Techniques for Learning Contemporary Vocal Music

Techniques for Learning

Contemporary Vocal Music


Many thanks to the ever brilliant vocalist, founder/director of the Resonant Bodies Festival, and goddess of contemporary vocal music Lucy Dhegrae for helping me to make this guide. (Ps. Interested in contemporary vocal music? Don't miss Resonant Bodies Festival 2017 this September 5-7!)


    1. Chunk it up: pick small sections, and go under tempo. Accuracy is your main desire.

    2. Start with nonsense syllables of your choice. Slowly add words, especially if it’s a foreign language and you need to work on the pronunciation before adding it to rhythm.

    3. Record the chunk you can do accurately

    4. You can listen to the recording as is for reinforcement

    5. You can add the recording to Garage Band or an audio-manipulator

      1. Then you can raise the tempo and test yourself at the new tempo

      2. And you can add successive chunks of the work into GarageBand and keep testing ever-larger chunks of your memory and accuracy.


    1. Make a pitch chart of all the notes, inverting intervals larger than a fifth so that all of the pitches lie roughly within an octave.

    2. Add a drone, either a single tone or a fifth, from which you can relate all the other pitches.

    3. Then practice the melody moving the inverted intervals to their original positions (include all the big leaps in the score!)

    4. Add a harmonic underpinning of your own design under certain sections that fits with your pitches. Even if the piece is a-tonal, it will be easier to find your pitches if you hear an underlying harmony relation of short chunks. (i.e. a section with the pitches A, E, C#, and G could have an underlying A major 7 chord)

    5. Pay attention to when you land on a pitch that makes a chord tone with your drone: especially when you hit a major or minor third with the drone.

  3. MIDI (A contemporary vocalist’s best friend)

    1. Ask the composer for a midi file (make sure they send you a .mid file-- NOT AN MP3 OF THE MIDI… !! You may have to spell this out for them a few times)

    2. Open the midi file into GarageBand (or your favorite audio manipulator of choice)

    3. Turn on the metronome (upper right hand side)

    4. Change the instrumentation so that what you need to hear sticks out.

      1. You could make the vocal part clarinet, saxophone, or trumpet (the standard “midi voice” in GarageBand will be extremely unhelpful)

      2. If you want to work on hearing a different texture in the orchestration you could bring that out with a different instrument

    5. If you want to practice finding your line you could make all instruments piano to hear the overall sound

    6. Play with the tempo track (or you can change the metronome marking in the display bar at the top)

    7. Add a track where you speak the text (this is easier if the whole thing is slowed down; then you can speed it up the actual tempo and it will AUTOMATICALLY speed up your spoken text!)

    8. Play with “Soloing” (S) and “Muting” (M) different tracks so you can hear them in duos, trios, individually, etc.

    9. You can cut certain small chunks and make them loop, so that you can master a small chunk before moving on to the next chunk

    10. You can export your whole practice track to iTunes or to a file as an mp3. Listen to it on the subway (while looking at your score!), walking around, while doing dishes, etc.



    This is a system that you set for yourself so that you have a step-by-step system to learning new music, and so that you can set deadlines. For example, you could say that for a certain section that after one week you will be at level 3, and by two weeks you will be at level 6. Put these in your calendar!

    Everyone is going to have a different way that they learn music best, so try out this order of steps but then personalize and change this system as you develop your own.

    Remember when you are recording into GarageBand from your computer: wear headphones. Otherwise you will have “leak” of the midi/click into your new track, and you want to have them as clean as they can be.

    Clearly label (and color-code!) your GarageBand tracks.



  1. Read the text

  2. Translate the text word-for word

  3. Write this translation directly into your score

  4. Find an accurate pronunciation of the text

  5. IPA this pronunciation

  6. Record someone speaking the original text SLOWLY

  7. Make your own recording of the text (either in batches/segments, or complete)

  8. Get a midi file of the piece — if you don’t have a midi file, record yourself playing your part on piano accurately with a metronome clicking LOUDLY in the background

  9. In GarageBand, record yourself speaking the text over the midi

  10. In GarageBand, record yourself speaking the beats (“1, 2, 3, 4”) and/or rehearsal section numbers

  11. If it is a piece with multiple voices, you might want to record text of any cues you will be given, especially if you are eventually memorizing the piece

  12. You may want to record the translation into a track; you can make this track softer and you can add reverb just so your brain realizes it is not part of a the real thing ;)

  13. Export this file and put it on your phone, ipad, and computer so you can listen to it. You may be exporting multiple version of a track:

    1. half tempo,

    2. 75% tempo, and

    3. full tempo;

    4. a “karaoke” version where you mute your melody/text so you can practice singing along with it;

    5. a version where it is just your melody (no accompaniment/other voices) and the metronome;

    6. a version where you have all of the other parts but where your melody is MUCH louder than the other parts.

  14. Listen to the file(s) as many times as it takes to get it in your ear (50-100 times, even better if you can follow along with the score)

  15. Conduct along with your midi

  16. Sing your part with your karaoke track

  17. Sing AND conduct with the karaoke track

  18. Sing AND conduct but take away the metronome click track

  19. Sing in rehearsal with live instruments (not midi)

  20. Sing memorized with live instruments


If you can make it to #16 without messing up, you know you are prepared for your first rehearsal. Your goal is to not make ANY mistakes. If you are stumbling on a section, consider these steps:

  1. Slow it WAY WAY down

  2. Isolate your part

  3. Isolate another instrument’s part

  4. Speak the text in rhythm (without pitch/melody)

  5. Sing just the melody in rhythm (but with no text)

  6. Conduct along

  7. Play it on the piano so you can feel and see the intervals

  8. Make up a dance to a certain section so you get the rhythm in your body

  9. Don’t move on to another section until you can do the tough spot 5 times in a row with no mistakes.


Remember: contemporary music is as much about THINKING the music as it is about singing it. Don’t waste your voice singing through it each time. Only sing if you have to. There is time for practicing the physical singing of a section, and there is time to practice the rhythm/pitches/accuracy of a section.