Tag Archives: musicianship

Getting Started with Languages

Image by lusi at freeimages.com

Image by lusi at freeimages.com

Learning your first song in a language other than your native tongue can be a daunting task. But, fear not! Here are some simple ideas to help you get started singing in foreign languages.

Listen and Repeat

When you’re working on a song in a foreign language, it is a really good idea to listen to it being sung. If you can find a native speaker singing it, so much the better. YouTube and Spotify are both great sources for finding a range of recordings. As you listen, make sure you have the words in front of you so you can follow them. Read and listen to the song a few times, and on the last time through, grab a pencil and make a note of any pronunciations that jump out at you as particularly noticeable. For example, in German, a “w” is pronounced as a “v”.


Understand Pronunciation

Pronunciation is a tricky beast. It can be very difficult to find a clear guide to how to pronounce any foreign language without learning how to use the International Phonetic Alphabet. However, you can use different tools to help you. Try using an online text-to-speech generator to get a general sense of the words. Enter the song line by line to hear it read out. It’s imperfect, but should give you a good sense of the basic sound and shape.

I have also found that language learning software can be a great support for good pronunciation. If you have a smartphone or tablet, I cannot recommend Duolingo highly enough. This fabulous app has listening, speaking, reading and writing activities which help you learn all the key singing languages. This will also help you to begin to understand the structure and nature of the language you are singing in which will mean you will be able to communicate the meaning more clearly.

If you are keen to learn more about Pronunciation, A Handbook of Diction for Singers by David Adams is a comprehensive resource for Italian, French and German. This book uses IPA to explain the rules of pronunciation in all three languages.


The ‘Allo ‘Allo Rule

The best tip I was ever given by a singing teacher for learning a song in a foreign language was “sing it like you’re in ‘Allo ‘Allo”. For those of you not familiar with this reference, ‘Allo ‘Allo is an old British comedy show set in Nazi-occupied France. It was known for the particularly theatrical accents which often bordered on mockery.

Of course, my teacher was not advising me to mock the language I was singing in. Instead, by aiming for the over-the-top accent when singing, I would end up hitting a quite convincing sound. Thus, if you’re struggling, try to over-exaggerate the linguistic features. Make the German extra guttural and harsh, make the French really pouty, or the Italian very rounded.


Find the Meaning

Once you have a grasp on how to make the sounds, it is also important to begin to understand the song in translation. There are some excellent sites around which have translations of art song texts such as Rec Music. Choose one or two you like, and read them over a few times to begin to understand the words. Consider how the meaning of the lyrics fits with the music.

You might also want to try putting the lyrics through Google Translate. This won’t give you a poetic translation, but it will be quite literal. This can help you to identify key words in the text. I often write the translation of a few of the most important words, and the words at key points in the music, so I can see the meaning as I practice the song.


I hope these tips will help you to begin to tackle your first foreign language songs and help you have the confidence to explore the whole world of music.

Do you have any favourite methods for learning foreign language songs? Leave them in the comments below.

I Can’t sing! I’m Tone Deaf!

Image by smarles at freeimages.com

Image by smarles at freeimages.com

Too many people say to me “I’m tone deaf”, but I’ve yet to meet someone who acutally suffers with this disability.

Yes, tone deafness is a real medical condition. Tone deafness is an inability to recognise relative pitch, which is a subsection of a condition called amusia. People who suffer with amusia have some kind of neurological abnormality that affects how their brain processes sound.

There’s a very simple test of tone deafness. Ask a friend to sing or play a high note, and then a low one. If you can tell which note was higher and was lower, congratulations you’re not tone deaf! (If you couldn’t tell, do go and see a medical professional…)

People who have amusia can have a range of problems including being unable to recognise differences in pitch (tone deafness), not being able to remember familiar tunes (like Happy Birthday), not being able to tell whether music is tonal (if it harmonises) or not. Because the brain is complex, this the symptoms can vary massively.

Having genuine tone deafness is like having very severe dyslexia which makes it near impossible to learn to read.

So why do people who can hear music normally say they are tone deaf?

