Want to get a step ahead and learn your songs at the level you’d like to sing them? There are a couple of easy things you can do to improve your chances of success, and all they require is preparation before unleashing the song to your singers.Quartets may choose to do this preparation together, so initial interp of phrases is agreed by all, or your “Quartet MD” or coach can do it, if you have one!

Any note that is held for any length in a phrase, and especially the last note of each phrase should have its target vowel spelt above it.


In my example above, the red dots indicate a held word, green double slash is a unit breath mark. You can see I haven’t marked every single word, nor shown the diphthong every time – too much marking can obfuscate rather than clarify things for the learner.

For each held syllable I’ve indicated the target vowel.I’ve also marked the following potential traps:

  • where a note is held by some parts and moved by others…. target vowel must not move until you’re ready to hit the next note (or breathe), as in “say” and “clear”. Also, the holding parts must practice ‘spinning’ the sound and keeping the vowel fresh and bright;
  • some words are sound smudges waiting to happen. “message”, “matter” and “ever” are the 3 in this intro. Each has a second syllable which if not learnt correctly will end up only semi-sung “messg”, “mattr” and “evr” – no target vowel in there, so we end up with nothing we can use to lock and ring, and a smudge in the vocal line. If we identify the target vowels as we are learning, we can hope NOT to fall into that trap!

There are other things to look for and practice as the notes and words are being committed to memory:

  • take note of big jumps in pitch. If they go up (as in “say” and “oh” for the basses) you must prepare mentally and physically for the upper note before you attempt to move to it – make sure the space you prepare when you breathe in includes both the highest and lowest notes of the phrase. You must also lift the top vowel, refreshing its shape as you move from note to note, where it is held for several pitches. If the pitch change is downward, sing the low vowel/pitch as bright and mask-like as possible. Simply put, maintain correct vocal alignment with relaxed pharynx and natural mouth resonance to ensure these transitions are easy;
  • work on the flow of each phrase, trying to feel a circular movement between held notes or over the phrase as a whole… think of the phrase as an analogue curve rather than a digital set of steps. If you try and ‘direct’ your own singing, you’ll be less inclined to clomp evenly through sequences of words (like “message from my heart”). A good rule of thumb is to sing the words as you would say them, both in timing and in inflection.

Hopefully, your learning tapes will reflect these target vowels – there’s nothing like learning from a good example. Also, before you copy out the music for the rest of the chorus, these markings should be made so that your singers are all learning the same thing. If you let them mark up their own, I guarantee there’ll be some who miss bits out, some who think they’ll remember, so don’t write it in, and some who think they’ll write in their own spelling of the vowels…. it’s human nature!

Learning Songs – Mark Your Target Vowels
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