Preparing solo music on your own can be a wonderful experience – it is a bit like meeting a new person and watching their personality and interests unfold over a long conversation and discovering you have just made an important new friend.
In the case of the really great pieces, feeling the layers of meaning reveal themselves to you as you get to know a new piece can be intoxicating; it has even been described as a bit like falling in love.
But how can we be sure we don’t learn mistakes as we prepare our pieces? And how can we learn a piece quickly without straining our voice?
Everyone will have his or her own answer to these questions. In my own work, I’ve found that keeping to a strict method – one that leaves actual singing to quite late in the learning process – makes all the difference. Here is a brief outline of the method I use to learn music quickly and without strain. I hope it will be of use to you too.
HOW TO LEARN YOUR MUSIC: a method for singers
1. Listen to a number of recordings to get a feel for the piece (never listen to just one recording!). Do not sing along.
2. Read the text aloud.
3. Ask yourself what the text means. Paraphrase the text and say your own version aloud to be sure you understand what you are singing about.
4. Read the text aloud again and again until you can say it without tripping up.
5. Working very slowly (nowhere near performance speed), add the rhythm to the text (you are still not singing!) phrase by phrase. I like to start at the back of the piece and work toward the beginning phrase by phrase. This way I am always working towards something I already know. This helps to make important links between sections, and avoids the ‘dropping off a cliff feeling’ when you’re not sure what comes next.
6. Say the text aloud in the correct rhythm over and over until you can do it without error. Do this at a medium tempo – speed is unimportant until much later in the learning process. Strongly resist the impulse to sing!
7. Work only in short spurts when learning something new – 15 minutes at a time, three times a day is much better for your memory than one 45-minute session.
8. Do your initial work sitting down somewhere quiet. If you feel the need to stand up or move, do this immediately. Our brain needs ‘click to enter’ time when learning, and we get messages from it in the form of the impulse to move. The time it takes to make a cup of tea is about the right amount of time your brain needs to process information before getting back to memory work.
9. If you start to make errors, stop immediately and go do something else for a few hours, or even for the rest of the day. Learning the wrong text and rhythm is almost impossible to unlearn. Be vigilant and work very slowly (slowly in the sense of very under-tempo) to be sure you don’t embed any mistakes.
10. Before you sing the piece, scan it carefully for musical structure. Are there any words and/or pieces of melody that repeat? Is there a rhythm that looks regular but changes sometimes? Are there tempo changes or changes in time signature? Does the melody line up with any of the other parts, especially the bass line? Mark all of these and any other patterns you notice in your score. Knowing how the melody works before you sing it is hugely helpful, and it helps to think first of larger-scale patterns (because our brain thinks this way well). First, it stops you singing without thinking; and second, it make a little map of the piece for you in your head as you learn the piece. It also gets rid of that feeling that we are just singing randomly forward through the piece and not sure which version of the material is coming next until we get there.
11. Make a physical map of a piece in the form of a graphic drawing outlining sections and note any irregularities on your map. Define the sections using letters or numbers (A B A1 for a da capo aria, for example). From now on in your learning process, always think where you are on the map before you start to speak or sing any section.
12. Singing the piece: step 1. When you start to sing the piece, treat it as a vocalise first and sing the melody on your favourite vowel(s) without the text. Start slowly (quite a bit under tempo) to get the general shape of the range of notes in your voice. Don’t worry about your breathing, since nothing is at speed yet. Go through the piece to see how it fits within your range. Do this a few times until you feel comfortable with it.
(Note: Some people will be tempted to do this first before doing the text and rhythm work at the beginning of the series. If you do the singing second, your brain will be making connections with the text it already knows, which is much more difficult to do the other way round, and which therefore saves you loads of learning time. It is also more difficult to resist the impulse to sing when learning your text if you already know the melody. This is tiring for your voice, but more importantly, it will impede your memory work. It is more difficult to remember a complicated text clearly if it is clouded by the melody, which we tend to sing without thinking once we know it, thus switching off the ‘memorise text’ function in our brain.)
13. Singing the piece: step 2. Make a note of any bits that fall in difficult areas technically (high notes, or a passagio [break area], or coloratura, or complicated rhythms). Note these on a separate piece or pieces of paper, together with their location on your map. These require a different type of practice, so you will come back to them later and prepare them separately from the rest of the piece.
14. Take a break. (Put this step after any other step in the series, but especially after anything difficult. Your thinking needs to be sharp in order to learn correctly and efficiently.)
15. Singing the piece: step 3. Identify the parts of the piece that are easy to sing. Check to see whether these sections have any variations (little changes in rhythm noted under 13, for example), and sing through these phrases, experimenting a bit with tempo, but still not up to full speed.
16. Singing the piece: step 4: Do some technical work on the trickier sections you identified under 13. Always go slowly, in particular with your rhythms. Do rhythms first without the text, if possible if you know them, using the Kodaly rhythm syllables (http://www.kodaly.org.au/resources.php), gradually adding the words and melody. Work on each technical challenge separately and treat it as a special unit. It is best to do only one or two at a time before taking a break or doing something else.
(Note: Research suggests that 7-15 minutes is the ideal time for concentrated work on technical problems, and that this is as important to stop this type of work and change to something less technical as it is to start it in the first place!)
17. Singing the piece: step 5. High notes. Strongly resist the temptation to work on difficult sections featuring high notes by singing them over and over again to get them right! This is very bad for your voice and will do nothing to help you sing the note correctly. (Work with your teacher to learn how to approach high notes in a way that is good for you.) Successful high notes are about approach, and this always requires the relaxation of the vocal mechanism and fluid breathing, neither of which is present when you bang away at notes to ‘get them right’. If you can’t hit a note or part of the phrase easily, put it down the octave until you know the piece better. Your voice (and your audience!) will thank you!
18. Consolidation 1. Once you are feeling more confident with the parts of the piece from a vocal perspective, put the words in, again working phrase by phrase and keeping an eye on your map. I always work backwards for the same reason outlined above. Take great care to sound all the vowels and consonants – if you can’t clearly enunciate all the words, your jaw and/or tongue are tense and must be relaxed. (This can be as much about your attitude or emotional state as it is about your vocal position – yet another good reason to take regular breaks.) Consonants should come before the beat, with the vowel on the beat. Be clear about the difference between voiced and unvoiced consonants and be sure to spend enough time on all consonants so they can be clearly heard.
19. Consolidation 2. As you start to put the phrases together, always count in the full rests in any bar. Also, be sure to know exactly how long the accompaniment is in number of beats and learn this (wait it out, silently counting) as part of your phrasing.
20. Consolidation 3. Sing with someone else! Nothing can replace the experience of running your piece with other musicians, so do plan to run your piece with a good coach and/or pianist/harpsichord player so you get the feel of the wider sweep of the piece.
These are some of the things I do in my work to learn new pieces. Of course every singer will also want to add their own steps to create a unique method that works well for them. I hope these notes are helpful, and that they will save you some time as you learn your music, and make the process more efficient and enjoyable.