Learning how to learn

When we're starting out as singers, we don't know what we don't know. We might be perfectly willing to practice, but what are the elements of practicing? The Checklist I share below is nothing revolutionary--I certainly didn't make up any of its elements--but, it contains all or most of the fundamental steps to learning vocal music. 

By the way, this Checklist seeks to not only help you learn THIS song, but to grow your musicianship skills in the bigger sense as well. Things like count-singing, playing piano, etc. are designed for this double purpose.

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#1: A few handy websites for side-by-side translations are www.lieder.net for art songs and www.aria-database.com for opera arias. The library also has many books that have translations. Be neat when writing in your translation—don’t make a mess of your score.

#2: Write the context information for your piece on a piece of paper and put it in your notebook with your score. Know where the piece comes in the story of the opera/song cycle/oratorio/musical. Answer the following questions: composer name, composer nationality, composer dates, composer era, poet name, poet nationality, poet dates.

#3: Make sure that you know what every word in your score means, including expressive markings, tempo markings, articulation markings, etc. This includes markings in the piano part.

#4: Check-marks/commas are not specific enough. Decide on the rhythmic value of each breath, and alter your score to account for them. Also, drawing in phrase marks helps your eye to see phrases rather than individual notes.

#5: Be sure to keep counting through rests—this is where most singers zone out and lose track of where they are. Sub-dividing needs to become second nature.

#6: Play your melody in tempo: this won’t necessarily be up to speed, depending on your piano skills. If you’re a good pianist, play bass line as well. And play as musically as you can--this will build a tactile sense of what your melody "feels" like, and reinforce musicality and expressivity.

#7: Work on your pitch memory by checking to make sure that you’re staying in tune while singing unaccompanied.

#8: As your language skills increase, you may only need to write in a few reminders. Write in what you need, but have the IPA transcription handy. If you’re not yet able to make your own transcription, try www.ipasource.com or books of transcriptions.

#9: If the song is in a foreign language, monologue the English translation first. Then, once you know the poem, monologue the language. Don’t just read the poem: monologue it convincingly: you’re a singing actor.

#10: Speak-singing trains you to sing legato—it is a marvelous technique builder! It will also train you to budget breath.

#11: Now it’s time to put it all together!

#12: Memorize fully, long before you have to perform your piece under pressure. Practice performing the piece (not just singing through it) in front of a mirror or better yet a video camera. Fix whatever you see that is unclear, over-done, extraneous, or tension-filled. Be sure you’re independent enough to sing it with accompaniment—use recordings or tape a pianist playing your accompaniment to sing along. Don’t let a rehearsal, lesson, or performance be the first time you’ve ever heard or sung along with the accompaniment.

P.S. A major hat tip to Pamela Bathurst at the University of Idaho, who created a list like this for Freshman Vocal Seminar, and whose list formed the basis for the above.

Kyle Ferrill teaches voice and vocal pedagogy at the University of Memphis, SongFest, and the Interlochen Arts Camp and performs around the country, primarily in art song and oratorio.