A Plan To Help You Effectively Learn Music

Your voice teacher just sent you your repertoire list. Is there a better feeling? Who doesn’t love cracking open a new score? You are tempted to just start singing it or digging around YouTube for a million different versions to listen to. But what would happen if you don’t do that just yet? Try these following steps and see if you learn more effectively!

Step 1: Get a score

There are several places where you can procure a score.

1. If you are a student, you just can go to the library and check out the score. If the library does not have it, they will often order it for you.

2. There are online resources like IMSLP, which is free, but beware, some of the editions there are not the best ones and have many mistakes, or they not legible, or in a completely different language, so if you do download from IMSLP, always check your score with a good edition to make note of any mistakes or differences. However, in a pinch, it is a great resource.

3. If you can afford it, buy your score! Start building your musical library. By buying a score every once in a while, you will see how fast your library will grow and you will have it forever.

Step 2: Translate

So you have your score, the next step is to grab a pencil and your preferred dictionary, this can be an actual book or an online dictionary (When I say “dictionary” I don’t mean that you should find an online translation. There is a lot to be said for looking up each word. It is time-consuming but we tend to connect more to the text this way), and you start making your translation of the text. Remember, the tasks that you take the most time completing are usually the ones that are good for you, so try not to cut too many corners.

There are two types of translations:

  • Word-for-word translation or literal translation: this will be the one you will want to work with. This is a translation of a text done by translating each word separately, without looking at how the words are used together in a phrase or sentence. This way, you know the meaning of the word you are singing in real-time and not the general meaning of the text.
  • Poetic translation: This is a translation that is used to sing in another language other than the original language. It is grammatically accurate and it flows but beware, the words do not align with the words in the original text. For this, only the literal translation works. The translation that you find in opera scores (see below) are poetic translations made to fit the musical phrases.
  • Phonetic transcription: Made with the International Phonetic Alphabet it sifts out the letters which are not sounded and shows you exactly which sounds you need to be singing. You want to be adding both the literal translation and the phonetic transcription into your score, not in a separate document.

This is what your score would look like after doing this:

Step 3:

Once you know your translations, start speaking the text in rhythm. No need to be singing just yet, so resist the urge! When you are singing in foreign languages, it is important to remember that your mouth and tongue are not used to making all the sounds you are asking them to make. By practicing the text in rhythm, you will have a much easier time when you get to the part where you add the melody. You can learn the melody without text, but only when the text and rhythm are flowing should you put it all together. Tip: When speaking the text in rhythm, use your supported speaking voice.

Step 4:

It is time to put it all together, start by doing everything slowly, and don’t try to do too much too quickly. This is where you have to practice patience. It will be tempting to just start singing it. Try to refrain from doing this just yet. Take the difficult passages and work on them first. I often advise my singers to start something from the end and work backward because this will feel like you are working faster. We all tend to start practicing at the beginning of a piece when we open the first page, but what often happens is that we end our practice session before we get to the end.

Try to alternate starting points:

  • Day 1 start at the end of the piece
  • Day 2: start at the beginning
  • Day 3: Start in the middle

This way when you get to the parts you know, it feels like you are learning quite quickly.

Step 5:

Bring it to your voice lesson to work on it technically. You have done all the nitty-gritty work of learning the nuts and bolts of the piece in question, now it is time to get your technique involved. Take it to your voice teacher first and they will go through the piece with you and help you with how to technically work on the problem areas, breath management, and vowel placement. As the weeks go on, keep bringing it back to your voice teacher to add more layers to the work you are doing, colors, phrasing, and interpretation.

Step 6:

Try it with piano by bringing it to your coach. They will also work on the musical phrasing, the diction, the tempo and help you figure out where to breathe as well as discussing the intention of the text and the music. The coach will also help fix any rhythmical problems with which you may be struggling.

Step 7:

Maybe now that you have made your own opinion of the piece you are preparing, you can start listening to different versions of it on recording to get inspiration, to see how others interpret the music. I had not mentioned listening to it first, because it is more likely to be your own if you don’t have a preconceived idea of what the piece should sound like. The words that make me a bit concerned in a coaching session are: “…but on the recording…” It is not uncommon for young singers to come into the studio making the same errors that they have heard so many times on their favorite recording of the piece. If it is not an error, it can be just an interpretive choice of an established, much older artist that the younger singer is just not ready to do yet.

