• Sabrina Zimmerman

My Practice Diary - How I learn a Song


Welcome to today's practice diary entry!

Today is going to be all about song learning, more specifically my process for learning an aria or art song (which may be different than how other singers do it). I'm also going to share my old process vs. my new, current process so you can see how very different they are.

Ye Old Process

When I was just a young singer in college (way back when in the '90s), I didn't get to pick my own repertoire, so my song-learning method was basically 5 steps:

  1. Find the sheet music of the aria I was given (if my teacher didn't already make me a copy)

  2. Listen to a recording of the piece (my favorite soprano at the time was Kathleen Battle)

  3. Plunk out my notes and sing (my teacher would have already helped me with the language pronunciation). Do this until I had my part memorized.

  4. Sing with an accompaniment recording and then work with a live accompanist

  5. Perform

At the time I suppose this was sufficient as I always had my music learned and performed it adequately. It wasn't until this past year that I was shown a much more efficient (though longer) method of learning repertoire. Now, I can't imagine not doing it this way!

The New Process

So, before I list the steps, I just want to say that I don't always follow every single step every single time. Sometimes, I still get impatient (ok most times) and I jump to the note-playing or singing parts a bit ahead of schedule. But I really am trying to force myself to get in the habit of doing all the steps all of the time.

I generally get to choose my own repertoire, so I'm going to share that process with you. Though it is pretty much the same if my voice teacher suggests a piece too with a few slight differences.

  1. Find an aria or art song I want to sing. First, I decide what style, language, and composer I want to learn, and then I will go through my music library and look through my books for what I want. I look at both the vocal line and the accompaniment to see what jumps out at me and then I may select two or three pieces to check out. We'll say for this post that I want to sing an Italian Bel Canto aria and composers I'm looking at Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti.

  2. Find recordings of the arias by sopranos with voices similar to mine (weight, timbre, etc). Listening to a recording helps me to better gauge if the piece truly resonates with me - if it moves me if I can envision myself performing it.

  3. I like to scan or print out a copy of the aria so I can write out the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) and translation (and not ruin my music books).

  4. Work on writing out the IPA above the vocal line. I have a love/hate relationship with this part. It's important because this is where you break down the language into its pronunciation, which is obviously helpful, but it's also a pain because of all the various rules each language has that you need to be aware of and utilize when writing out the IPA.

  5. Look up the translation. I first find the "poetic" translation, which I will write under the vocal line. Then I write out a word-for-word translation to get a better sense of what I am actually "saying". Lastly, I will write out another translation in my own way of speaking. Doing this helps me to really get into the character and get just the right emotions - it makes it more personal or customized if you will.

  6. Speak the text. First, I go through it slowly, getting the words in my mouth. Then I will speak it with the punctuation to have it make more sense linguistically, then I will speak through it again, this time adding the appropriate emotion. Usually, this step happens with my voice teacher, during one of our coaching sessions.

  7. Learn the notes and rhythm. I start out by just playing my parts and not doing any singing. I want to get those notes in my ear first.

  8. Sing the notes on a vowel. I can't stress how much this step alone has helped me to learn my notes faster and easier - because I'm not focusing on the text, just the notes, and my technique. Such a game-changer!

  9. Do a character study. Who are they, and why are they singing this aria/art song? Who are they singing to or about? What is the purpose or motivation behind the song and what is their emotional/mental state? Knowing the whos, whats, and whys of the piece and character helps to bring the story to life. This is the one aspect that has been missing from my performances and one that I am fully committed to focusing on now.

  10. Sing through with the text. Once the language and notes, and character history are learned, I sing through with the text. Sometimes it may be a bit slow going at first as I get comfortable adding everything together, but it usually doesn't take too long. Do this as many times as needed to feel good before adding the accompaniment.

  11. Start putting it together with an accompaniment. I personally prefer to have a live accompanist with me, because then I can set the tempo, I can work with them on when I need to take breaths or when I am taking liberties, etc. But lately, I have had to rely on pre-recorded accompaniments, which means I have to follow it and make sure my counting is spot on! Because counting is not something I am good at - I generally "feel" the beats or listen for clues in the accompaniment to know when to come in, I have to practice probably more than most before I feel ready to perform. I've gotten a lot better over the last two years especially, but I still get more nervous than I do with a live pianist.

  12. Once I feel comfortable with the song, then I am ready to perform! :-)

I may be forgetting some things, but this basically the gist of how I learn my repertoire. Like I mentioned at the beginning of the post, sometimes I do skip a step or two, but I honestly do try and follow this as much as possible because I know it will make me a better performer. :-)

What is your process for learning a song? Do you do any of these same steps or do you have another process? For non-singers - is there anything I mentioned that you'd like to learn more about? Leave me a comment - I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Until next time,

Sing on,

Brie xo

#music #singing #practice

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