Music consists of various elements – rhythm, pitches, dynamics, changing tempo, text – any one of which can prove tricky, challenging or downright daunting. And once you’re combining two or more challenging elements, the challenge seems to increase exponentially.
One of the most common errors we make in learning our new music, particularly singers learning vocal music with text, is the all-too-often vain attempt to grasp all these elements at once.
Learn It Right the First Time! For most of us at least, this all-at-once approach is bound to divide our concentration in this highly crucial first exposure to the music, and we end up learning something the wrong way. Remember: once something is learned incorrectly, it is much harder to unlearn the mistake than to learn the thing right in the first place!
Start With the Most Challenging Element. Maybe there are tricky rhythms. Learn just the rhythms completely and thoroughly without the pitches or text, and in a slow, steady manageable tempo to begin with.
Subdivide. For intricate rhythmic passages, find the smallest note duration value and sub-divide the entire passage into this value. If, for example, it’s the 16th note, sub-divide all the rhythmic values into a continual 16th-note pulse, and practice the rhythm under the feeling of this pulse.
Tempo, Tempo. Once you’ve learned the rhythms, this is a great time to start practicing in the indicated tempo of the piece, especially if such tempo is fast enough to present a challenge. No matter what tempo you are practicing in, slow, fast or in between, make sure it is a steady tempo, true to the context of the rhythm. A rhythm out of tempo is never really correct.
Here’s the Pitch. Now go to the next most challenging thing – most likely, it’s the pitches. Learn these at first without the rhythms. Master those tricky intervals perfectly before combining them with any other element.
There are a variety of approaches for getting a handle on difficult intervals:
Wide Leaps – Try shifting the second pitch down or up an octave so that, for example, a 7th or 9th becomes a 2nd, or a 6th becomes a 3rd, etc. Learn it this easy way before re-introducing the original octave context.
Tritone (Augmented 4th or Diminished 5th) – try inserting one or more helper tones in between to make this devilish interval easier to grasp. I like to think of this interval in one of two ways: 1) as two consecutive minor thirds; or 2) as three consecutive whole steps).
Trust Your Eyes. For less difficult intervals, let the visual movement of the printed notes on the staff be your guide – that’s what they’re there for! If you allow yourself to go by these movements from space to line, space to space, etc. you probably can’t go far wrong. But make sure it’s right! Use a keyboard to play the pitches, and listen to the correct pitches and intervals three or four times before singing the pitches. Listen, then sing. Make sure to learn them correctly the first time.
Know Whereof You Speak. Things get all the more tricky with a foreign language text. We in VocalEssence have just finished our 2014 run of holiday concerts, where fully half the program was Scandinavian music in Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Finnish. For most of us, these languages were entirely unfamiliar, and it was especially necessary to learn the language text on its own before applying it to music.
Learn the text as a separate element first. Get the diction down. (Speaking the text aloud is very important because it ensures that you will train the muscles needed to pronounce it. Mental knowledge is only half the story when it comes to pronouncing tricky words. Once you’ve achieved perfect working pronunciation, practice the text in rhythm, without pitches.
Put It Together and What Have You Got? Finally, add those pitches to the rhythms. And once you’ve practiced this once or twice, begin paying attention to dynamics, phrasing and articulations. If possible, begin incorporating these as soon as you have combined pitch with rhythm, so that they are hard-wired into your performance.
Breaking down the elements of new music in this way, whether individually or as a group, will not only ensure accuracy to what’s written, it will save a lot of rehearsal time in the long run. It will also promote a sense of security – and more freedom for creative musicality – in performance. Join Email List