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.

Why I wanted to quit music

You may have noticed that I haven’t posted in a while. The truth is, I’ve been struggling a lot with music. No matter what, it’s still my biggest passion in life and I could never live without it, but making a career in music is hard! 

It really demands everything from you; all of your time, dedication and energy. I love learning new music and rehearsing for concerts and performances, but it’s the sability (or lack of) that is almost impossible to deal with sometimes. You have to give it all your energy to find work, and almost all work that you do get are short contracts. So even when you are in a good job at the moment, you are still spending hours hunched over the computer searching for the next jobs.

And that’s not even to mention the rejection. You have to have skin of steel to be able to cope with the overwhelming amount of “Nos” you hear in a music career. Every time you are rejected at an audition, it knocks your self confidence and motivation down a little bit more.

So it has been a constant battle and question I, and many other musicians, have had to face, “Can I cope with the instability of music?” Inevitably, sometimes the demon shouting no can win, and, in fact, this is what has happened over the last few months. To tell the truth, I have had very little motivation to practice or learn new music, and it came down to a point where I have had to seriosuly consider if I carry on with music or simply call it a day.

I started to consider my life without music. Ironically, it was by doing this that I started to regain my motivation and passion to continue. Sure, I have some other hobbies and interests, but nothing at all that can make me feel like I do when I’m performing. I’m sure I could find another career doing something else, but I would always regret leaving behind my true passion.

Ultimately, I realised that I can’t give up on music until I’ve given it absoutely everything I’ve got. I know there is so much more that I can and will try, because in reality, I’m just getting started!

Strike a pose

There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes into being a singer. Quite often we just look at the finished project as we get swept away by the stunning music and powerful stories, but the final show we see is probably only five percent of what we have to do to be able to perform it. An average singer will have to:

  • Have regular coaching and singing lessons
  • Memorise new roles and songs with phonetic pronunciations and translations
  • Do vocal warm ups and physical exercise to keep the voice healthy and improve stamina
  • Audition, rehearse and practice
  • Arrange travel and accommodation for auditions and performances
  • Manage their own taxes and finances
  • Network with other musicians, directors and agents
  • Maintain a website
  • Have regular headshot and photo shootings

That might seem like a long list, but it’s also far from extensive. The truth is being a singer is not just turning up on the night of a show, being a diva and collecting roses that the audience throw on stage. No, being a singer is a calling and you need to be 100% committed to all of the behind-the-scenes work just as much as the singing and performing.

The last two items from my list have had my particular attention over the last few weeks as I was setting up my new website. Even just website maintenance has a whole amount of hidden work that I hadn’t considered, but fortunately I’m also a technology geek so I quite enjoyed building it.

To finish off the look of the website however, I needed a fresh photoshoot and some new headshots. Since I’m currently based in my native North East England area, I went to an excellent photographer, Darren Irwin.

Christopher's headshot session with Darren Irwin
Headshot session with Darren Irwin

Darren is a professional photographer based in Newcastle City Centre and he also used to work as a professional musician so it gave us plenty to talk about. Having a connection with a photographer during a shoot is very important. Headshots play a crucial part in the life of a singer. We use them for concert programmes, websites, social media and showing people who we are. But probably the most important use is for auditions. Headshots are the first thing a casting director will see when we apply for a role so it’s vital to be relaxed, confident and natural.

It had been a while since my last photoshoot so I was more than a little apprehensive but I had absolutely no problem relaxing after we started. Darren was funny and made me feel at home straight away. Despite the fact that there was a camera and lighting boxes directly in my face, I was quickly able to –almost- forget about them. We chatted for the whole time while listening to some background music and the 2 hour shoot flew by.  The result was that I came away with new photos that I feel represent me well and I’m very happy to be sending off to casting directors.

Photoshoots are just one of the hundreds of things we have to do as singers. For some it comes easily but for others, like me, it’s a bit more challenging. It’s far too easy to feel awkward and self-conscious when a camera is in your face, but, like anything else, it’s just a matter of practice. I was able to focus my mind during this shoot and I tried to treat it just like another performance, allowing myself to forget about my surroundings and just be me.

How it all began

Hello everybody and welcome to my blog on my brand new website! My name is Christopher Griksaitis and I’m a 27 year old opera singer from the North East of England. This blog is a way for me to discuss my music. I’d like to talk about my experiences, my new projects as well as the world of opera and auditions.

I can’t begin my blog or my story without a huge thank you to my piano teachers Jackie Brough and Christopher Thompson, who sadly passed away last year, my violin and viola teacher Louise MucKien and, of course, my singing teachers until now, John Forsyth and Gwion Thomas. I have been so lucky to have such wonderful and supportive teachers, who always encouraged me to find my own way to express myself and who really made me so passionate about all forms of music.

Christopher playing aged 11
Me playing piano aged 11

I started piano when I was 5 and I still play it every single day. I’ve always loved to sing as I play but how I started singing professionally was a little bit by chance really. When I was 13, I began playing viola with the Tees Valley Youth Orchestra. We used to go on tour with the Tees Valley Youth Choir but we were always split into 2 separate busses. Fate, however, seemed to have a different plan and on our tour to Spain when I was 16, there was an administrative error and I was accidentally assigned to the choir bus.

I honestly cannot thank that “error” enough. As choirs usually do, they sang every now and again during the journey and I would sing along with them. John Forsyth, the choirmaster who would later become my first singing teacher, came to me to convince me to join the choir. I’d always loved singing and so when we returned from Spain, I joined the Tees Valley Youth Choir.

My first concert as a singer had me learning and performing the incredible Mozart’s Requiem in less than 2 weeks. It felt a bit like being thrown into the deep end but I loved every single second of it and from that moment on, I knew nothing could ever give me the excitement, emotion and exhilaration that singing can. From the first note of the concert right through to the last, I felt I had been transported to another world and it’s a feeling that I still have when I sing on stage.

The rest, as they say, is history. I started singing lessons just a few weeks after joining the choir and my passion and dedication to singing never wavered. I honestly can’t imagine my life without music, being able to pour out all of my emotions through singing and playing.

Of course I have many more stories and experiences to tell and I’d really love to hear your opinions on what I share. I’m always open to and grateful for suggestions and advice but I thought as the first post of the blog, this initial foray into the magical world of singing was the perfect story to tell.