Tag Archives: repertoire

Discover Singing 2020 Repertoire Challenge

Over last year, I managed to read a surprisingly large number of books, thanks in part to the Popsugar Reading Challenge. This reading challenge provides a range of prompts to help you choose books to read. There are 40 prompts to choose from, with an additional 10 advanced prompts for the really avid reader.

My success in reading more got me thinking. How could I use the power of the challenge to help me sing more just for myself? Without exams to work for or regular performance opportunities my own singing has been on the back burner. I had previously come across the 40-Piece Challenge invented by Elissa Milne but that was a bit too vague for me, and in some ways too simple. I wanted something that would push me to work on songs that were a challenge. Plus, this was a piano challenge and I wanted especially for singers!

So, I put the two together! Here is the inaugural, experimental Discover Singing 2020 Repertoire Challenge for singers. The goal is to learn one piece for each prompt, up to the total 30 pieces. What “learn” means is a personal choice. I’m going for “sing fluently with minimal reference to the music” rather than “present in concert”!

The Prompts

  • A pre-baroque song
  • A creative setting of a folk song
  • Something atonal
  • A song with an unconventional score (e.g. graphic)
  • A song with at least two time signatures
  • A modal song
  • A song that wasn’t written for your voice
  • A song by a female composer
  • A song by a South American composer
  • A song with a performance direction you had to look up in a book
  • A song from outside your preferred genre(s)
  • A setting of a poem by a famous author
  • A song with the tempo marking allegro
  • A strophic song with at least five verses
  • A song with “love” in the title
  • A song written in the 21st century
  • A song that includes whistling or humming
  • A song with a one word title
  • A song inspired by a novel
  • A song that requires improvisation or decoration
  • A song with a title that starts with A
  • A song about money
  • A lullaby
  • A song you’d sing at a wedding
  • An overdone audition song
  • A song in a language you aren’t familiar with
  • A song by a composer you’ve never sung before
  • A song from a song cycle or show you’ve already learnt one song from
  • A song from your “wish list”
  • Polish up an existing favourite song

If you want an offline list, you can download a pdf version for your wall.

Follow my progress on Instagram, and share yours with #2020repertoirechallenge

Good luck, and happy singing!

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.

Finding Traditional Songs

Bartok Recording Folk MusicI’ll be honest. I don’t like trying to find traditional songs! Ever since I read the ABRSM advice and heard about the poor examiner who had ten renditions of ‘Ten Green Bottles’ on one day, I am super keen to find something different or unusual for my students to sing. So, how do you find that elusive song which is both appropriately challenging, enjoyable and unusual?

Ask your students

This might seem a total no-brainer, but with my most recent exam, I asked my student to find a song from her own cultural background and family traditions (Geordie in this case, so not particularly exotic or far flung). This turned out to be a great experience for my student because she was able to spend time with her family learning about their interests and heritage. Singing in a native/family language or accent can be a really positive experience for students too. It’s important to vet the songs to make sure they are not too difficult or too hard, so it may be a good idea to ask them to come up with two or three options if possible.

Browse in strange places

Books of folk songs often show up in places you’d never think to look for music books. Volumes of traditional songs can regularly be found in tourist shops, independent book shops and second hand stores. ‘Music’ shops are actually less likely to carry these kinds of books as they’re often considered to be a specialist market. I’m always keeping half an eye out when on holiday for books and recordings of local songs. Remember, there is no requirement to have sheet music for the song – only a translation of the words if the song is not in English. Audio recordings can be a surprisingly good source.

Find hidden gems on the internet

Audio recordings can also be found online in unusual places, such as university archives. The School of Scottish and Celtic Studies at the University of Edinburgh has an online archive of oral history recordings including recordings of traditional songs. Other institutions have these kinds of resources.

Another good source is IMSLP. Many of the Victorian ‘collectors’ of folk songs published books which are now out of copyright. One example of this is the page of Cecil Sharp’s collections from around England.

Avoid the traditional books

Sadly, while ‘Sing Together’ is a solid text, the songs in it are overused and not terribly inspiring. The suggested songs in the back of the ABRSM Songbook collections are more varied and unusual, but are likely to be frequently used.

The search for the right traditional song can be time consuming, but it can be a gateway for the student to explore their own heritage, that of the country they live in, or indeed the culture and heritage different to their own. A well-taught traditional song can also bring with it enlivening discussions about the fundamental nature of music, and how we came to have the musical traditions that we do in the West.

Review: Sing Musical Theatre

One of the things I had been intending to add in to my blog posts is reviews of new materials. Now I’ve finally been shopping, here’s my first review.




Title: Sing Musical Theatre; Wouldn’t It be Loverly? (Foundation, Grades 1-3)
Type of Material: Sheet Music with Backing CD
Publication: 2011 Faber Music
RRP: £14.99



I was delighted when I discovered this series as I have been looking for a “graded” approach to musical theatre songs for a while. Musical Theatre is dominated by vocal selections, or anthologies sorted by theme or voice type, rather than difficulty. This made it hard to give students a single text to buy. Thankfully, Trinity developed these volumes which help students up to Grade 5 work on easy but satisfying songs.

Wouldn’t It Be Loverly? has a good selection of songs, many of which are well-known. A good number, however, are taken from UK Youth Music Theatre productions which are less known. This could be a disadvantage, but I like that the book isn’t just the standard songs. There is a good range of styles and dates which means one could pull an LCM programme out of this book alone for the early grades.

This book is also an educational manual as each song has some background on the show, and tips on both musical and theatrical performance. This makes it a great buy for learners as they have reference material to support their practice. For LCM candidates, the information about the song is really helpful for the viva too.

