Sunday, January 19, 2014

learning music by ear, and brain, and heart and gut

I started singing in a community choir near my work, about 18 months ago. This fall I switched to a new choir that has just started up in my neighbourhood. I have discovered that learning to sing in a group is exhilarating, challenging and life-affirming. I have no formal music training, don't read music, and have never thought of myself as musical, so I am interested in discovering how it is that a person can learn to sing a song. It's complicated and fascinating in my experience so far.

The choir that I sing with now is made up of about 28 men and women. We rehearse weekly for two hours. In between rehearsals, I practice at home. I suppose learning to sing is like learning to play an instrument, you have to repeat and repeat and repeat your work, in order to gain confidence and proficiency. There's more to it than that, though. The repetition somehow unlocks something in the body and brain that makes the music make sense. My Dad explained this to me when I was taking the advanced math course in high school. He said that math was like music: Repeated practice would help the concepts sink in and be connected in a logical and intuitive way in my brain. At the time I was dubious, but I wanted to get a good grade, so I tried solving the math problems again and again, until I saw the beauty of the math, and it fit together so I knew what would work. Learning to sing is like that.

Right now, our choir is preparing for a concert that will take place mid-February. We have just a few rehearsals before the concert, and we have a lot of work to do. There's this one song that is complicated and beautiful, and I am doing my best to learn my part so that when I am in rehearsal, I am keeping up with the other singers in the choir (most of whom are more experienced than I am). Here's a YouTube of a student recital at the Manhattan School of Music. The students are singing the song that we are learning:

Beautiful huh?

To learn my part, I begin by recording each choir rehearsal on my iPod. We spend about 30 minutes maximum on any given song, learning passages in our separate singing parts, then putting them together. Our choir leader is remarkable in his ability to help us know how to be a choir together, and sing beautifully. My recording catches all of his instructions and remarks. In rehearsal, I listen and practice my part, and also attend to the other parts, following along in our sheet music and hearing what they are singing, because all of those parts have to fit together and make sense. We have to know every bit, not just our own, in order to find the beauty of the choral piece.

Then I go home and listen to the rehearsal and sing along. I follow in my sheet music, and use my iPad piano program to check any notes of which I am not sure. I don't read music, but I do know how to plunk those notes on the keyboard, using what I must have learned in elementary school: Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge, and FACE. I also have figured out sharp and flat, which generally can be found on the black piano keys. (People who read music, please don't laugh too hard at that. It is an epiphany for me.) Sharp and flat in singing all comes out of the same place that the regular notes (which are called natural) come, although it does not always feel natural.

I also practice when I am driving in my car. I can plug my iPod in to my car stereo. I try to find time to practice everyday. When I am working on a song like this one, it's hard not to sneak practice time in, because I am intrigued about learning it, and wanting almost desperately to sing well when I get to the next rehearsal. I had to talk myself into posting my blog today, instead of just singing. Oh well, I thought, I can blog about singing and embed a youtube of the song, so I can listen to it while I blog. Okay, my brain works like that.

It's usually easy to learn my part by itself. It's harder to sing it along with the other parts. I am discovering that the best thing to do is to sing it quietly, and as well as possible, listening carefully to the other singers in my section, but also to the the singers in the other sections. If I am stuck I just drop out for a bar or two and listen to the sounds of all of the singers together, then join back in. If I do this over and over again, suddenly it makes sense, and I could cry with happiness at how it fits and works together. It is beautiful.

Slowly, but surely, I am unlocking the mystery of learning how to sing. The notes on the page are beginning to have sounds attached, and when I plunk the piano key at the end of a passage, I find myself still on the right note. TAH-DAH!

I am happy to have found this activity, this choir, and my own affinity for singing.

question: do you like to sing?

mompoet - tra la la-ah-ah-ah

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