Thursday, 24 July 2014

Learning a role

This article first appeared at

How do you perform at audition? Most of us will offer our audition pieces from memory. Of course, success at that audition will oblige us to committing a role to memory. If you know the music, it's easier to connect with the audience and makes for a better performance. If possible it's best to have learnt the music.
So, how do you learn your music? Well, we all have our own tricks (and we'd love to hear from you about your own ideas). For the time being, here are our ten top tips for learning a song, aria or role.
1. Start early
Whatever you do, when you know what you are going to be doing, start preparing it. This is particularly important for the freelance singer, whose most carefully prepared schedule can suddenly fill up just when you think you had the time to get the role learnt.
2. Do it at pitch
Of course, you will want to know what edition is being used, what the cuts are and whether your arias have any transpositions. An avoidable issue is preparing baroque music at the wrong pitch. Find out whether the performance will be at modern concert pitch (A=440Hz in the UK & Europe) or whether it is going to be at another pitch (the most widely used baroque pitch is A=415Hz). The difference may sound like a trifling semitone but will feel like a pothole if you've prepared it differently.
3.  Highlighter pen
If you like, use a highlighter pen to highlight the text underneath the music. Just highlight the words as they are all at the same linear level and will de facto underline the music (which will move all over the stave)
4. Attend to your sort of learning - visual, auditory, kinaesthetic
Do you imagine the score or the scene in your head as you perform? Are you immersed in the sound of the music and of your voice? Perhaps making your own (small) gestures helps not only to create the sound you want but to remind you of the contour and duration of the music? Be aware of how you learn and help yourself!
5. Read the text
... aloud. If you want to make sense of the role you need to make sense of the words. Separating out the words may also help to separate out difficult rhythms before adding the sung line back in.
6. Translate word for word
If you don't understand the text, make a word-for-word translation. It's not enough to understand the gist - knowing each individual word affects how you shape phrases.
7. Listen to the other roles
The other parts are important, not only so that you know your cues. Often the music in one role may be the same as in another, making it easier to learn. Even when there are small differences, those differences can help act as signposts.
6. Break it down
2 pages at a time is better than 10 pages at a time; 2 bars at a time is better than 10 bars at a time (etc.) It's also better to do four sessions with short breaks than everything in one long go - above all though, find what's best for you.
7. Use a metronome
This is a good way to structure your learning. Learning notes slowly is fine but singing them at a consistent pulse is essential, even if you know that the tempo is likely to change (i.e. it's not as big an issue as the pitch issue)
8. Repeat
Do it again and again. And again... thinking of different things to stop this from being boring is a creative & constructive way of investigating the role, though you do want to achieve consistency in the end.
9. Invest in a coach
Get a coaching session. You'll hear the piano part (reduction or actual accompaniment) played properly; you'll get a second set of ears hearing what you can't; you'll get the experience of working with a pianist, essential for taking a piece to audition; and if the coach is good then you'll get notes of pronunciation and even interpretation. It's a worthwhile investment.
10. Repeat...
... yes, ok. But you get the message!
Finally, remember - don't learn it until you get it right; learn it until you can't get it wrong!

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