Learning Your Music

[From the April/May 2000 newsletter]

Many of you probably go about learning your music the same way I have for most of my life – through constant repetition. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I would like to address the topic of learning and memorizing your music so that we can work toward a more polished performance.

First of all, there is a lot you can do without having to open your mouth. You can practice on a bus, on the treadmill, in the car, during lunch – silent study is often the best way to cement a piece into your brain. Perhaps you are studying your text, that you have written down onto an index card (along with the word-for-word translation directly under it); perhaps you are listening to another singer singing the piece on your iPod or watching YouTube for a different interpretation; perhaps you’re listening to your last lesson on your iPod (for those of you who don’t record your lessons – hint, hint!).

Another effective method, frequently used in language study, is to work on something right before you go to bed so that your subconscious mind will continue to work on it while you sleep (“Oh, great, so I can dream about ‘Ici bas.’ Just what I always wanted.”) I am a big believer in index cards, and have been known to tape them to my bathroom mirror so that I can work on memorizing something while I blow-dry my hair. [Obviously written before I took up air-drying.]

Experts agree that isolating the text and its rhythm from the music is the best way to approach learning music. You should be able to speak your words in rhythm at a tempo a little faster than you need to go (kind of like warming up higher than you’ll actually be singing). This is especially helpful when you are singing in a foreign language.

After you have learned the text and its rhythm, add the melody. This is one of the reasons that we frequently sing the melody through on a nonsense syllable – so that you won’t be thrown by the words. Get the melody “into your voice” and the words solid, and the union of the two should be much easier to accomplish.

The last thing to add is the accompaniment. Know what your pianist is doing underneath your vocal line and between your entrances. This eliminated the tendency to stand there looking vacant and unsure as to your next entrance. (Frequent singer joke: How do you know that there’s a singer at your door? You don’t – she can’t find the key and doesn’t know when to come in!)

In Shirlee Emmons’ and Alma Thomas’ book Power Performance for Singers: Transcending Performance Barriers, it states, “Rehearse the meaning of the information regularly. Don’t just read or sing; do it with understanding and meaning. This way you will remember it better, while, at the same time, you are working on other skills as well.” (I really, really recommend this book, especially if you are contemplating any kind of performance as part of your life, whether as a professional or just for fun.)

Those of you have been with me for awhile have improved your performance skills tremendously. There is still work to be done and I look forward to developing a deeper understanding of the elements involved in a truly communicative performance!

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