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Living Room OperaHow to learn music

Sure - you can listen to the record, or watch the video. That will give you an overview of the piece. It'll give you a feeling for the mood, the style, the tempo, the way the vocal lines fit into the accompaniment, and everything that's happening in the accompaniment and in other voices when you aren't singing. (As a singing actor, you need to know all of this!) It'll tell you a lot about how these particular singers, this orchestra, and this conductor have chosen to interpret the music and the characterization - it's not a bad way to start off.

But you're at the mercy of the artists you're listening to. If they have cut anything, or added anything, or chosen a quirky interpretation, or mispronounced a word - well, you've lost your link to the composer and librettist, who presumably knew what they were doing when they wrote the piece you're trying to learn.

And you're missing out on a chance to really get the music into your voice, so that it's easy to sing.

As a singer, you are an interpretive artist. That means that you have the right to interpret what the composer has written - but it also means that you have to know precisely what was written!

So buckle down and look at that piece of paper with black squiggles on it. Take a deep breath. It's not as scary as you think. You can break the project down into do-able bits (you don't necessarily have to do all these things in this order, but do try to do them all), and you'll gain a lot from the process. (Need to talk with somebody about this?)

1) Sing the pitches on a neutral vowel

Just the pitches - we haven't gotten to putting together the pitches and the rhythms yet. Don't worry yet about emotion or characterization or style. And, yes - out loud. (Not softly or timidly!) You're giving your lungs a chance to figure out how to take the breath they need to get through a phrase, and you're finding out how much space you need in your resonance chambers to make it through the range of a phrase. (Add all the other things your voice teacher has been telling you about vocal production, and stir.) And you're getting used to the notes without getting confused by the words or rhythms. Get used to the idea that your body learns things at a different rate from your brain. Give your body a chance to learn this, and it will teach your mind a thing or two!

1a) Sing the pitches on the real vowels

This one is hard - but it's very rewarding. You still aren't thinking about the words or the rhythms. You're thinking about things like, "That phrase looks hard on the page, and from the way the French" (or German, or whatever) "is written, it looks like I have to sing three different hard-to-pronounce vowels on all those 32nd notes - but it turns out that all I really have to deal with is different spellings of the vowel "Ah" - This is easier than I thought!"

Again - do this out loud, so that your body gets used to attaching the vowels to the pitches.

2) Speak the words in rhythm

Yes, out loud. Ignore the pitches this time through. For now, you can even ignore the meaning of the words! You are teaching the muscles of your body how the rhythm works, and teaching your mouth how to make the sounds, elongating the vowels to produce a good singing tone, while spitting out good crisp short consonants. (If you don't know how to pronounce this language, ask for help!) Accept the fact that your mouth is not as clever as your mind is. Be patient with your muscles, and give them lots of time to get used to making those sounds. They will reward you: They will come to know the rhythms and the pronunciation much better than your mind can, and will respond automatically while your mind is occupied with other things - things like, "In rehearsal this prop always worked, so why is it falling apart on me now in front of an audience?" Or, more immediately, "There are three pitches attached to this word - which syllable falls on which pitch?"

3) Sing the real vowels with the consonants added

That is, vowels and consonants - but not necessarily the right pitches, or even the right rhythms, yet. You don't even have to think about them as words yet. You can sing the whole thing on one pitch. You're teaching your mouth that it doesn't have to work nearly as hard as your brain thinks it has to, in order to sing those words.

4) Sing the pitches in rhythm

Yes - it's finally starting to sound like music. You can do this first on a neutral vowel, or a hum. (Your teacher can give you other ideas.) Now, can you sing the pitches in rhythm using the real vowels? Can you add the consonants? Can you pat the top of your head while rubbing your belly? This is a physical skill - it's part of the reason that singing really is an athletic activity. Do it! - it will make everything else easier.

5) Sing the real words, on the real pitches, in rhythm

Never thought you'd get this far, did you? - You're singing the song! Now you can start on your interpretation of the music and the words.

Pronunciation/translation help: A really good trick for learning to pronounce words in a foreign language is to familiarize yourself with the International Phonetic Alphabet, and use it to notate and learn to pronounce your text. It's another step, but worth doing:

  • Write out all the words, leaving three blank lines below each line of text
  • Fill the first line under the text with an IPA transcription of your text
  • Fill the next line with a word-by-word translation of your text, so that you really understand each word you're singing
  • Next, write out a translation that's freer, more idiomatic and more expressive.

Somebody to talk to about singing: Do you need a human being to discuss all this with? If you don't currently have a voice teacher, or have never had a lesson but want to be in the workshop, Workshop Stage Director Marion Leeds Carroll, who teaches singing, is available for inexpensive lessons. If you're really broke, she's willing to give joint lessons to two to four workshop members at a time, who can share her $35/hr fee. E-mail her at marion@leedscarroll.com for more information.

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About Living Room Opera | The Living Room Opera Staff | Tell Us About Yourself
Learning Your Music | Directions to the Performance | Last Year's Performance

© March 2000 Marion Leeds Carroll 
     was last modified 02/16/02