From Page to Stage: A Logical Guide to Learning Vocal Repertoire

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

The main characteristic distinguishing vocal music from instrumental music, is the text. Of course, singers can abandon words for ‘ooohhh’ and ‘aaaah’ and use extended techniques to create sound effects, but so can instrumentalists. Fundamentally, the ability to interpret words and bring an explicit story to life is what makes vocal music unique.

Performing during my high school’s annual Music Festival at Hamer Hall in 2013.

During my vocal studies at Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, I found the process of learning repertoire overwhelming. There were so many elements: learning the melody, refining the rhythms and phrasing, coordinating with the accompaniment, memorising the text, interpreting the text, and finally, creating a performance. Oh, and remembering to breathe…

Over the past two years I have distanced myself from rigorous vocal training, as part of a self-run campaign to find out what I am capable of when I am not constantly dedicating myself to singing. Because of that distance, I have begun to think over the process of learning music with a cooler head. It occurred to me that you could create a methodical rubric for learning repertoire, and separate many of the individual elements into their own category. (Sexy, I know).

Singers often have to learn multiple pieces at once, whether they’re memorising nine art songs simultaneously for their undergraduate recital (true story, unfortunately), or preparing a handful of auditions. It is all too easy to lose track of exactly where you have gotten up to with a particular song. This method will save you time, as you can start every practice session with a clear head, secure in the knowledge that you are charting your progress. As you conquer a particular phase of learning for each piece, you can tick the box or write accompanying notes.

Performing Giulio Caccini’s ‘Ave Maria’ as part of a vocal trio in 2012. (Part of the same Music Festival)

The template below can be used in Excel or Word or whichever medium you prefer. Feel free to adjust the steps to reflect your own process.

The breakdown in detail:

Step 1. Literal translation

It has been shown that writing things down by hand helps to solidify the information in your brain. I think it’s essential to use this technique, and copy down a literal translation of each of your songs, word-for-word. It requires going into a tedious amount of detail which will pay off in the future. Perhaps you can get extra nerdy and use a blue pen for the original text, and a black pen for the English translation. Oh, and copy the whole thing down three times. Exciting stuff!

Step 2. Poetic translation

Just as it’s important to understand the exact words in the phrases of your song (the word ‘the’ is not as dramatically potent as the word ‘murder’), it’s also good to know how far the narrative progresses with each sentence. And if you repeat the same line of poetry twice, how will you set them apart vocally? So for good measure, copy down the poetic translation a few times too.

Step 3. Background research

We’ve all been there- you’re watching a masterclass at uni, a singer gets up on stage, and falls for the most basic ‘gotcha!’ question- ‘So what is this song about?’ Or, ‘Why did the composer set music to this particular text?’. ‘Uh… I don’t know.’

Don’t be that person. There’s always a story. Even if it’s as simple as, the composer really loved the poetry of a particular writer, and had an obsession with the idea of the afterlife and the symbolic nature of crows…

Step 4. Note learning

Well duh! Learn the notes!

Step 5. Fine tuning phrasing

Well duh! Don’t just learn the notes! Phrase them musically!

Speaking seriously though, this phase also includes working out how and where you’re going to breathe and identifying the most challenging phrases.

Step 6. Acting and Interpretation

Once you are no longer dependent on sheet music, you can experiment with your acting. Discuss with your teacher, workshop different approaches…

Step 7. Practicing performing

Make yourself nervous on purpose. See how you cope.

If you enlist your friends to come visit your practice room, and force yourself to perform entire songs for them without stopping, it will force you to confront all of the holes in your progress. Brutal, but necessary before the real performances!

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