How to Learn Music

It is an essential but often underdeveloped skill to be able to learn a piece of music from the page, rather than from a recording.

Of course listening and imitating is generally easier and comes more naturally to most people (and honestly, I can’t judge a person for that), but limiting yourself to that method of learning music comes with a couple issues: one, you are risking copying everything another singer does, and so will have a harder time developing your own flavour and style; and two, you are doing your future self a serious disservice if you ever have to learn a new work, in which case you won’t have a reference track to listen to.

Some people may suggest a much more drawn-out learning process than what I’m going to suggest below; the following tips are a sort of middle-ground process for music learning, where the essential steps are there, but it shouldn’t take too long to learn a new piece (though of course the more time you put into a song, the better it’ll be, generally speaking). Each of the following steps can be done for as long or short a time as you need to let them sink in.

Steps to learning a piece of music without a cast recording/track:

  1. learn the rhythms; feel free to speak it out with the words in places, but switch to just tapping it out in tricky spots–isolate the rhythm, without letting words get in the way
  2. learn the melody; hum/lip trill/sing it through on vowels–be precise in figuring out not just the musical line itself, but how it fits in your voice*
  3. start putting everything together; sing/hum through the piece, paying attention to proper pitch and rhythm, and slowly start adding the words into it. Stop and go over any tricky bits for musical accuracy or vocal challenges
  4. as you go forward with step 3 and get more comfortable with the song as a whole, pay attention to the lyrics; what’s the story? what words can you play with? where does your character change/discover something? (Even in a non-musical theatre song you should play with character.) There are thousands of exercises and tricks that you can use to improve the performance aspects of a song
  5. PLAY! Experiment with style; pay attention to dynamics; invest in the character and story; and keep challenging yourself to master any difficult passages

As with anything musical (as with anything, period, I guess), it takes practice to figure out the music learning process. Fortunately, it’s something that’s relatively easy to pick up and start practising for yourself–just find a piece of music that you aren’t too familiar with (bonus points if you pick up sheet music for a song you’ve never heard before), and start going through the steps, seeking assistance where necessary (see the footnote addendum to steps 1 and 2). Eventually, learning and reading music starts to come more naturally; it may be cliche to call music a language, but it really does start to feel that way as you learn to speak it.

Need any help understanding or executing these steps? I’m here as a resource! Feel free to email me or leave a message on this post and I’ll try my best to help you out. Happy singing!


*for steps 1 and 2, if you don’t play an instrument and/or don’t have the experience or theory to go through rhythms and music on your own, phone a friend! Find someone who can play through your vocal line on a piano, and make a recording–then follow steps 1 and 2 with the recording for reference. It would be savvy of you to offer to pay for this service; although friends don’t always want to charge you, they would be offering their services as a professional and should be compensated. At the very least, buy them a coffee/pint.

Starting Your First Voice Lesson?

Here’s some tips and tricks to get the most out of your private voice lessons, and some information on what a voice lesson usually looks like.

What happens in a voice lesson?

Often you’ll go in, have a short check-in time of some sort with your teacher (how’s it going? What would you like to work on today? How’s your voice feeling?), and then start with a vocal warm-up and some technique work. This will be a series of exercises meant to get your voice ready to work–bringing your voice high, low, loud, soft, forward back; playing with different colours in your voice and manipulating different parts of the “vocal mechanism,” which sounds crazy, but really it just means adjusting how you’re using your breath, tongue, jaw, neck, face, etc.

Then you’ll likely move on to working repertoire–singing through a song and focusing not just on learning the music itself, but how you’d like the song to be presented. What vocal qualities do you want to bring to it? How do you want the story to come across?

What do I need to bring to a voice lesson?

  1. A big ol’ bottle of water
  2. whatever music you’re working on (most people have a standard 3-ring binder with all their music)
  3. a pencil to make notes on your sheet music
  4. a recording device–you’ll want to record your whole lesson, so you can listen back later and make notes on what you hear (it’s painful, but a great way to learn about your voice and review what happened during the lesson). These days, most people just use their phone and the voice memos app; when I first started lessons we used cassette tapes!

Other things you should know:

-voice lessons are about you–what are you looking to get out of them? Communicate that to your teacher, and keep them updated on your goals. If a teacher doesn’t seem to be responding or getting you where you need to go, it may be time to look around for someone else to get lessons from. Although it can feel awkward the first time you switch teachers, they generally understand, and you have to do what’s best for you and your voice

-the more you practice between lessons, the more you’ll get out of them. Seems obvious, but it took me years to realise what regular practice added to my vocal progress, and a few years more to figure out how to practice effectively. If you’re not sure exactly how to start on your own practice, start by following along with your voice lesson recording


It may have been almost 20 years ago, but I have a distinct memory of my first voice lesson.

