Learning "Billie Jean"Earlier this fall, I was asked to sub on a gig with Tongue & Groove at Foxwood’s Casino at the end of November. I was so excited to get to front another band besides my own, that I said, “Yes! I’ll do it!” Then I got the list of songs I was supposed to know for it: 15 songs, only one of which did I know. The other 14 would be brand new songs to me, and many were not in my preferred genre of songs. Not only that, they all had to be memorized, and lead singers do even better if they’re prepared to cue the band on transitions. Yikes! I would have my work cut out for me over the next two months!

Upon hearing about it, my friend Phil Orr asked me what I was doing to prepare for such a performance. I thought it would be an interesting exercise to document my process with one song, even if it was just for the sake of my voice students. The song that happened to be next on my list was Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” So NOT in my wheelhouse! Oh my goodness. The process of learning this song is probably far longer than most of the ones I choose to learn. Warning: this is not for the faint of heart. It’s 87 steps.

 

  • I do a complete 20-minute vocal warm-up before any of the following sessions.
  • Find lyrics on metrolyrics.com  and copy and paste them into a Word document.
  • Spend way too much time formatting the text to look like my charts.
  • Go on Wikipedia to find out who wrote the song and read whatever other information they have on there about it
  • Go to www.musicnotes.com and print and study the first page they give you for free. It says Billie Jean is in F#m.
  • Find the song on Spotify.
  • I find that the Civil Wars also recorded a song called Billie Jean, so I listen to see if it’s different. Hey! It’s the same tune, only their version is a very cool acoustic version. Go Civil Wars!
  • Get distracted listening to the Civil Wars – maybe they have some good ideas I should include in the process.
  • Fire up the keyboard next to my desk.
  • Check that it really is in that key by playing the song while I play opening chords on the piano.
  • Find two things make the song distinctive: the cool bass line and the F# in the bass pedaling under F#m and G#m chords.
  • Yep – same key.
  • Use my very cool BPM app to find out what the tempo is: about 117 in this case, but since I have a weird thing about tempos being analog, I make it 116.
  • Make two windows side by side: one with the Word document and the other with the song queued up in Spotify.
  • Start song over and over again and skip around in it in Spotify to get all the redundant lyrics off my chart while learning and marking the song form.
  • Get bothered by all of Michael’s hiccups.
  • Do whatever it takes to keep the lyrics on one page
  • Create a two-column table and stick the lyrics on the left (chords and bars will be on the right)
  • Find a leadsheet on Ultimate Guitar Tabs, print it, and use it for the next step.
  • Try playing along to recording with Ultimate Guitar Tab chart to see if it’s even remotely close. (YAY! It’s spot on!)
  • Start the tedious task of figuring out what chords and how many bars are in each section.
  • Force everything possible into 4-bar patterns and assign every bar to a section.
  • Notice that verse 2 is short and verse 1 and chorus have the same chord progression.
  • Realize I’ve been dropping several bars out of the equation and add them in.
  • Think, “I should proof this” and disregard the thought.
  • Print chart.
  • Get a very sharp Ticonderoga pencil #2.
  • Brew another pot of coffee
  • Listen to song again and mark what lyrics the downbeats fall on. If there’s a weird pick-up, or if opening lyrics fall on the upbeats – I write in the counts.
  • Get annoyed that “Then showed a photo my baby cried his eyes were like mine” doesn’t make any sense. Does he mean, “Then she showed me a photo of my baby who was crying and his eyes were like mine”? Probably.
  • Get over the nonsense lyrics.
  • Go back to the beginning of the song and see if I can sing it all the way through with Michael and get the rhythm and melody correct by reading my own chart.
  • Notice that I have a vocal pick up coming out of the solo – so I better not be dozing off during the solo. Oh! And I come in before the solo is finished, so I better be counting too.
  • Run each verse about three times to iron out rough spots.
  • Run entire song circling spots I need to still work out.
  • Start thinking about the key I should do this in. I’m bummed out because the chorus is perfect for my range, but the verses are too low. Gotta see how high I can take it without sounding too weird on the chorus.
  • Buy karaoke track on Amazon for $.89.
  • Pull it into Mixcraft and take it up a 1/2 step. Not bad, but I gotta find out how many band members I will piss off wanting to do it in Bb. B is probably worse, but I’ll try it. Then C. They won’t mind C, but that’s probably too high.
  • Results are in:  Bb isn’t bad, B is okay, C is way too high! And I can’t work that Pre-chorus into my voice in any of those keys. Back to the orignal key: pre-chorus sounds awesome. Just have to lean way into the microphone to get those verses out in that low part of my range, dang it. Better to sacrifice the verse than the Pre-chorus and Chorus.
  • Take a break until the next day.
  • Convince Tony Cafiero (very fine keyboard player) that since this song is also on one of his lists to learn that it’s more fun if we learn this song together because, by now, I’ve had it with myself.
  • Go to Tony’s and sing it through 1/2 way missing a lot of stuff in the verses because I don’t have the phrasing down yet, so he stops.
  • “Ya wanna get some of this phrasing down now? Cuz I’m into going deep and getting this stuff.”
  • I’m embarrassed, but I let him help me. We listen to the first verse on You Tube a couple of times, and I figure out that my problem is that I’m not starting the lyric “She was” right on the downbeat of two. I keep wanting to start it on the upbeat, and it’s messing up everything.
