Some Essential Steps in Learning Vocal Music

Here is an article that I have prepared for my students at Westminster Choir College of Rider University. It is my attempt to offer specific steps for learning a new piece of music–including the choral repertoire that they sing in the one, two, or more choirs that they manage simultaneously, with a variety of conductors and tonal ideals.

I want my students to be able to sing in each situation with as free and consistent a vocal technique as possible, even though specific goals and demands are different. You will read elsewhere here in Kavbar’s Blog that ideal vocal technique allows a singer to make appropriate and different choices at any moment; it is therefore necessary to avoid any sense of locking, be it physical or otherwise. Commitment and consistency in approach, yes. Same-ness, no.

Although I contemplated creating an article or Studio Class activity to teach my students how to prepare their choral music, it struck me that “singing is singing.” This article is therefore applicable to solo repertoire, but it may be applied to the initial study of choral music (to be suitably prepared for the rehearsal), with some modification or omission. In this way, the student has a chance to begin to get the music “in his/her voice,” in a way that sectional rehearsals would not allow.

This approach may seem to some like overkill for an initial music-learning session, but “music is music” and we take very seriously the privilege of interpretation!

BEFORE GOING TO THE PRACTICE ROOM:

  1. Look at the score. Who is the composer? Who is the poet or what is the text source? What musical and/or interpretive indications have the composer or editor placed on the page? What is the musical form: strophic, through-composed, da capo (ABA), modification or hybrid of these forms? In what key(s) does the piece begin and end? Are there modulations? Is the piece transposed, or the text translated? How long is the piece? Where does musical and/or textual repetition occur?
  2. If you have no sense of the musical style or characteristics of the composer or repertoire from the historical period, do some reading–just enough to get a start. Ditto for the poet, libretto, etc. Is musical ornamentation allowed or expected?
  3. Listen to a recording or two, if available, score in hand. Make note of pitches, rhythms, or pronunciations that seem unexpected or very different than you anticipated. This listening is to lay the groundwork for your own exploration and learning; never learn your music by rote from any recording–not even the MIDI file that a modern composer may provide.
  4. Find or create a literal, word-by-word translation of the text into your native language. For example, www.ipasource.com, may help with your text work. Take time to consider and paraphrase that translation, then reduce it further into a sentence or two. In the case of a dramatic text from a larger work (opera, oratorio, possibly a song cycle), determine the context of this particular text. Who is your character, etc.? Remember the actor’s question, “Why am I saying what I’m saying the way I’m saying it?” Begin to personalize the text and determine how you may serve it well with your own expressive gifts.
  5. Find or create a transcription into the International Phonetic Alphabet, to the degree that you need it, for accuracy of pronunciation.

IN THE PRACTICE ROOM:

  1. Referencing any IPA symbols that you have penciled into your score (careful not to needlessly clutter the page), begin to speak the text with meaningful and fluid “stage” diction. It may be helpful to read the text from its literary source, so that you’re not overly influenced yet by the musical shapes. Even now, some meaning (images, feelings, attitudes, memories) should begin to partner the text in its printed language.
  2. With your eyes on the score, practice intoning the text with the general shapes and the rhythmic values of the music (merely approximate pitches). Remember that the “right” note at the wrong time is the “wrong” note. Even at this stage, developing a feel for rhythmic relationships and pace of the musical line will help to make pitches and melody clear to you.
  3. Review your earlier observations of keys, tempi, form, etc.
  4. Sitting at the piano, play your pitches in rhythm (slowly, if helpful), simply to find tonal relationships and begin to hear the melody more clearly. If your piano skills are not strong enough–you should practice piano six days a week, too!–find a friend to help. If you are learning choral music, perhaps a member of your section could do the keyboard work, and you could do the text work. You need to hear the harmonies that support or take place along with your line, and the piano is an excellent help. Always know the “pitch center” of the section or phrase. If you have strong Solfege skills, it may be good to omit this step, and go immediately to Step 10.
  5. Stand. If it is helpful, practice your vocal line on Solfege syllables, with correct rhythms. Gradually begin to sing in the indicated tempo. Next, practice singing with the “neutral” tone–essentially [oe], or a sustained schwa–not overly rounded, certainly not pulled back or down. Using an initial, voiced consonant like [l] or [d] may help, especially if pitches change quickly. [NB: Throughout Steps 9 and 10, vibrato should be free but slender, not manipulated. Do not forbid vibrato or insist on it, but avoid unnecessary weight. Different levels or qualities of vibrato may ultimately be found.]
  6. Finally, begin to practice with correct pitches, rhythms and text, based on your initial understanding of pronunciations. It is important to have guidance from your teacher, coach, or conductor for specific choices of vowel, how to articulate certain consonants, length of vowels, consonant emphasis, etc. In the voice studio, vowel articulation is an important part of learning technique, and you must be skilled enough to vary those articulations according to style, range, intensity, interpretive idea, etc. I teach that one does not merely “sing a vowel,” one sings tone. Vowel is that part of the tone that intersects with language. In choral singing, the conductor must often and of necessity be very specific with vowels–due to musical style, the timbre and “tonal personality” of that specific ensemble, certain exaggerations that are sometimes needed for clarity in a choral sound, personal preference, perhaps other factors. Each singer (with the help of the voice teacher/Senior Advisor) must build a vocal technique that is characterized by integrity, flexibility, power, and freedom. In this way, individuals can begin to find their full potential as singing artists. Not only this, but each singer can be a valued contributor to choirs, on- and off-campus.
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