How to learn a whole song with your whole self

While we’re all starting a new school year and learning mountains of new music, check out this series of tips on how to learn a whole song with your whole self from ATsinging founder and faculty member Matt Cahill.

You get a new song or aria. Now what? Here’s one teacher’s method for learning a song from “never seen it before” to a full embodied, dynamic, truthful story-telling experience. We’re not saying it’s “the” way, just “a” way of many to help you chunk up your practice sessions into manageable small chunks, to help you consider your new song from as many angles as possible, so that you can grow into giving the most fully realized performance you can muster. Play with the ideas and see if any of these steps are helpful to add to your own learning process. If one feels strange, feel free to ask a question or chuck it! If you have any questions, some of the Alexander Technique terminology like “whispered ah” and “use” might not be familiar for instance, we’re always happy to answer an email and chat about all things singing and Alexander Technique.

How to Learn A Whole Song with Your Whole Self

1) Listen to several recordings for the overall sound world.

Do not get too attached to one recording/one way of doing things. There is no "correct way." In fact, we want to hear your way, which is interesting to us because we've never heard it before and is personal to you and no one else. If I wanted to hear Jessye Norman's way, I can youtube it for free. Notice how you are using yourself when you are listening. Can you include yourself and ease in your own system from the moment you start engaging with the material?


3) Go to the text/poem.

This is where the composer, in most cases, started. Translate, even if it is in English. Poems/stylized language/archaic language can be tough. Y'all don't speak fluent Dickinson or Baroque English. It is also not enough to "rec music" it or "ipa source" it and call it a day. i.e. "yeah, I know what it means!...let me just check my translation..." Know what every word means when you are saying it AS WELL AS the overall thought/poetic translation. i.e. be able to speak the poem as sentences. Know what constitutes the whole thought so you are not stopping at the end of every line on the page or whatever musical phrasing the composer gave to the poem. Observe yourself while translating: how are you breathing, including your three-dimensionality? Are you aware of your use while working on the song, even if it is not yet singing? Can you start from the beginning of text work by including your whole self in the process? Is there any difference in your use when you can start to identify the text as thoughts rather than a bunch of words?

4) Put the text into your own words.

What are you actually saying? What is actually going on? How would YOU say this? Notice what effects if any this has on your breath, eye focus, sense of 3-D, weight on the floor, etc.

5) Set up the drama for yourself

Who are you? Who are you talking to? Are you yourself or a character? How does that character differ from you? What do you/the character want? What is your/the character's obstacle? Do you get what you want? How does that make you feel? Are there any changes/pauses/beats along the way? Pick a few directions for your use that our most helpful to pay attention to while working through the drama. Can you stay aware of your width while thinking about your character? Your breath?

6) Personalize

Have you ever experienced anything like what the text is talking about? Do a lie-down, and invite your mind and body into a state of release and calm. From there, with your eyes closed, try to remember as many specific sensations as possible: temperature, what you were wearing, sounds, smells, who was there, what had just happened, etc. (Sense Memory). Create a mental movie for yourself that the text can exist in. Make sure you can see the movie for every word that you speak: don't ignore a word. If you have not experienced anything like what the text is talking about, create the movie with your imagination. The aim is not to inject false feeling into anything, but to warm up your emotional memory so that if something does suddenly hit home, then you can have a real feeling. When you see the “movie in your mind” how does that affect your breath, vision, sense of your weight on the floor, etc? Can you stay with yourself while experiencing the movie in your mind? If an emotion arises, can you allow it to flow through you rather than derail the movie in your mind, or your awareness of yourself and your breath and body? Can you open your eyes and allow the light to come into your eyes from the room around you while you see the movie in your mind?

7) Memorize the poem and speak it out loud.

When you start to speak, can you stay aware of your breath, eye focus, weight through the floor, etc? How do the words themselves feel? Does the rhythm of the words and the diction affect the meaning? Which words are stressed? Where are the syntactical pauses? How would you speak the text to best convey the meaning?

8) Return to a lie down with your eyes closed and going through your sense memory to re-ignite the “movie in your mind”.

