent countless hours agonising over the perfect words to use, so we need to do the process in reverse and understand the choices behind the lyrics.

I generally combine this work on the text with phonetics and pronunciation work. Although my languages are now generally quite good, it is still useful to mark any important or difficult sounds using the International Phonetic Alphabet.

Stage 2: Learning the music

I then move on to studying the piano/accompaniment part. I am fortunate that I can play piano, so I make it a point to learn the piano part for every song I sing, even if I will never play it to anyone else. I believe it is another essential part of not just music, but any career; you need to know each role in order to be able to perform your part to its full potential. When collaborating with other musicians, this means you can pick up your cues from their parts and you can really work together effectively.

By this point, I know the text, pronunciation and all accompanying parts, so I already feel I know the music before I start working on the voice part. Thanks to my choral background, I am a confident sight-reader, so I am generally able to work on phrases as a whole, although for very complicated or contemporary music, I still revert to the good old note bashing on the piano until I can hear the melody and I have it stored in my muscle memory.

Stage 3: Improving

When I can sing and play the song entirely, I class it as the start of stage 2. This is the transition period between being able to sing the notes and having the song at performance level.

Now, I focus my attention on phrases that are technically more challenging. I use a range of techniques and vocal exercises to help improve both my confidence and the sound quality and precision. By this point, I already have a clear vision of my interpretation of the piece and exactly how I would like to portray it.

In my opinion, technique is simply the tools to be able to express this interpretation. For me, emotion is always the most important thing in music, and I would take an emotionally moving performance over a technically perfect but plain performance any day! The goal however, is to try to get both of them together, and for this reason, I always think there is more we can improve. In reality, this stage never truly ends.

Stage 4: Performing

I don’t believe I completely know a song until I have had the chance to perform it with a live audience, even if that is just a few of my friends. It’s during performances that you discover even more to the music, and my goal is to find a new hidden meaning every single time I perform the same song. This is what gives a performance it’s authenticity. Don’t just stand there and repeat what you did before, but instead create something new just for the people who are sharing the experience with you. I love nothing more than being able to share my interpretations with audiences and it is an incredible payoff for a lot of hard work.