Shop Member Center Document Center HU Online

How to use barbershop learning tracks

How should I practice with learning tracks?

Hello singers, and welcome to the world of barbershop style learning tracks! These recordings come in batches of five different versions, all for the same song: a full performance mix as well each of the four voice parts in isolation, all perfectly matching the sheet music.

Even if you are a strong music reader, our learning tracks are a powerful tool and can even make practicing fun! Our structured approach carefully scaffolds music learning into smaller, achievable chunks, and most importantly, it works.

The most common strategy singers use to learn music is to play recordings over and over, singing along until they have “mastered” their part. Other singers know they are so highly visual that they don’t even bother trying to use recordings, waiting until they attend a full rehearsal and sight-read from the risers.

The problem: science tells us this way of learning music does not work effectively, and worse yet, this auditory-only path will ingrain multiple note and word errors... without the knowledge of the singer.

People are not exclusively one style of learner. We tend to live “mostly” in a style, but all people are a blend of auditory learners (30%), visual learners (65%), and kinesthetic learners (5%).

If you prepare intentionally using all three areas, the speed of learning, note accuracy, and retention dramatically increases for the learner. Give this system a try one time and you will be a believer!

We would like to acknowledge the two barbershoppers who developed and championed this way to use learning tracks, starting in the 1980s. Thank you Jay Giallombardo and Chuck Greene.

Happy learning track preparation!

To get started, You will need:

  • Sheet music (digital or physical)
  • Pencil, pen, highlighter
  • The full mix learning track

PLUS:

Your part-specific learning tracks (Tenor, Lead, Baritone, Bass)

  • Pan the stereo balance to the left (your part) or the right (the other 3 parts)
  • Remove one of your headphones or earbuds to hear only the left side (your part) or right side (the other 3 parts) of the stereo mix

An undistracted location

  • Sitting at a table or standing is fine; Standing is suggested in later steps
  • Elevated music to ensure your gaze is straight ahead, replicating real performance and better body alignment
  • Don’t multitask your attention (while you drive, while you work at the computer...). Once you have gone through all the steps, practicing as you multitask is fine… but learn your music first

How to learn a new song with learning tracks in 8 easy steps

  1. Play the full mix 3 times as you listen and follow along in the sheet music
  2. Play your part mix 3 times as you listen and focus on the pitches as you follow in the sheet music
  3. Play your part mix 3 or more times while you sing 'ooh' to learn notes in isolation
  4. Play your part mix 3 times as you Lip sync words to learn words in isolation
  5. Play your part mix 3 or more times as you sing and connect your words to notes
  6. Play the full mix 3 or more times as you lightly sing words and notes, connecting your part to the other 3
  7. Play your part missing mix 3 or more times while you sing, learning to hold your part without support
  8. {Optional} BONUS STEP: Play each of the other 3 part mixes 3 or more times as you sing (duet) against each of them

It’s possible to do all of these steps and learn an entire song with no word or note errors in an hour or two!

Step 1: The Big Picture - Play the Full Mix

See, hear, and feel the message of the song by using the visual cues of the sheet music (visual learners), the sound of the full performance (auditory learners), and the touch of the words moving left to right (kinesthetic learners).

Listen to the full mix and follow along with the sheet music, focusing your gaze on the text while you physically move your finger below the text the entire song. At this step, don’t sing, hum, or make any sounds. Enjoy the song as an audience member.

Heads up: Strong sight-readers, fight the urge to skip this step.

Do this 3 times, then...

Step 2: The little picture - play your part mix and listen

Grow your awareness of your part by using the visual cues of the sheet music, the sound of your part mix, and the touch of the pitches going up and down.

Listen to your voice part mix in isolation - Tenor, Lead, Baritone, or Bass. Put in your left earbud (or pan to the left) and listen to your specific part. In this mix, the other three parts are missing. Follow along with the sheet music, focusing your gaze on the WRITTEN PITCHES. Physically move your finger by zig-zagging up and down, left to right underneath the written pitches. Don’t sing, hum, or make any sound. As you follow your part in isolation, notice (and perhaps mark) anything you think is difficult. Enjoy the song as if you were in a choir, surrounded by other people singing your part with you.

Heads up #1: Singers may discover moments that “part alone” sounds very odd in isolation - especially at a key change or the baritone part. This is normal.

Heads up #2: Look at the music, even if you feel you don’t “read” music. While your deeper understanding of rhythm and notation may not fully be understood today, EVERYONE can see the graphical representation of higher notes (up), repeated notes (same), and lower notes (down) on the page, as well as reading the lyrics.

Heads up #3: Strong sight-readers, continue to fight the urge to sing along.

Do this at least 3 times, then...

Step 3: Learn your notes

Practice the PITCHES in the song, using the visual pitch cues in the sheet music for pitch, the sound of the learning track, and the touch of the pitches going up and down.

Use the individual track in isolation to follow along on the sheet music with your gaze on the WRITTEN PITCHES in the sheet music. However, this time very gently sing “ooh” along with the track. Sing at a light volume so you can clearly hear the recording over your singing.

Rather than drilling the entire chart, break this down into smaller steps.

  1. Sing “ooh” over the entire chart with no stops 2 - 3 times.
  2. Practice your identified tricky spots you did not sing accurately. Focus and drill these little 2 - 4 measure chunks until you can’t get them wrong… anywhere from 5 - 15 times!
  3. Return to singing the entire song on “ooh” without stumbling on the drilled tough spots with no stops 2 - 3 times.

