by Tasleem Laila
Tasleem is a dedicated veteran student at SWVS. We are elated to present the other side of the voice training process: from the student’s perspective.
“How do YOU go about learning a new song?”
A friend asked me this the other day. Though everyone’s approach may be different, these are the 8 key points that stood out to me during my process:
1. The Song’s Story
First, I find a connection to the song. For me, that usually comes from the lyrics. With my background as a writer and lover of words, it’s the story behind the song which usually pulls me in the most.
I listen to the song a few times, and actually write out the lyrics by hand. This might sound tedious, but I’m a visual learner. I know how the act of putting pen to paper actually ingrains information into my head in a quicker and deeper way.
Writing out the lyrics doesn’t just teach me the words that make up the song, but also familiarizes me, very quickly, with the song structure. It makes me pay closer attention to details such as rhyme patterns, phrase lengths, contrasts in sections and clever turns of phrases or poetic devices such as prosody or metaphors. I see it all laid out on the page in my own writing. And this increases my motivation to learn and practise. With these newly discovered nuances, the song becomes more meaningful to me.
4. Use My Own Voice
One of the most important lessons I have learned through my private singing classes is to distinguish between what is foundational- the grounding of the singing and song- compared to what is happening over top of that foundation. If I try to jump too soon into incorporating the stylistic aspects of what I hear in the original singer’s voice- like tone, texture, or dynamics, I have no base to work from. I haven’t learned where the song sits in MY voice. And since I only have my voice to use, not anyone else’s, I need to learn where the melody fits most accurately in my own vocal cords.
This means that if the original singer is breathier in his or her tone, I would still maintain a neutral tone to practise with. Or if the original singer is male, and he is singing in his mix voice (where, for me, those notes might sit in my chest voice), I sing the song with my chest voice. If the notes are too fast for me to sing fluidly right away, I slow each line down. I use what is most stable in my voice. I sing the song with a full sound- not in terms of volume, but accuracy and clarity- in order to feel where the notes are the most clean and precise in my voice.
I find that maintaining a good connection is one of the keys to singing successfully. Connection is what draws me to singer- songwriters whom I love. They make connecting seem so effortless that we don’t even realize it’s there. We just feel it. And it is that feeling that I am always striving for in my practise.
If the song I am learning has a lot of words in it, or travels a lot, it can often be hard to sing the melody with the lyrics. I know, from my vocal lessons, that there are certain exercises that bring that grounded, more consistently connected feeling back to me almost immediately.
For example, singing the melody of the song on gug gug gug or mum mum mum rather than the lyrics, really helps me find the place of connection in my voice. I also know that in the higher registers, I might need more of a bratty sounding vowel to keep me connected. So in that case, I might choose to practise that area of the song on nay nay nay rather than the lyrics. I also try to consciously drop my jaw in these higher registers as well, or pull in my stomach more. This helps me to get a fuller sound without straining or getting too breathy, and helps me reach pitches with better accuracy.
Once I get my vocal cords and body used to this feeling of connection, I try to trust that it will be replicated, out of habit now, as I practise this time using the actual song lyrics again.
Balance and connection are usually my big goals when singing. I find that if they are achieved, then some of the other technical aspects of singing just fall into place.
7. Regular Lessons and Listening to My Vocal Coach
Nothing beats having a great instructor in terms of learning how best to improve my voice and how to approach and tackle learning a new song. Each time I work on another aspect of a song with my teacher, I make sure to practise with the recording of the lesson a few times a week. And this is where I see huge improvements in my technique and understanding.
8. Practise and Time
With consistent practise and patience, my voice develops further. Sometimes, I wonder where I will find the time to learn everything. But I remind myself that I don’t have to perfect every song, because any lessons I learn from one song get carried over into each song after. This layering of awareness keeps me excited to learn more. As a result, my list of new songs I want to sing just keeps growing. And this gives me such a huge incentive to always make time to practise and to have fun with it!