Learning Technique Through Songs

You cannot learn technique through songs. I know many people think you can but it simply is not so.

You can learn to play baseball by playing baseball, but it helps if you play catch from the time you are small and practice hitting and catching balls and developing your ability to run and slide outside of playing games. Just ask any Little League player “Do you ever noodle around with a bat, a ball and a mitt when you aren’t in a real game?” and see what they answer.

Dancers spend a lot of time at the barr and on the floor before they learn a combination and pianists play scales and arpeggios for hours every day, as do instrumentalists. Everyone who does any kind of skill has to learn the basics of the skill before it gets applied to a finished product. Chefs learn knife technique and how to braise, fry, simmer, and poach before they make a big meal. But SINGERS — they are different! They can learn by singing songs!

And, the harder the song, the quicker and better they will learn, right?

I cringe when I think of the times when someone would come in to a lesson with an operatic aria, having had a year of lessons as an absolute beginner, and attempt to sing this for me because the previous teacher had told her that “this would be good for you because it is so hard”. Sounds like taking castor oil….!

The skills of singing….strong, aligned posture, coordination between ribs and abs, freedom from tension, strength throughout the musculature that affects the sound as it is being produced, easy facility of articulation and pronunciation, pitch accuracy, appealing sound, precise vowels and musicianship can all be taught and learned.

Learning a song, however, isn’t going to automatically engage any of those things, as we all know there are many people, both professional and non, who sing without demonstrating any evidence of the skills just mentioned. If the songs alone were responsible, why wouldn’t everyone who has worked on songs for an extended period of time just “have good technique”? If you sing the song badly, singing it more often badly isn’t going to correct anything. If you can barely sing a simple song, how will working on one that is really difficult teach you something?

Generally, songs lag about 6 months behind exercises, in terms of level of skill. A serious student, taking lessons once a week and practicing 4 or 5 times a week, needs about two years in order to develop enough coordination and strength to be able to sing a song using those skills. And that would still be a simple song in most cases. Highly developed vocal skill that has to function at a professional level rarely takes less than 5 years, and mastery really takes 10.

Yes, along the way, learning all the things that one has to learn about how to sing songs has to be integrated into the process, but not as a substitute for developing technique. The songs ALWAYS have to be set at a level that is slightly less demanding than the person’s level of technical ability, else the student will be frustrated by her own lack of ability to execute adjustments. That means that the teacher has to know what is difficult and why. Some teachers think all vocal exercises are the same and that all vocal tasks are equal. (I shudder to think that this is so, but it true). Some songs are very difficult even for skilled singers. Teachers need to understand that, too.

If the student is struggling, it is the fault of the teacher 95% of the time. The better the teacher, the less the student flounders. If you are a singer and you are consistently failing, something is wrong. Working on the songs won’t make it better.

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2 thoughts on “Learning Technique Through Songs”

  1. and pianists play scales and arpeggios for hours every day, as do instrumentalists.
    Sorry to say, in our instant gratification culture, many piano teachers are giving up on the scales and arpeggios and trying to teach exclusively through songs in method books. Over the last few years, I have had several young pianists come to me for lessons, struggling through pieces either at or slightly above where they should be given their years of lessons, who cannot play a C Major scale from memory, one octave, with correct fingering, in either hand. And if the piece they play has chords and I point to them and ask what chords they are, they can’t tell me that either. Then I have to deal with the fact that, because they do not have the musicianship skills necessary to learn music effectively, and they don’t have the technical strength or flexibility to play much of anything well at all, they are convinced that it takes them beyond forever to learn a piece correctly (because so far, it does!), and so they can’t spare a moment from practice to focus on the skills. I usually get them to come around but it is such a frustrating process, and would be completely unnecessary if only they started with developing skills from the beginning.

  2. This particular blog is so VERY true. In many countries, this use of “learning technique” is an epidemic! Especially through the clasical voice arena.

    This will be very a very interesting topic when Jeannie comes to Australia.. and battles it out with the many “old fashioned – and out of touch” classical singing teachers (of the Australian kind!). This is no doubt a problem in the states, but it is very much a CRISIS in other countries (such as Australia, who have not as many Vocal Technicians and Specialists compared to the US) – sad, but true.

    These particular vocal disaster’s NEED to be addressed and debated head on. All the best in OZ’ Jeannie.. There are unfortunately countless singing teachers in Australia who SWEAR by learning technique through song. It has become almost an institution.. I will be a very happy chappy, when i see the day this type of “training” comes to an end.

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