by Jessica Furui
We all have to start somewhere and what to do when we find ourselves in a funk? My solution: new music. It can be difficult to learn new songs, let alone find new songs that you enjoy singing and playing. With this in mind I shall offer you some tips on how to add new songs to your repertoire. Truth be told, my best friend J.Rose was first to forge some of these efficient and effective habits in our new found bluegrass world. I’ve adjusted and added things to work with my own learning style and hope you find it useful.
Keep a song/lyric book.
I used a large format sketchbook and hand-number each page. The first four or five pages are left blank that will become the table of contents showing each song and its page number. When I finish this book, I’ll type up the songs in an Excel sheet and print it out alphabetically for easy reference. For each song, I find my favorite version(s) on YouTube or in my music collection and dictate the lyrics onto the page. Sure you can look up the lyrics on helpful websites like www.bluegrasslyrics.com, but dictation, either typed or written, greatly helps the way your brain remembers the song. If I get totally stumped I’ll look up the words, but this is the last resort!
Don’t forget to make note of the phrasing. It adds a dynamic quality to songs and is essential for the delivery, just take a good hard listen to Carter Stanley or Jimmy Martin. I notate this by underlining the words or parts of words that the singer will hold or phrase differently than the rest of the song. Again, this is done by listening - sometimes starting and stopping the song over and over - to correctly notate the phrasing.
Next, you must learn the chords. After a few years in bluegrass it becomes easier to identify the chord structure without playing or even knowing the song. I found it good practice at the beginning of my bluegrass life to try and figure out the chord changes with my voice and guitar. Doing this gave me a deeper understanding of the song and its chords. It can be very frustrating to call a song in a jam that no one knows (it can happen!) and you don’t know how to explain the chords. Of course, it’s possible to incorrectly identify the chord(s), so once finished it’s important to play the song or use internet information to confirm, but your ear will be your friend. A quick suggestion, to make best use of time I recommend either learning the words to the song first, then learning the chords or melody on your instrument, or visa versa. If you attempt to learn everything at the same time, it will take longer to make both sound good.
In my songbook each page for a song will include the following: title, author, the version I like best, the key I have found to be most comfortable and the date the song was entered into the book. I love going back and discovering songs that were a little too big for me at the time or just reminding me of the ones that had been forgotten. After a lifetime of bluegrass, I wonder how many songs I’ll forget!
Bring a small notebook to jams and camps.
You can use it to write down song titles that you heard and want to “steal” from your friend. I always have a section that is riddled with cheeky one-liners and the names of the person who said them. It’s really fun to go back through after the weekend, it’s like a mini scrapbook. I’ll then add the new song titles into my songbook and make time to do the work and learn them. I prefer to use this method rather than “pulling out the phone” all the time to make a note. But to each their own!
Keep rotating your music selection.
First thing’s first….don’t expect to learn a song if you don’t listen to it! Each song has a heart-center that, when not connected to, can make the song lifeless, linear and without soul. Therefore, I highly recommend you make a playlist with all the new songs you are either working on or want to learn. I think a friend said that it takes your mind 21 days after listening to a song to really know it. Now, am I sure this is a proven fact? No, but it sounds good and makes some kind of sense. Phrasing is vital to the delivery of most bluegrass music and the subtleties of your favorite versions can be lost if you don’t really study it by listening. Understanding phrasing will also help you to cultivate your own style of singing.
Someone once said that you shouldn’t play out what you need to practice and you need to practice what you play out. Seems simple enough. It’s really exciting to get new songs and it can be hard to keep your new gems hidden until they are really ready. A vocal mentor once said, “you’ve got to corral that horse before you can ride it,” but patience and practice will allow you to become comfortable with your choice and allow you to execute the delivery.
Bluegrass to me is all about having the most amount of fun possible as much as possible. I’ve found that having a solid repertoire will increase the fun for everyone. My bluegrass resolution for the New Year is to practice more. Like, really practice…not just sing and play guitar on my back porch. I’d also like to go back and learn some more difficult songs that I’ve put on the back burner (hello, Nashville Blues). And maybe, just maybe, I can finally understand singing tenor. Just a few small, attainable goals, no big deal. Right (wink, wink).