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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.