Speak the text out loud thought by thought while you continually see the movie playing and stay aware of yourself in the space. Make sure you pause between each thought, and can see, smell, hear, taste, sense everything in the movie in your mind for the next thought before you speak. See what you notice. How does speaking the text out loud influence the movie in your mind? Your use? Now do the same thing with your eyes open. Can you include the space of the room in your awareness, and the movie in your mind, and your awareness or your internal space?

9) Play/ask a friend to play the piano part and speak the poem over top, not in exact rhythm.

How does it affect your poem interpretation? How does the music relate to the words? Does it agree with your interpretation of the text? Does it highlight certain words? Does it dictate pauses or tempos different from how you spoke the poem without music? How does that shift the meaning of the text for you? Are there large shifts in the musical fabric? Could those indicate a change in tactics or direction that you hadn’t thought about? What reactions do you sense in your use of yourself? As the music plays, can you stay aware of your breath, connection to the floor, 3-Dness, etc.? What does the stimulus of music do to you?

10) If you can, play through piano accompaniment on your own (or have a friend or coach play it for you).

Think about your own use while doing so: you’re 3Dness, your connection to the floor, etc. There is no substitute for feeling how the piano itself must shift harmonies, fingerings, tempi, etc. Then YOU can decide how the music is made rather than reacting to one pianist's interpretation. On what words do special harmonies, notes, rhythms, shifts appear? Every musical idea and/or shift is giving you information. You must come up with a specific idea of what each musical cue is telling you. Does a seventh chord create anticipation? Do rests in the middle of a word indicate breathlessness? Does a sudden minor create a sense of longing or sadness or specialness? What sticks out as special? Ask yourself the same questions about tempi shifts, dynamics, etc. How do you process those special moments and react to them with your body and mind? Can you notice them while staying easy?

11) Play your vocal part on the piano.

Think about your use while doing so. Learn without singing at first. Connect your concept of the pitches with ease in your instrument, you, without the pressure of singing. It is best if your voice and the words start as one, WITH meaning. How can you expect to phonate freely if you are unsure of the pitch or what you are saying? Give yourself the gift of learning a song step by step, maintaining your awareness of yourself the whole time, so that you can have choice the whole learning process, and create new habits.

12) “Whispered ah” your song on all the vowels of the words (no consonants) while you play or someone else plays your vocal part on the piano.

Feel the flow of the breath through the vowel space while you maintain ease throughout your whole system, without the worry of phonating. Pay specific attention to the moment of turn around of the breath, and the moment before, the sheer thought of changing the direction of breath: inhale to exhale, and exhale to inhale. See if you can maintain the “Movie in your mind”.

13) Sing your pitches through your favorite S.O.V.T. (Semi-occluded vocal tract) exercise.

Lip trill, lip flub, tongue trill, straw, cup with a whole in the bottom, “v”, “j”, “z”, “m”, “ng”, consonants, etc. See how little needs to change. Pay particular attention to the moment of the onset of phonation and the thought of phonation. Can you get ahead of your habit and maintain ease in your system, and your full 3Dness?

13) Add voice to your “whispered vowels”.

See how little can change. Can you maintain ease in your system? Pay specific attention to the moment of onset of vocal cord vibration, and the thought of beginning to make sound.

14) Continue working on the text/poem separately with all your new information.

How has all this musical information changed the way you think about the poem/how you would read it? Does that change your sense of yourself? Eye focus? Breath? Connection to the floor?

15) Intone the words in rhythm, and try to make it not feel robotic, but like that you are choosing to say the text that way in order to express what you want to express.

You’re playing composer detective. What was the composer thinking that they chose to set the music this way, what character or point of view were they trying to create? Notice your use. Generally longer words are more important, and length can come from consonants and vowels. (Double consonants, “MMMMMMooooommm!!!” is calling to your Mom when you’re annoyed, etc). There is no “right way”. Play and intone the words dozens of different ways to find what feels believable to you today. Does that affect the movie in your mind? Generally sung words take longer, and call for an extention of your intention, or increase in energy flow. Can you commit to the increase in energy flow for longer words? It might feel like you’re a crazy person, but that’s where singing starts, when saying words in a normal way won’t do it. We tend not to sing about things we don’t care about, like cleaning our refrigerator, but sing about things that we care about deeply which could be related to laughter, cries, sighs, etc. That heightened reality might help you find a believable way to say the text in rhythm and feel like it is believable. As you raise the energy level of the text, notice if you can stay aware of your use. Did any excess tension creep in, can you release it and continue to let the energy of the text flow?