The backing tracks too are good. They’re nicely paced (not too fast or slow) and have a fuller sound than just the piano, with some percussion etc where appropriate.

I would recommend this book to any beginner or teacher working with beginners. It’s not too condesending to use with adults either, and the inclusion of backing tracks really makes this a value for money choice.

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

Repertoire Corner

Repertoire Corner remains, I am afraid, rather infrequent, but I have some new music that I hope to review over the next few weeks, starting with Lin Marsh’s Serendipidy Solos


The Cuckoo Clock – Lin Marsh

I’m quite new to Lin Marsh’s work, but I’m pleased to say that this is a great example of music which has been specially written for new and young singers. The melody is fairly straight-forward, but there are variations as the music progresses, so it is worth taking time over learning this song. Once the basic structure is in place, there is plenty of instruction for dynamic variation and change of moods which need to be included to really give a great polished performance. Young singers should enjoy this song and other works by Marsh.

[lyrics and video unavailable]

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Part of Your World – Composer (The Little Mermaid)

This stalwart of the Disney songbook is a popular choice, but requires careful attention to really perform well. Watch for the rests – they come in irregular places! Once the rhythm has been mastered, this song needs to be sung with imagination to convey the curiosity and wonder of Ariel’s character. This might be a good song to use for introducing some theatre games to young singers, or exploring how to mix singing with semi-spoken phrases.

[Lyrics] [YouTube]

Repertoire Corner



Christmas is nearly upon us, so the next few repertoire corner posts will focus on some of the festive music available on the exam lists

Sans Day Carol – Anon

This song is a bright and jolly alternative to the Holly and the Ivy, and tells the story of Jesus through colours. It does go at quite a brisk pace, so singers will need to ensure that they know their words and articulate clearly throughout the song. There are also several short runs which will need close attention to ensure they don’t become glissandos. There is plenty of scope for dynamic and mood variations between verses, so select those to be performed carefully!

Text. [Lyrics] [YouTube]

* * *

A Spoonful of Sugar – Sherman/Sherman (Mary Poppins)

Just as with the Sans Day Carol, this is a song which requires precision and accuracy to be really excellent. Watch that singers perform exactly the right notes as written rather than what they think it should be. The tone should be brisk, but not halting – the goal is to create a fluid song, but one which is also precise. This should be a jolly song to sing, and a great choice for young singers.

Text. [Lyrics] [YouTube]

Repertoire Corner



This week’s songs are both full of joyful music and cheerful thinking – just what we need when the evenings are suddenly that bit darker.

Funiculi, Funicula – Denza


This is a bright and happy tune which requires a good measure of confidence to bring off. Time should be taken to ensure that the singer is certain of the words before increasing the tempo to  it’s full allegro. Each chorus section is a chance to demonstrate the ability to build in volume and intensity, making this song a great opportunity to develop performance skills at an early stage.

Text. [Lyrics] [YouTube]

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I Whistle a Happy Tune – Rodgers & Hammerstein (The King and I)

Unlike it’s Sound of Music counterpart, this Rodgers and Hammerstein number betrays none of the nerves of the characters who sing it. Instead, this should be sung jauntily and with the confidence that the lyrics speak of. All the words should be crisp, firm and confident – they need to be really well known. Watch the intervals at the end of the middle section – they need to be accurate even with the rallentando. The whistling is optional for exams, and does require some technical skill, but it is worth the effort to lift the central section.

Text. [Lyrics] [YouTube]

Repertoire Corner



More songs of love this week, but this time they’re taken from two different cultural backgrounds. One is a traditional Antipodean love song, and the other strongly inspired by Russian musical traditions.

Pokarekare Ana – Trad. New Zeland (arr. Sarah Class)

This traditional New Zeland song was made famous by Haley Westenra, and should be treated with a light touch. The lyrics speak of a distant love, and need to be communicated with sensitivity. Watch for the large slurred intervals at the end of each line – the movement between pitches should be legato, but clean – there should be no portamento effect. Some of the intervals between the lines in the middle section are tricky, so attention should be paid to accuracy for each starting note.

Text. [Lyrics] [YouTube]

* * *

Somewhere My Love – Maurice, Jarre & Webster (Film of Doctor Zhivago)

As with Pokarekare Ana, care should be taken in this song to ensure all the interval jumps in the vocal line are accurately placed. Each phrase should be sung through, avoiding the temptation to pause after the high note in the middle of the line. This provides a smooth, lullaby-like melody which echos the gently optimistic lyrics. The rallentando at the end of the second section should be used to create a build point, but there should not be too dramatic a drop in energy as the third section begins.

Text. [Lyrics] [YouTube]

Repertoire Corner



Two songs on the “perils of love” this week.



Love Quickly is Pall’d – Purcell

This is a good introductory song for students who are beginning to tackle Baroque repertoire. Purcell incorporates quite a few vocal runs which should be practiced slowly at first to ensure that they are pitch-accurate before being sung at speed. Ensure all the rests are counted, and that students use both counting and listening to the piano to identify when to come in for each phrase. This song also provides a good introduction for teaching about perfect cadences, which need to be understood as part of the ABRSM’s Grade 5 theory requirements.

Text. [Lyrics] [YouTube]

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Waiting at the Church – Leigh & Pether (Music Hall)

This is a great little music hall number, and should be sung with the performance context in mind. Rather than a clean bel-canto line, this song requires quite a conversational, almost spoken verse, and then a rousing chorus to get the audience to join in. This song can really be played for laughs and is great for developing acting and communication skills in advanced beginners who are looking to become more consummate performers.

Text. [Lyrics] [YouTube]