Step 8:

You are ready to memorize. Everyone has different methods of doing this. To some, memorization comes easy, for to others, and effort. Find the way that works best for you.

  1. Memorize the text: You can do this by writing it down without looking. Make it a daily exercise. I also recommend memorizing the spoken text without the music, or the rhythm, work on it as a monologue
  2. Rote repetition: Take a phrase and do it until you can repeat it perfectly three times in a row. If you make a mistake at the end of the third time through, start again for the first time.
  3. Repeat out of context: When you feel that the memorization is working, try to recite the text, or sing the song while doing another task like washing dishes, or making dinner.
  4. Bring it to your coach: Take it to your coaching and close the score. It is a safe place to try. Ask your coach to prompt you when needed, or just to stop if you go blank and let you remember the forgotten word or phrase.

Step 9:

You are ready to perform the piece or bring it to your first staging rehearsal to receive even more information. You have worked all of it out, you know your words, your diction, and the character of the selection. If you have done all of these steps you have done everything you can do to have a solid performance.

Step 10:

Be proud of your accomplishment, even if you have a memory slip, or you make a mistake. These things happen and are forgivable. Your journey is a long one, so try not to focus on the few things that went wrong and look at all the many things that did go right!

You may be thinking that this is a lot to go through to learn an aria, a song, or a role, but in truth, shouldn’t everything you want to do at the highest level possible take this much time? Why rush it? Learning something very well will save you a lot of re-learning in the future. Keep in mind that some steps won’t be as time-consuming as you think, and once you get used to this process, it will go by quicker than you think and the music you learn will stick! The deliberate process always yields the best results.

Stay afloat

Our lives have been turned upsidedown and as we continue trying to find our way through this extraordinary time of social distancing, mask-wearing, and disinfecting, we are faced with some very stressful situations. At this point, it is fair to say that we have all experienced the sting of canceled performances and the stress that accompanies these cancellations. We are dealing with a new way of doing things online, which for artists is the complete opposite of what we normally do. The normal feeling which we once knew seems so far away as we are not capable of being completely submerged in what we are passionate about anymore. We are living for morsels of our art that we get to taste only now and then.

How do we fit into this new shift in the landscape? What are the emotional consequences of the changes in our lives and our careers?

Everyone copes differently and we are all trying to cope in the best way that we can in these unprecedented times. While it is true that we can’t control what is happening around us, or to our lives at the moment, what we can control is how we react to it.

We all have feelings

Anxiety:

I think this is the most common phrase I hear these days: “I feel anxious about the future”. Anxiety lives in the unknown or the uncertainty of what is happening, or what will happen. It seems like we have normalized anxiety, especially in these times. We live with it as part of our daily lives. Studying a new score for an upcoming contract is usually a joyful undertaking, but the anxiety of not knowing if the performances will happen, or how they will happen affects our motivation, our efficiency, and even our artistry.

Depression:

When anxiety gets worse, our mind goes to the worst-case scenarios. This is the way our mind tries to protect us from what will happen. If we expect it, we won’t have the element of shock. Expecting the worst in these times is also something we have grown accustomed to. When anxiety grows, it can lead you into a depressed state.

Panic:

When we start to panic, we can make rash decisions, or just freeze and not know which way to turn. Saying there is no reason to panic is also not helpful since for many performers out there trying to pay their rent and their livelyhood is slipping away while all the contracts get canceled is a reason to feel panicked. We are always waiting for the other shoe to drop! This panic risks becoming a lack of motivation due to a lack of goals and it is not our fault. More importantly, it can harm our overall health.

These feelings, to whatever degree, are normal. If you are feeling them, I am here to tell you that you are not alone. What can we do about it? As a vocal coach, I have to give advice all the time. If a singer is in this state, it is close to impossible to produce sound or to get through music so I find myself often just listening to problems and offering some points to consider. As I write this post, I am also reminding myself that it is OK to feel this way. Focusing on the things we can control can help us figure out how to navigate in this time. We can’t control a global pandemic, or the impact it is having on our daily lives and careers, but we can control how we choose to react to it.