  • We get back and start talking about keys, and I go through all the key ideas I had with him. We come to the same conclusion: even though the verses are a bit low, the more important parts of the song sound better in the original key.
  • We play the song almost all the way through.
  • Tony wants to talk about how I have too much of a classic sound going on in the chorus. I say, “Oh yeah! I hate it when I do that, so I’m glad you’re here to tell me that I’m doing it!”
  • We play it through a few more times while I try different techniques of not sounding operatic, and I find the ticket.
  • I notice I’m having trouble coming out of the solo, and I figure out that it’s because my entire lyric at that point is a pick up. Meanwhile, we move on to a different song, have a great time together, and I go home. (Thank you, Tony!)
  • Later that day, I find out that the gig for which I’ve been practicing this song has been cancelled with no promises of being rescheduled, so, of course, I am crushed because I’ve been going through this same process on several other songs.
  • It takes me a day to recover from the hit. Actually, it took until band practice the following week.
  • Since I’m sick over having put in so much work into this song and this blog post without satisfaction that I ask my band if they’re willing to give it a go for the sake of me finishing my blog post. Since we are more of a blues and rock band, I expected some push back, but, surprisingly, they were ALL game! The bass player even already knew the bass riff that is immediately recognizable, and the drummer already knew the pattern that went with the bass riff. I proposed that maybe we could even perform it at a couple of upcoming gigs. They are still amenable to the idea, so I press on.
  • We give it a go but have to abort because, even though I’ve created a chart, the song form is difficult.
  • We start back at the top, get further in the song, but, again, song form is a problem, so I have to explain a bit.
  • We start back at the top and make it all the way through this time. Meanwhile, I finally remember what I learned in step 44: start the beginning lyric on BEAT TWO, for crying out loud! It makes everything better.
  • It feels really, really low and weak in the verses now singing against an entire band, but I work with it anyway.
  • We decide we can perform it in less than two weeks, so now I have some work cut out for me to try and memorize the lyrics. To the shower I go!
  • Print lyric sheet and put in shower for work on memorizing lyrics and working out phrasing at the same time.
  • A week goes by, but I memorize the lyrics for the verse. the first prechorus, and the chorus in anticipation of band practice.
  • At band practice – I can do most of what I’ve memorized. Gotta get the rest of it by Saturday for our first performance of it.
  • I notice that any nuances I had worked on in the chorus are completely lost with the band playing, so maybe I’ll switch back to belting on that chorus.
  • Next day: shower session #2 – I get verse 2 and second pre-chorus down and review everything else.
  • Afternoon studio session: run it twice with karaoke track and lead sheet to reference. Try not to look at it. Still getting surprised by some of the song form.
  • Experiment with bringing some of the low verse lines like “cuz we danced on the floor” up an octave. Sounds WAY BETTER! And I think it works for the song!
  • More run throughs
  • Need to fix some phrasing on a few spots. Get Michael back and sing with him.
  • While I don’t care for all his “hiccups” and it would sound funny if I tried to pull that off, I notice he puts some extra “uhs” in places that give the phrases a more percussive sound like, “mother always told me uh be careful of who you love, and be careful of what you do uh cause the lie becomes the truth.’ I work that in.
  • “Who will dance on the floor” comes in about a 16th note earlier than I think. Dang syncopation. Or maybe it’s right on the beat?
  • Spend about 30 minutes going through the entire song backing up through each section that needs work and doing each one about four or five times until phrasing is correct and lyrics are memorized.
  • Experiment with singing entire chorus in my head voice with lots of air and rasp (I’m sick today – so it helps). I think it sounds more like the spirit of Michael’s voice. Thinking my vocal would have to be turned WAY UP in the mix to get that sound across, and I’d have to lighten up the entire song.
  • Sing it with the karaoke track in the car several times on the way to Donaue’s trying to get lyrics memorized.
  • Sing more times in the studio with karaoke track.
  • Make a cheat sheet cuz I’m still missing stuff! DANG!
  • Make a video to get a reality check.
  • Video’s not bad, but I don’t think I’m getting this song across. It’s just not my message! Sigh.
  • Pressing on: in a couple of sections, my rhythm is too “white girl” – make note
  • Still struggling with placement of that second line of the chorus.
  • Next day – more work with karaoke.
  • Got the first part of that stupid line. Still can’t hit the placement or the pitch on “kid”
  • Getting a feel for my voice in this song. Imagine how I would feel if someone claimed that I was the father of a child, and I knew I wasn’t. I’d be pretty pissed off. Try to take a more authoritative feel.
  • Starting to feel better!
  • For some reason, I can now belt that entire second line now. I just have to belt softer than I want to or it sounds weird.
  • Trying to get some dirt throughout to get unified feel to the tone.
  • Make second video.
  • Perform it at open mic on Saturday – no charts! I messed up some of the song form, but the band didn’t even notice. I think I only missed a few phrases toward the middle.
  • Played it at band practice again to shore up some of the form with them and recorded it. Not bad! Although I’m thinking it needs to be lighter and have much less vibrato. Gonna try it again next week.
  • From this point on – it’s just fine tuning over the next year or so. Since I’m performing it, it’s considered “ready for performance,” but I really do a lot more work “working a song into my voice” over years of performing it.