How does one begin the process of taking a song from an unknown new piece of music to a fully memorized and expressive personal statement? Often, one opens a book, heads to the keyboard, and begins plunking out the notes of the melody bit by bit, singing through short musical and textual phrases in much the same way as one might pick their way along an unfamiliar, rocky path. As a young singer this was my standard method of music learning. Along the way I added translations and IPA for any foreign language songs, but I always began with the notes.
This was until my first opera apprenticeship. The company director looked at the chorus of apprentices during one of the staging rehearsals—most of us armed with index cards for the words we had not yet been able to commit to memory—and shouted, “You all learn your music backwards! It shouldstart with the libretto!” The libretto—the words—and not the notes were his suggested
Backwards is the new forwards. Not only do I approach any songs that I will perform from memory in this way, I encourage this method of learning among all of my private students. As singers, we have to communicate a text in addition to singing beautiful, musical gestures. Using the text as the starting point creates deep, multi-layered memorization.
The first step is to isolate the text. Before going any further, memorize the text of your song completely—including repetitions of words or phrases as they have been set by the composer. For foreign language pieces, this will include the translation and phonetic pronunciation. Speak the text, write it out, record it and listen to your own playback—whatever method enables you to remember each detail. A valuable time of day for memory work is that time just before we go to sleep. Let the poetry you will be singing be the last thing you focus on before you sleep. When you wake in the morning, see how easily you can recall the poem or text.
Next, look at the rhythmic structure of the piece. Often the rhythm of the music will be an outgrowth of the rhythm of the naturally spoken text. Learn to speak the text in rhythm. Notice where the strong beats help emphasize the stressed syllable in a given word, or the climactic word within a phrase. And then, how can you make the text stresses work in the places where the rhythm does not provide this underlying support? When speaking the text rhythmically, use a sing-song approach that allows you to incorporate elements of articulation and dynamics.
With these two steps you have built a solid foundation for the next layer—the music. Students often remark how easily they are able to marry tune and text—even when the melodies are wide-ranging or full of leaps. The more difficult the melodic material, the greater the benefit of already having the text and rhythm memorized. Finally, with all of the information you have accumulated, interpret the piece and allow the diligence of your preparation to blossom into full artistic expression!