  • Avoid the negative: Ok, this is easier said than done in these times because everyone, even the people who seem like they are coping well, is feeling the negative effects of this pandemic. Try to avoid taking the small problems and magnifying them because we are already just dealing with a lot, and that’s a fact! You can avoid the negative by being more discerning about what you choose to read, how much news you watch, and spending time with people you want to spend time with and who make you happy. These simple choices can help you change your outlook. If something makes you happy, DO IT! Many of my friends decided to just decorate their homes for the holidays on November 1st…if it makes you happy, DO IT!
  • Social media: I know it has been said before, but social media can affect us negatively even in good times, but in these times, it can be especially difficult to scroll through our favorite sites. Yes, we can find a community to share our common woes with, but our community should extend offline as well. Otherwise, it can take-over your outlook, and then we can find ourselves drowning in negativity. When you are scrolling, we try not to beat ourselves up if we see that some people are getting to perform and we are not. Everyone is just posting their highlight reels. Let’s celebrate that they are having a good moment. Our highlight reel will be up and running again soon!
  • Everyone is working on a solution: No matter what our situation is, if we are a working artist or a student, remember that nobody wanted this situation and everyone is doing their best to manage it. The word unprecedented is used a lot because this is a completely new situation. Once you understand that noone is doing this to you and that there are people who are desperately trying to keep things going while trying to keep everyone safe, we may find more rest for ourselves and not feel like we are alone in this.
  • Set a personal schedule and goals for yourself: Making plans and taking steps towards our career goals can be helpful to maintain hope. Everyone has the right at this moment to have some time which is not productive, and I fully encourage you to permit yourself to give your productivity a break from time to time. A bit of planning, making a practice schedule, setting our own goals and deadlines can help us feel more “normal”. I suggest that setting smaller goals that are achievable like tweaking your online presence, learning new skills, learning new repertoire or delving deeper into another language. I took a Dutch course over the course of the summer. I am fluent, but I wanted to understand more about writing in Dutch. The class was challenging and it was great to get out of my bubble fore a while twice a week.
  • Be resilient: We are open to new challenges when they come along. New ventures and a new way of doing things can be very refreshing and envigorating. Try replacing: “I don’t want to be online” or “It is not possible to do what I do online” with “Okay, let’s be creative and give it a try” or ” I want to be flexible”. You never know, you may just be opening a door to new worlds. For instance, I never thought I would or could coach online, but since I have embraced being flexible in this, I am doing a lot of online coaching from my home in The Netherlands with singers in North America and beyond. With an open spirit and some willingness to be flexible, you can always do good work, and it can be fun!
  • Breathe: Finally. I would say, just breathe, this is situation is hard and nobody is saying that it isn’t. We are all in the storm together, even if we are not all in the same boat. Breathing, taking a time-out from the difficult feelings, and the sadness of missing something that seems to be lost is so important. Whatever that means to each of us, we should remember to breathe as often as we can.

Making music and being an artist is a big part of who we are. Making music together is the fulfillment we get by connecting with others and creating a moment together through the wonderful feeling of that energy which flows between us, the performers and the audience.

I keep telling myself: “This is temporary” and I believe it is, I have to. There will be some serious ramifications caused by this pandemic, but on the other hand, I think we are also learning a lot about what possibilities we can discover when we are forced to think outside the box. The energy we long to share is still there, we just need to search for new ways to share it!

I saw this quote a few weeks back: “We are in the same storm, but not the in the same boat” I did some research to find out where the quote came from and it lead me to this poem written in the pandemic by Damien Barr. The poetry speaks of being kind to each other and to ourselves, respecting that every person is dealing with things we don’t even know about, empathy and seeing beyond what we see at first glance. It spoke to me, and I hope it speaks to whoever is reading this post. Damian Barr: We are in the same storm, but not in the same boat

Featured image:

Thoughts on the French “R” in Classical Singing

The French r may be one of the most discussed sounds in the French language. It is also one of the most challenging sounds for a non-native French speaker to produce authentically. There are many ways to go about singing the French r.

