Recitative: How to Learn and Polish

Some time ago, I wrote up a brief guide to learning and polishing recitative. I thought I'd share it, in hopes that your students find it helpful! I've also shared the PDF at the end of the blog post. Enjoy!

How to learn and polish secco (dry) recitative


You’ll notice that this method starts with the words, and doesn’t add notes or rhythms until quite late in the process. This is very much on purpose! Note: you’ll often hear recitative sung very fast on recordings. Don’t worry about speed--work this plan, and speed will come in time.

1. Read through the translation in English to get a sense of what’s happening. If you have a side-by-side translation, fine, but for now the printed translation will suffice.

2. Speak through (don’t sing or pay any attention to the rhythms) your text in the language in which it’s written.

3. Cross out any rests that don’t make sense. They are a musical convenience only (to make the bar work in 4/4), and should be eliminated. [By convention, virtually all secco recitative is written in 4/4, and without key signature].

4. Underline or put a box around the most important stressed syllable in each line. If your languages aren’t very developed, have your teacher and coach help with this.

5. Now practice speaking again, thinking about what you’re saying, and aiming for the stressed syllables.

6. Now learn the notes on a neutral syllable, like [du] or [la].

7. Now add the notes + words, still letting the stressed syllables shape your phrases.

8. It’s important to know what harmony is underneath you--most of the chords in Mozart recit will be in 1st inversion. Go through your score and write in what harmony is playing each time it changes. Your music will be mostly diatonic (do, mi, or sol) plus some passing tones.

9. Play the chord on the piano as you sing your lines. Now you will feel how your line moves within the harmony.



--Whether to observe rests or not will ultimately be the conductor’s decision. Practice being convincing both with and without rests until you know the conductor’s desires.

--The last gesture of the recit must “dock” with the aria/ensemble that follows--the energy of the recit needs to adjust to the energy of the aria/ensemble that follows.

--Recitatives usually present a change in the character’s circumstance--they learn a new piece of information, or they become more upset or more peaceful--regardless, the character is usually in a different state of being at the end then at the beginning--there’s a journey.


Here's the PDF of this guide.