My dad took me to the right room of Alberta College, where we greeted the woman who was to be my first voice teacher. She asked me what I liked to sing, and if I had been singing anything in particular, and pulled out a Disney book. I had been making my own 11-year-old version of a jazz rendition of “Cruella De Vil,” so that’s what she opened the book to–and it was so high! On my own, I had just been choosing my starting note out of thin air, but this arrangement was way up there, and I was forced to just squeak it out. At the end of the song, the teacher said, “Well, you’re definitely a soprano” (I think just because I was committed and able to hit all the high notes). I was thrilled to hear that… I think it’s a personality thing that I always wanted to be a soprano, even when my voice fit better on alto lines in choir.

I stuck with that teacher for about 5 years. She reaffirmed my love for singing and helped instil in me the confidence to continue with my training and pursue performing opportunities. After those years, I moved on to another teacher who provided the professional boost my skills needed, but I still give a lot of credit to my first teacher for setting me on the right path.

I’ve been lucky to work with many amazing teachers, and very few bad ones. In opening my own voice studio, I hope to bring all of my past training to the table, and help people to find their voices and pursue whatever vocal goals they have. Singing is such a challenge, but also such a gift.

Create Your Own Work

I think it is the case with many artists that we spend a lot of time trying to figure out how, exactly, to make a fulfilling creative life happen. For performers, it involves a combination of auditioning (seemingly endlessly) for companies and productions that we may or may not get, and creating our own work. Writing, producing, teaching, and piecing together various other projects to keep ourselves occupied and (hopefully) at least somewhat fulfilled.

I’ve been struggling with this lately. I mostly let go of auditioning for community theatre (that is, unpaid work) a few years ago, and that has led to two years of largely unsuccessful audition seasons with professional theatre companies.

Now, I’m pretty good at handling rejection. I get that it’s part of the career I’ve chosen, and I understand enough to not take it too personally when I get turned down for a role… however, multiple years of hearing “no, no, no” (or sometimes nothing at all) is tough.

Of course that leaves me with the only other options for artists (at least among those who wish to stay artists despite the “no”s), which is to create my own work. This is a lot more difficult than you might think… unless you already assume that it is scary, and vulnerable, and embarrassing, and confusing, and seems impossibly daunting, in which case you’ve got  it exactly right! This past year has basically forced me into doing what I should have started on years ago–namely, writing, producing, and performing my own work–and, I have to say, it’s hard. I’ve produced and performed in a couple of cabarets and house concerts in the past, but that feels like kid stuff compared to the work I’ve been doing/attempting lately. Preparing for a sketch comedy show with a friend (“Erin and Erin Get Sketchy,” which we performed at the Grindstone on Feb 24); submitting a one-woman play for NextFest; conceiving a one-woman character-driven cabaret show… It is exhausting. And intimidating. And the hardest, scariest part is not knowing if it will be worth it in the end. I mean, it has absolutely been valuable just to have projects on the go, but I am genuinely afraid that no show that I have conceived and created will ever be good enough by my own standards. Yet it is one of the only ways for me to start piecing together a fulfilling creative life, so… here I go! I now pronounce this the year of risks, possible failures, getting in over my head, and making a fool of myself. Cheers to the creative life!

Promo shot for “Erin and Erin Get Sketchy.” Photo credit: Shawn Hutchison


*bonus points if, after I said “here I go!” in that last paragraph, you followed up with, “and there’s no turning back!” (Little Women the musical reference)

Life Philosophy #1

“Make 10-year-old Erin happy”

I believe that everyone has an age, some year of their childhood, where they were at their peak childhood enthusiasm, creativity, and love for life. For me, it was at 10. I was going to be a writer, and with my friend Quinn, I would create novels, short stories, and comic books, and pursue other creative ideas like caterpillar houses made of index cards, eraser people, and the plotting and mapping out of an imaginary island that we would rule together. I had an obsession with monkeys and apes, and a stuffed chimpanzee toy named George, who still sits on my bookshelf, guarding my now-rarely-used diary. I had big plans for publishing books and becoming a famous author, and, by the end of grade 5, my passion for singing and theatre was just starting to blossom. This passion, of course, has now turned into a lifelong love and career goal.

The writer, writing

So that was 10.

Years later it hit me that, after grade 5, things started to get a little rocky. I was friend-dumped in September of grade 6, because we were “too weird” together, and this was the first time it ever occurred to me that being “weird” could possibly be a negative thing. Up until then, I wore my quirkiness proudly. I liked the creative eccentric label. I thought weirdness was just the natural way to be, and the only real way to have fun.

I didn’t exactly stop being weird after that moment, but I do see it as “the beginning of the end”–the first hint that living a crazy creative life was going to get harder as I got older.

And then junior high hit. Oh boy. That sucked. Sucks for everyone, doesn’t it? The amount of judging yourself and others… yikes. Absolute enthusiasm killer.

Not that I knew the pit I had just been thrown into–honestly, at the time I thought junior high was fine, and it was only afterwards, looking back as an adult, that I realise what a mess the whole situation was.