Let’s look at the three most commonly used r-sounds in singing French repertoire:

  • The “rolled r“: The “rolled r” is also known by its more technical name “alveolar trill”. This is the r we are most familiar with, we use it in all other languages. It is voiced which means you should be able to sustain a sound while rolling the r. The phonetic symbol for this sound is [r]
  • The “flipped r: The “flipped r” is also known as an “alveolar tap or flap”. Very similar to the “rolled r” the flip requires just one brief flick of the tongue to the alveolar ridge. Think of saying the letter d [d]. The phonetic symbols for this vowel sound are [ɾ] or [r], but the latter is the most commonly used.
  • The “uvular r”: Also known as the “uvular trill” is the r commonly used in the French spoken language, but also singing. The uvular r is articulated with the back of the tongue (what is known technically as the dorsum) to the uvula (the hangy thing in the back). The difference between the rolled/flipped r and the uvular r is that it is the uvula that vibrates, not the tongue. The phonetic symbol for this sound is [ʀ].

So now that we have listed the three most commonly used r-sounds in French singing, which ones should be used?

Although the “rolled r has quite frequently been used in the singing of classical French repertoire, and it feels good to do it (sometimes it may feel expressive to roll an r), my advice is to avoid using it. Whenever I hear someone over-rolling an r in French music be it mélodie or opera, it ends up sounding very close to Italian. Also, any double consonant (except for a few words) should not be observed, so even if you see a double r, you do not need to roll it.

In the following clip, Chanson d’Orkenise from Banalités by Poulenc, Pierre Bernac, who was and still is an authority on singing in French, makes use of the “rolled r” (or one could argue that it is a repeated flipped r). It is still beautiful, but it has a flavor of the past mostly due to the r which is very rolled. This is a good example of how they were singing in French in this period.

Chanson d’Orkenise (Bernac/Poulenc)

The “flipped ris my personal favorite to use in classical French music. This r is a lot like its rolled counterpart. If you use it while speaking, it feels very strange and foreign but it sounds very comfortable while singing. It does not misplace the voice and it does not disturb the legato line. It is the r most commonly used in French opera and mélodie. In this recording , you hear an excellent use of the “flipped r” used by Véronique Gens.

Chanson d’Orkenise Gens/Vignoles

There are a lot of discussions about the use of the “uvular r in classical singing. While speaking French, we all use this r but should we use it when we are singing classical music? In France, Belgium and I believe in the French-speaking regions of Canada, the “uvular r” is recommended for singing in French. From a singing perspective, the argument arises that this places the sound too far back in the throat and that a “flipped r” keeps the sound more forward. In my opinion, the use of the “uvular r” gives a “pop music” feeling to the music. The discussions surrounding which r we should be using are ongoing. My advice is if you are not a native French speaker, do not use the “uvular r” because the chances are you will not make a convincingly authentic “uvular r” sound while singing.

Story time...

I once had a student who was not French, bring in a French aria he had studied all week. Before singing it, he said: “I don’t know why, but every time I sing this aria, I have a sore throat”. Alarmed, I wanted to hear it to see if he was doing anything wrong. It should be noted that this aria was very r heavy. Well, as soon as he started singing, I heard it immediately, he was using his version of the “uvular r”, but it was much too hard and aggressive, we switched to the “flipped r” and everything was solved. We had a good laugh about it afterward!

In this third recording of Chanson d’Orkenise by Poulenc, Patricia Petitbon opts for the “uvular r“. She does it with subtelty and she is gentle with the attack but you can hear that it is in the back of the throat.

Chanson d’Orkenise Petitbon/Manoff

My strong advice (and many of my voice teacher colleagues agree) is to use the “flipped r”. Whatever you decide to use, make sure it does not compromise the quality of your singing. Practice now and then with a “uvular r” in case you go off and work with someone who will have this as a preference, and it is requested of you to use it. Work it out with your French coach and your voice teacher to help you to do it healthily and authentically.