Heads up #1: It’s critical to sing pitches as accurately as possible. Take time to get your notes accurate from the start, as having well tuned chords makes our singing much more enjoyable for all.

Heads up #2: If some of the pitches are out of your vocal range, you have a few options.

  • If you are part of a chorus, have a conversation with your leaders about resting (lip-syncing) or switching to another voice part at these moments.
  • If you are in a quartet, it is extremely common to switch parts on a note or passage. Another option is to change the arrangement (including the key up or down) to better fit the voices in your group.

Heads up #3: You may find it difficult to sing a passage with the same robust vocal production used by the singer on the learning track. Singers may choose to sing lighter (or even falsetto) on a pitch that is modeled full voice on the learning track.

Most learners find this step is where they spend the most time in the learning process, and it pays the biggest dividends later! Do this as many times as needed for you to sing all the pitches perfectly in context, then...

Step 4: Learn your words

Practice the WORDS in the song using the visual text in the sheet music, the sound of the learning track, and the touch of the words moving left to right.

Use the individual track in isolation, and follow along in your sheet music, with your gaze and touch now focussed on TEXT. Instead of singing, now it’s time to lip sync (silently mouth) the words in perfect rhythm and timing to your part. That’s right: breath, move your jaw and tongue, form the vowels and consonants, and in every way act like you are singing but don’t move air or make a sound! IMAGINE as you lip-sync you are singing each word, rhythm, and note perfectly as the track plays.

Heads up: In sports, business and music, seeing your perfect performance in your mind's eye is one of the most powerful ways to learn, and often MORE effective than actually doing the activity. Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NPL) may feel a little weird if you have never done it, but it works!

Do this at least 3 times, then...

Step 5: Learn your words and notes together

Connect the words and pitches together, using the visual cues of the sheet music, the sound of the learning track, and the touch of the sheet music.

Use the individual track in isolation, but now decide what would be most helpful for you to follow… it may change between text, pitch, or rhythmic notation. Sing all words, rhythms, and notes with the goal of being “boringly” pitch and word-perfect from start to end. Sing gently and quietly enough so that the recording is louder than you are singing. As in previous steps, you may need to drill a small section several times, as the addition of words with associated pitch can impact accuracy.

Heads up: Fight the urge to use “all” of your voice at this step. Continue to use your light and accurate voice with your focus on note and word accuracy.

Do this at least 3 times, then...

Step 6: Sing in a Choir

Connect your part to the other three parts, using the visual cues of the sheet music, the sound of the learning track, and the touch of the sheet music.

Return to the full mix track, and continue to follow along on your sheet music, but now only the moments you need it. Look away from the music when you feel confident. It would be best to stand at this stage.

Heads up: We have learned singers may become confused when the other voice parts are added. You may have to return to a previous step to get over the distraction.

Do this at least 3 times, then...

Step 7: Sing in a quartet

Connect more deeply to the other three parts in relation to your part using the sound of the learning track and feel of performing.

Return to the individual track in isolation, but now take out your left earbud and put in the right earbud (or pan to the right speaker side) so you can ONLY hear only the 3 other parts. That’s right: your part will be completely missing! You MAY need to break this down into 3 smaller steps.

  1. Follow the music and sing the entire chart with no stops at least 3 times… sing through mistakes and confusion, noting where you are having difficulty.
  2. Focus on your identified tough spots in the previous step. Drill these moments until you can’t get them wrong! It’s possible that you may have to add both earbuds (or pan the stereo mix to the center) to help you hold your part. After you have success, return to the right channel with your part missing to be sure you can hold your part with no assistance.
  3. Sing the entire song without stumbling on the drilled tough spots with no stops at least 3 times.

Like the earlier steps, sing words, rhythms, and notes with the goal of being pitch and word-perfect from start to end, but now add more of your voice, expression, and emotion. It would be best to stand at this stage.

Heads up #1: This is for many singers wildly uncomfortable and they MIGHT be unsuccessful early on. However, this step will grow confidence, tuning, part awareness, and listening skills more than any other step. Learning to sing your part alone may happen quickly, or may take months. Just keep working at it, and move back a step when you need help.

Heads up #2: Many singers add small stylized scoops or pitch adjustments to add expression to their performance. This is often on the first or highest note of a phrase. While this is perfectly acceptable and common in popular music, this removes the opportunity for a full four-part chord in our style. Continue to make your best effort to be accurate on all pitches.

Do this as many times as needed.

Step 8: Sing all duets (OPTIONAL)

If you are hoping to be unshakeable on your part, play each of the other 3 part mixes in isolation and sing (duet) against each of them. Your awareness of how your note fits with each of the parts will grow immeasurably, especially when you sing a unison, perfect fourth or fifth, and octave with each part. You will find in performance this information is helpful and comforting, giving you a musical anchor at these moments.

Suggested order of duets

  • Tenor: First with lead, then bass, finally baritone. You may struggle with the baritone/tenor duet.
  • Lead: First with bass, then tenor, finally baritone.
  • Baritone: First with lead, then bass, finally tenor. You may struggle with the tenor/baritone duet.
  • Bass: First with lead, then baritone, finally tenor.

Heads up #1: If you are new to barbershop, you may find you can hold your part perfectly in the four part version, but some of these duet moments can feel VERY strange and difficult to hold your part. It’s worth it, but will take time to grow this musical muscle!

Heads up #2:You may not have success with the Tenor/Baritone duet early on because of the percentage of imperfect intervals, especially tri-tones! Sing the other duets and come back to this duet later.