How to Use Songs as Exercises – “Etudes”

This week I want to talk about how to use songs as exercises. Those of you who have read my prospectus will know that the later stage of building a voice is to sing songs, both in lessons and as long-term goals.

Here’s the challenge

Singing songs without any consideration to the technical demands of those songs will generally exacerbate existing vocal/technical issues. This is why technical assessments and exercises to address technical issues must be dealt with first.

However, once you’ve begun to address your technical issues, we have got to get you stuck into songs. Exercises are just the forerunner to singing songs, not a replacement for them.

We are not going to just put off singing songs until your voice is “ready“. We’ve got to get you and your voice stuck into the very material you want to sing. Through doing so we will integrate your on-going technical development into the songs themselves.

This is the whole point of voice training, for everyone, at all levels of development

Sing songs every day

It’s important that songs form a regular daily part of your vocal development regime. For example, even just 10 minutes of exercises to get your voice warm and co-ordinated, followed by 10 minutes (or as long as you like) of singing songs, can form a very potent protocol to develop your voice.

This is not just from a performance/rendition perspective, but as a form of etude…

What is an “etude”?

“An instrumental musical composition, usually short, of considerable difficulty, and designed to provide practice material for perfecting a particular musical skill.”

Start a song list

A very simple thing to do is to first work towards having a set list of around 10 songs that you can sing through.

Consider this less of a set-list, and more a “work in progress” list. To start with these will probably just be the 10 songs you like the most, or that you wish you could sing, etc. In reality, we want songs at the very easy and doable end of the spectrum, and songs that are going to be in a work in progress for some time to come.

The general trend I recommend to start is:
Songs 1 – 3 = So easy you can do them now
Songs 4 – 6 = Songs that are doable but maybe one line or one section is tricky
Songs 7 & 8 = Songs that are difficult for you
Songs 9 & 10 = Songs where some parts seem impossible

As you get better at songs, you can essentially “tick them off” your list. So if you find song 1 and 2 are now doable, you’ll find they can come off your work in progress list. But this means that songs 3-10 shuffle downwards into the lower spots. This becomes tangible proof you are getting closer and closer to the ability needed to sing the most difficult songs on your list.

It’s extremely rewarding to see songs 9 and 10 eventually find their way into a “doable” range, or even the “easy” section of your work in progress list. What you’ll also find is that key changes play a critical role to install songs into your voice. Some songs that seemed impossible were just a semitone away from feeling effortless.

Others you’ll find it’s just one particular phrase in the melody that needed polishing, or even changing, and then the whole song slots neatly into your instrument and repertoire.

And through doing all these tweaks, by comparing one working song to one that is working less well, we figure things out not just technically, but artistically. This is how artistry and personal style is developed.

Some songs will get removed from your list

By writing the songs down, you’ll crystallise both where you are presently at, as well as your goals. But you’ll also find that you end up taking some of them off your daily singing list as time wears on, especially as new songs find their way in that your voice performs better on.

Sometimes these will be easier additions, sometimes more difficult, etc. The songs that end up getting taken off your list are often not bad songs, but simply that other songs sound objectively better in your voice, and so displace the weaker songs on the list.

One of the reasons I wrote this article is because recently I’ve taken about 3 songs off my regular singing list. They still sound and feel good, but some other ones sound and feel even better, so those ones take precedence.

In this way, songs – as part of an ever evolving song-list – become like an ever-refined workout routine for your voice. That way you’re not just slavishly working through the same things expecting differently results, but refining what your individual instrument is doing and how it performs.

TIP: Start your practice with the song that gets your voice working best

There are some songs that get your voice “in the zone”, so to speak. We want to identify one that gets us going. Such a song may not be the easiest song on your list, nor the hardest. It may be well be fairly middle of the road difficulty wise, but when you run through it after exercises, everything seems to be firing on all cylinders. So start with this song that gets everything working.

The next song should be a natural progression from this first song. It’s not about higher/lower or easier/harder. Rather, if the first song lays the template for how your voice wants to work, the second song should tread along similar lines as the first, rather than a massive digression. Same for every subsequent song. We want to find a groove and stay in it.

As such, don’t be afraid to do songs out of your 1-10 songlist order.

So, what songs could you start to add to your list?

If you don’t already have one, what should be on there? If you DO already have a list, have you ordered them in a helpful way? I’ll be talking about ordering your list to best benefit your voice in a later instalment. For now, just get your list together, and start work on it.

This work in progress list will become a valuable way to focus your goals, and to measure your progress – in the technical sense – towards tackling such songs well. Remember – exercises are a critical first step, but the rubber meets the road in song. This means you get to have a LOT of fun singing through your favourite songs – get cracking!

Learn More: Related Articles

If you want to learn more about vocal technique and great singing, you may enjoy these related articles:
Our Vocal Technique
The Difference between Amateurs and Pros
The problem with trying to teach voice using ONLY voice science
Vocal Pedagogy: Past, present and future
Singers: The Difference Between Vocalists and Performers
Can vocal technique help laryngitis?
What is vocal fach?
The Key to Vocal Consistency

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