“Tone deaf” has become a colloquial term people use when they’ve not acquired the basic musical skill of being able to hear a note and reproduce it. An person with amusia will not be able to do this because they can’t hear the note. Most people who claim to be “tone deaf” can hear the note just find, but they either aren’t listening to it in a way that they can understand the pitch, or haven’t learnt to listen to the pitch of their own voice.

When we listen to someone speaking, we aren’t always really listening. Have you ever found yourself drifting mentally when someone is speaking and then realised you haven’t heard the question they just asked you? It’s the same with learning to hear a melody. Just hearing isn’t enough. People who are “musical” both hear the melody as a sound, and they hear inside their head – they think along with the melody.

Lots of people learn this skill when they are really young through singing with their parents as children, through attending worship services, or through music at school. Some people don’t, and it’s not that they can’t learn.

Calling yourself “tone deaf” does nothing but convince you and others that you can’t learn musical skills. This is nonsense. Everyone who has learned to speak and listen has musical awareness – pitch and rhythm are part of language, and you use these skills every day. Even babies can tell the difference between sounds that clash (dissonant) and sounds that harmonise (consonant).
If you still think you’re genuinely tone deaf, make an appointment to see your GP, and get checked. You don’t want to be missing out on opportunities if you’re not!

I’m Convinced, I’m pretty sure I’m not actually Tone Deaf – Can I Learn How to Hold a Tune?

Yes! The simplest way to combat a lack of musical awareness is to get making music. Join a choir, take up an instrument, listen to more music, sing along to the radio! If you have kids, why not join a parents and children music group. There will be loads of opportunities in your local area to make music with others, and the more music you make, the better you will get. There’s also various online games and even a MOOC on musicianship skills on Coursera, if time is pushed.

Whatever you do, stop saying you can’t, because that’s the biggest barrier you face.

Have you ever thought you were tone deaf? What convinced you that you were, or weren’t?

Review: Go for Bronze

One of the biggest challenges any singing teacher faces is teaching sight-reading skills. Sight-singing is often neglected because singers tend to learn more by listening than reading. Many singers can go a long way with only rudimentary ability to read music – much further than a violinist or pianist can.

On my search for resources, I discovered Go for Bronze. Go for Bronze is a resource produced by the National Youth Choir of Scotland and it is used by them to develop musicianship in their choirs.

Image from musicroom.com

Image from musicroom.com



Title: Go for Bronze
Type of Material: Teacher’s Folder, Student Booklets
Publication: 2012, NYCOS
RRP: £35 for binder, £30 for 10 booklets (or individually from the BKA)




Go for Bronze is a comprehensive resource which is primarily designed for use with groups of children aged about 7 to 11. It uses traditional songs to help teach musicianship through the Kodaly method. It is structured to use tonic sol-fa along with physical movement and singing to teach fluent music reading.

Go for Bronze begins with the concept of holding a steady pulse or beat, before introducing the minor third (the easiest interval to sing). From there, rhythms are introduced in a slightly different order to traditional educational texts, as they draw on folk music rhythms. For example, syncopation comes much earlier in Go for Bronze than in most piano tutor methods. Complexity of rhythm is also built up much earlier than complexity of pitch which is really good for singers as they tend to be weaker on reading rhythm. Singing activities are interspersed with writing tasks as stick notation and then staff notation are introduced.

The general structure of the book is excellent, and very logical. There is plenty of time given to practice each concept before a new one is introduced. All the text is big, bold and clear. There is also plenty of information in the student book, making it a resource students can use confidently at home to practice and keep for years to come.

The pace of the book is quite slow – it takes a month or more to get to three pitches (so, mi and la). This can be frustrating for those who already read music, and for this reason, Go for Bronze may not be the best material for those students. For non-readers, or those with little more than school level knowledge, Go for Bronze starts right from the basics without being patronising. Despite the suggested ages, I mainly use this book with adult beginners, and they are very happy using it. Many of them enjoy singing songs they know from their childhood which appear in the book.

If you are considering using this resource, it’s well worth buying the teaching manual as it gives very clear guidance on how to teach each section. There are also loads of ideas about additional songs and games to reinforce concepts. The teaching manual also includes the end of level tests and photocopyable certificates which can be given to students. The Go for Bronze manual includes both levels in the one binder. The student books are good, but probably insufficient if one is using this programme with a group, or with several students. Unless you are already very familiar with Kodaly based learning, I would advise getting the Go for Bronze teaching binder.