In high school, things slowly improved, and by college I was on a roll once again. This was when I started to reflect back on what I had lost after 10. I was still enthusiastic, still loved life, and was definitely still a little weird, but I didn’t feel like I had quite regained by childhood zest… yet. It took a couple more years until I felt like I had finally “returned to 10” at 20 years old, and it is a state of life that I have (mostly) managed to maintain.

All of this back story leads me to one of my big life philosophies: Make 10-year-old Erin happy.

Classic pose, complete with belly button tattoo.

It is something I try to do everyday. It works by giving me something to aim for, in terms of energy level, optimism, creativity, and fun. It also gives me some perspective on my life. When I start getting the feeling that I’m not as accomplished as I would like to be, not as successful in my artistic career, maybe, or not as “established” and “grown-up,” I like to think of what 10-year-old Erin would think of me now.

And you know what? She would think that I am the shit (not that she would have used that terminology). I have done some travelling; I still sing, act, and write, and find random creative projects to keep me busy and fulfilled; I own a monkey onesie and a mermaid tail blanket; I have an amazing boyfriend (and little Erin was boy-crazy–although I also like to think she’d have thought I was cool when I was single, too); I play 3 instruments at a respectably amateur level; and I have my own apartment. 10-year-old Erin would have loved this life, and it makes it easy for me to love it too, even by my 26-year-old standards.

In Defence of “Joe Jobs”

I’m recycling this post from back when I was a blogger for Opera NUOVA a few years ago… Of course, things have changed–I am no longer a pharmacy employee, instead I’ve taken on the swanky position of Heritage Interpreter with the AB Legislative Assembly Office–but the sentiments in this piece are still relevant.


When people ask me what I do, my answer is usually along the lines of, “Well, I’m a performer—singer/actor/dancer—and a writer, daylighting as a pharmacy assistant and post office clerk.” …It makes me feel like my joe job is really just the alter-ego for my superhero artistic self, and so far people seem to get a kick out of it.

The thing is, a lot of people who call themselves “artists” have a lot of other roles in their lives, often including the dreaded “joe job.” The classic, of course, is being a waiter, host, or bartender, because of the flexibility generally offered with those positions, but I’ve met performers who work retail jobs, are stay-at-home parents, teachers, oil field workers (especially in Alberta), and even one lovely actor who works at my favourite local tea shop. Artists are everywhere, and their day jobs are not always so “artsy.”

Ten Lost Years
Myself and some college classmates in The Ten Lost Years–it was the Great Depression, and none of us had joe jobs.

Making your living from your art is by no means impossible, but it can be incredibly difficult. It also depends on what other goals you have in your life. If you want to raise a family, buy a house, or do a ton of international travelling, than being a full-time artist might turn out to be a bit of a stretch financially. However, I know a few single people who graduated college around the same time as me who are managing enough performing gigs throughout the year that there’s no need for them to get any other work—they make enough to support themselves, and that’s all they need. I guess they count as the “lucky ones,” depending on how you look at it.

There is something nice, though, about being an artist in the “outside world.” If you manage to get or create at least enough work to sustain yourself artistically, than working in retail or, as I do, in science(ish), can be kind of cool. It’s like you have a secret, and this whole other life outside of work. Then, when customers or co-workers find out about your performer’s life, you’re made to feel like something shiny and interesting and novel.

“Wow! So you, like, sing and act and stuff? That is so cool!”

It can be very validating, because yes: what we do is so cool, but we tend to be very nonchalant about it around other artists. “Oh, you’re a singer? Yeah, me too—what else is new?”

I think the main trick is finding a day job that doesn’t suck the soul out of you. Find, if you can, a joe job that only sort of feels like a joe job. One where you leave work every day feeling like you’ve accomplished something. That’s what I’ve found with pharmacy work (of course it helps that I only work part time and that my boss, aka mom, is really flexible around auditions, rehearsal and performance schedules, and me taking a six week leave of absence for two summers in a row in order to attend the NUOVA six-week program).

As artists, I think we can do better for ourselves, and stop treating our joe jobs as something to be embarrassed about. Having a good ol’ nine to five position does not make you less of an artist, but for some reason we all seem to think it does. The same goes for doing community theatre or other unpaid gigs. Of course we all want to be paid for our work—especially after all of the time, energy, and money that goes into honing our talents and creating that work—and I’m all for artists being a little bit picky about which shows will fulfill them artistically, but the money you make does not determine the quality of the performance you put forth. Nor is it any indication of what you are capable of.

You are an artist because you make art. Working in another industry in order to financially support yourself does not diminish your identity as an artist.

Not to mention all of the bonuses that come with a joe job. Customer service can be a great help with improving small talk in auditions, and every interaction is fodder for characters you may play in the future—you work any job long enough, and you’re going to meet some true characters. I had an acting teacher once tell me to study people every day—it’s all part of your job and experience as an actor.


Originally posted on March 29, 2016. Edited November 2017.