16) When you feel that your pitches are secure (using vowels, solfege, or favorite nonsense syllable), your rhythm and words are secure (intoning in rhythm, speaking the poem from memoery, etc.), and your understanding of the musical drama is secure, while your use is easy and free, add it all together and sing the words.

Notice which of those elements starts to go as your add another complicating element: the words and consonants to the vowels. See if your consonants can be quick, and easy, so that you can return to the easy singing you had when whispered ah singing just the vowels. See if you can stay easy with the consonants and vowels, and the link between words, and allow them all to support each other to a higher level of freedom and ease. Start singing words with meaning, from the very beginning, just like your intoning. Let the music and words conjure up your "mental video/movie." Go to the special world that the text/music creates for you and your personal experience/imagination before the first note of music and stay with it at every second until after the last note. If you lose focus or "drop out of your movie" it is because you have not been specific enough with your work on the text and music. Every word, every note on the page, every consonant is telling you something. Be open to it and LISTEN. When in doubt of being truthful or overdoing it, you can always listen and remember that words have meaning and you say them every day with meaning. Continue to do so while you sing.

17) Lastly, experiment with gesture and eye focus.

Often times we forget that we will be performing these songs for an audience who will be watching us, and we leave our bodies as an after thought. Think of how you would naturally speak the text to a specific person. When do you look at them? When do you look away? When do you search for an idea inside your brain or an image outside of you? How would you use your body to tell the story: shifts of weight, hand gestures, etc? Would the character experiencing this text behave differently from you? How would they use focus and gesture to tell the story? Don't be afraid to experiment. Sometimes, what feels "right" is just what we are used to/a habit. Push yourself to make other modes of expression equally comfortable, i.e. if you find that you often shake your head "no" when you sing, try shaking it "yes", try holding it still, try a sharp move in one direction, etc. Never feel trapped in any one mode of moving/expression. You may be absolutely still, but there should always be the POSSIBILITY of moving. You may be in constant motion but there should always be the POSSIBILITY of suddenly becoming completely still. There is no "correct" way to use your body as long as your body is "free". Play with possibilities and then make a choice. Notice your use, and if certain “choices” keep coming back. Maybe that is actually just a habit. Notice how your eye focus relates to the flow of energy, both of your story-telling, and your breath, and your physical directions.

18) Let all the modes of expression inform each other. (Musical, psycho-emotional/acting, body/vocal)

Sometimes a breakthrough in one can lead to a breakthrough in another. If staring at one spot brings a legato, go for it. Or play with staring intently at an object in your mind's eye/movie and singing as staccato as possible. Try opposites from what you would think or the words/music suggest. You may be surprised at what you find/is helpful. Mix it up. On a 1-10 scale, don't be afraid to go for a 10 in your practicing: as piano as possible, darting glances continually, gummy legs, not moving a muscle, fully experiencing love won and lost, being completely stony and unemotional, etc. And then notice what asking for that higher level of energy does with the other performance modes, and your use. Can you allow the higher energy to support your use and other energy modes, rather than holding on to it, or pullin you out of relation and support to the other modes, your own use, and the space around you? Practicing should be about (safely) stretching the limits of what is possible for you as a performer. This can ONLY be accomplished if you go outside your comfort zone. Performance, however, is not the time to go outside your comfort zone. Performance is the time to let yourself play in your comfort zone with all the wonderful things you have discovered in your practicing.

19) Have fun! Make a choice and commit 100%.

This means turning off "judgement" because you can't be present in the moment/performing and judge yourself (or your pianist) at the same time. Afterwards, discern between what worked and what didn't, but enjoy the play that is inherent in all great work. No judging! Your choice is perfect for where you are in the moment and is valuable because no one else can be you or offer what you have to offer as well as you can. You can always discern more and more, and grow more and more, and that is exciting. There is no perfect. And if we judge ourselves with value statements (“good/bad”) rather than discern with no judgment (“this worked” or “I need to stay with my awareness at that moment”), we lose the change to grow and change and learn, and will either stop practicing because we’ve beaten ourselves up, or not be in productive practice because we’re not willing to stay with the process, but looking for validation from ourselves or the outside world.

Matt Cahill 8/19