Personally, when I first began taking lessons, I had no idea how to go about learning music. This made singing and performing very stressful. I now have a technique for learning music that has made singing much more fun. The advice offered here is not meant to be exhaustive. It does not include techniques such as coloratura learning techniques, or diction learning techniques, but I do hope that it may serve to be a starting point for learning how to learn.
Preparation for Learning Music
Some questions to think over before you begin working on your new song:
- Do you like the song?
- What is the theme of the song? How does the composer handle this?
- Who is singing it? Is the character someone you could perform credibly?
- Do you have the technical abilities to sing this piece? Can you learn those abilities in time to perform it?
- If applicable, does your accompanist have the technical abilities to play this piece?
- How much time do you have? Decide if it is reasonable to learn your piece in certain amounts of time. For example, I had to learn “Eilt! Ihr angefochnen Seelen” from Bach’s St. John Passion. It took me months of work to feel confident on it. If I only had a week to learn it, then that would have not worked.
- Translate the piece if it is in a foreign language. It is really best to know what you are saying while you are learning the piece.
I believe a hierarchical approach is appropriate for most cases. A singer’s part as a whole is a large number of smaller pieces that can and should be broken down into smaller more easily digestible chunks. From there, each chunk should be approached individually and then added to one another in a methodical way.
The first step is to break the piece apart into small sections. Oftentimes, the period between two breaths will suffice, though you may want to work larger sections. Begin with the spots that will give you the most trouble such as patter or coloratura sections or other rhythmically challenging or diction-ally challenging parts. If the melody is difficult because of technical limitations, then save that until after the rhythm, words, and notes are learned. This should be discussed with your teacher when first coaching your song.
Second, work each section according to a hierarchy. My hierarchy goes like this, which is similar to that found in The Art of the Song Recital by Shirlee Emmons and Stanly Sonntag:
I read somewhere a long time ago that there are only 12 notes to play but there are infinite rhythms. I like this idea because losing one’s pitch center for a moment cannot usually stop a performance in its tracks, but losing one’s rhythm certainly can. So, the singer should, without melody or words, chant the rhythm to a metronome on some nonsense syllable (‘la’ ‘da’ ‘bi’ or something like that). Each word syllable should get its own nonsense syllable. The singer should begin slowly and work up to above concert tempo. At concert tempo, breaths should be decided, written into the score, and should be practiced in time.
The words should be practiced on their own first so that any diction difficulties are dealt with before ever being applied to music.
- Words and rhythm
Now, with a metronome, the singer chants the words in time and observes breath signs and other musical notation. Again, the singer should begin slowly and work his/her way up beyond concert tempo.
The melody is then isolated outside of time and learned. It should not be sung in any dramatic sense. Instead just get the notes into your ear well enough that you can reproduce them.
- Melody and rhythm
The melody and rhythm are sung on nonsense syllables first slowly then quicker and quicker.
- Melody, rhythm and words
Now all the pieces are put together slowly at first, then working towards a higher tempo.
(Note: Some people suggest different hierarchies (such as working on the words first), and that is just fine by me. I believe that rhythm should go first because it is usually the hardest part of a piece. However, if a piece has a different set of challenges, then you might want to rearrange how you approach it.)
My personal criteria for deciding whether or not I have a section learned well is if I can successfully sing it in rhythm with good diction and pitch center without my accompanist. Only then do I feel very comfortable working with my accompanist on a song.
Be patient with yourself because this process is foolproof if you actually follow it. You will save time because you will not learn bad habits in the process of learning your music. You will also feel much more comfortable singing in front of people by learning your songs so accurately.