Overall, the cost of this resource is quite high, but the effectiveness makes the £35 worth every penny. Since using this resource, I have become completely converted to this being the best method to help singers learn to read music. Kodaly resources are, by no means, the be-all-and-end-all of musicianship resources, but they do what they do extremely well.

Go for Bronze has two further levels: Go for Silver and Go for Gold. By completing the whole course, students encounter an equivalent understanding of music theory to the ABRSM Grade 5 theory examination.

Content: ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠
Layout: ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣
Value for Money: ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Overall: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

Learning a New Language

Since I started teaching singing, I’ve been struck over and over again how much learning music is like learning a language. Music speaks in its own way – by learning to play our instruments we are learning the words and sentences that allow us to convey meaning. When we start to unpack notation, we’re learning to read (and write) all over again. We develop our ability to understand through listening to music, so we can appreciate and enjoy not just one, but many levels of music, just as in conventional language we learn to appreciate poetry of language as well as the message it’s conveying.

Just like a language, we use and move in all four linguistic realms:

The Realms in Music

These realms are often quite disconnected, like in the image. We do things which cover all of them, but we don’t think of them as all together. Schools take a lot of the burden of listening, but don’t do much with speaking or reading and writing. Private music lessons focus lots on speaking and some reading (playing from notation), but not much on writing. Well, until the dreaded Grade 5 theory approaches, and then it’s a crash course through the minimum to pass.

As a teacher, I’ve come to realise that really, learning music looks a lot more like this:

Bringing the Realms Together

It’s important to develop the relationship between all the different aspects of learning, otherwise vital skills, like writing down what you hear (or, dictation) get missed out!

We want to cover all these areas in lessons like this:

Integrated Learning

We want students to be able to do the skills in the in between brackets long before they go to conservatoire. Dictation isn’t hard, it just needs practice, as does sight-reading. Being able to identify differences between music as written v. as played might seem like a party trick, but it’s actually key to the kind of self-awareness that means students can fix their own mistakes both in playing and composing.

I’m currently working on building a curriculum of musicianship for singers that takes into account all these different areas to make sure my students go out into the world not just able to sing, but as singers and musicians.

What do you think? Do you have any ideas on activities which can tie different “linguistic” areas of music together? Add your comments below:

ABRSM Exams – Supporting Tests: Aural Tests

NB. The Information about the content of the aural tests is not in the singing syllabus, but instead can be found here:

Aural tests are very easy to neglect. They are a small portion of the exam marks, and only take a few minutes at the end of the exam. They can seem unimportant. Nothing is farther from the truth!

The marks for aural tests can make a big difference to the outcome of an exam, especially when a candidate is borderline. Don’t leave them until the last minute!

Unlike for sight-singing, there are several good resources on the market. I’ve used all of these:

The first two books are essentially collections of tests which can be used in lessons. They both now come with a CD which means candidates can buy Aural Training in Practice for use at home. Improve Your Aural is more of a workbook which covers preparation exercises to help students unpack the requirements and transition from the skills in one grade to the next.

Aural training for the next grade should, ideally be started after the last one, so that students are confident with the requirements long before the exam rolls around. This aspect of general musicianship can also be supported using the materials for practical musicianship exams which have activities which are similar to the aural tests, but more wide-ranging. I have also found that Hal Leonard’ s Basic Skills Rhythm Without the Blues and Ear Without Fear  work really well as supporting materials for aural perception, particularly for students who already read music (and so Go for Bronze and Jolly Music aren’t appropriate).

From around Grade 5, it’s also important to supplement the aural test practice with wider listening to help students get more confident with identifying styles and suggesting composers. From around aged 9 or 10, I start doing listening activities with students, and help them create a History of Music binder which supports this aspect of aural training. Follow this blog for more on the History of Music project, which I will be posting about over the next few months.

With all this in place, candidates should be approaching the day of the exam with confidence. Next week’s post is on tips for putting all this together and succeeding on the day itself.

–> Next post: “Putting it All Together”

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