New Music Learning : Strategies for Success

Gelsey Bell performing “Death Comes Quick” from thingsNY’s production of This Takes Place Close By, Knockdown Center, NY, 2015

Learning new music from living composers can be daunting to singers unfamiliar with the process. Read on to gain strategies for successfully collaborating with composers and approaching newly composed works.

 

You’re learning some new music. Maybe you’re premiering a work on a collegiate recital or creating a role in a new opera. Perhaps you’ve commissioned a composer you admire or are collaborating with a theatre company or artist collective on the creation of a new work. Maybe you’re curious about exploring new vocal styles and repertoire, but aren’t sure where to begin. In all of these scenarios, you are engaging with the work of a living composer, and you might be the first singer to work on the piece.

While that process shares many attributes with how we are trained to prepare Western classical music, there are some important ways in which it differs significantly, and not just because it was written more recently. The musical languages and styles that fall under the purview of today’s classically trained singer are more diverse than ever before. A wide range of musical modalities, including those of non-Western traditions, have intersected with Western classical music. 

As a result, a singer working on a new piece in the 21st century may be asked for “nontraditional” (i.e., other than Western classical) vocalism and extended techniques, improvisation or aleatory, movement and interaction with technology, and engagement with complex or novel forms of notation. If we can imagine it, it may appear in a piece of music—an exciting and energizing concept, and one that provokes further questions regarding how to properly prepare these works for performance.

I have always had a strong interest in working with composers, which I first cultivated in my studies. These early experiences allowed me to feel at ease with experimentation and with the collaborative process—and led to a career that includes new music in a variety of contexts, both in workshop and for performance. In this article, I will cover some of the common features and challenges of preparing new music as I have experienced them and with the training I have had, also drawing on the perspectives of some of my colleagues. I will outline some learning strategies that use our training as Western classical singers, as well as our creativity and musical instincts as 21st century artists, to set us up for success.

Megan Ihnen performs for the Ear Taxi Festival 2021

A note on perspective: I trained in the bel canto tradition, like many who attend conservatories and university programs in what we commonly term “classical” singing. New concert and opera music can, and does, include styles and practices beyond the canonical works covered in our training. For the sake of limiting the scope of this article, however, I will assume a premise of notated music intended for concert performance or staged opera, though those contexts can include elements outside the conventional understanding of, and training in, Western classical singing. 

  1. What’s out there in the world of new music, and what can be expected and prepared for when approaching this repertoire?

One of our most basic challenges is the comparative lack of context that we may be accustomed to. Operatic roles and songs from the 20th century and earlier have a long performance history, recording tradition, and accepted performance practice which we may rely on when learning the music and forming our interpretations. New music is a blank slate, something I initially found terrifying and paralyzing. How will I begin?

The essential process for learning what’s on the page doesn’t differ, however, no matter what the page contains. Trust your training and your musical instincts as effective tools and build a method for your practice sessions that allows you to learn the music accurately while still affording you the space to explore your creative impulses. 

Danielle Buomaiuto

This may take more time for more complex music or characterizations, and that’s all right! Learning how far in advance you’d like to have the score is also part of this process, and learning to work with more compressed preparation time will come with experience.

Megan Ihnen, mezzo-soprano and frequent commissioner and performer of new music, advises maintaining a “robust system for learning pitches and rhythms” that you can trust to structure your learning process and help you avoid needless frustration. “Things like unfamiliar intervals and rhythmic motives [are what my] students get hung up on,” she explains. 

Ihnen employs a methodical, step-by-step approach in her own musical preparation as well as in her voice studio. Breaking the piece into sections, she first addresses passages that will prove the most challenging, learning pitches and rhythms independently of each other before combining them—and then adding text, harmonic context, and characterization only after the musical building blocks feel internalized. She employs strategies like clapping or tapping the beat, count singing, and fixed-do solfege to fully internalize a thorny vocal line.

Gelsey Bell, an accomplished composer-performer, outlines an intuitive method for approaching complex passages. “Don’t be afraid to play and sing through it slowly before bringing it up to tempo,” she says. “Find how it sits and dances in your body… find a groove for it, even if that’s not how it functions in the piece. It will take some translating, but that little dance or groove you found with the hard section will help when you go back to the real thing.” 

Bell also advocates for silent practice: “I have spent hundreds of productive hours singing through music in my head while sitting on the subway with the score. Not all practicing needs to be done at full volume in the exact circumstances of the performance.”

Don’t be afraid to use the tools at your disposal in the learning process, especially with music that contains unfamiliar material. Is it a highly complex chamber piece? Perhaps a colleague would play a few of the instrumental lines with you. Never worked with graphic notation? A friend might be willing to explore it with you in the practice room. Maybe the composer is available for clarification of tricky elements in the score. Technology can also be helpful: recording yourself or working with a metronome or tuner are helpful diagnostics.  

“New music,” as has been noted, can encompass pop and jazz styles, electronic music, text and graphic scores, improvisation and aleatory, as well as more conventional opera and art song styles. “Understanding the aesthetic and historical context, the musical genre and idioms, and the musical priorities of the piece,” says Bell, helps you decide what vocal approach and style might suit it best. Listening and research thus forms part of your musical preparation.

Megan Ihnen

  1. You’ve learned the piece, and it’s time to workshop or premiere it. What should you expect?  

A workshop might be private or public. The music and text might change during the workshop, or as a result of it. And if the workshop is part of a longer process—for example, in developing an opera—you could be taking part in one iteration of the piece, which will undergo evolution before it is performed again. 

In all cases, bring your best work, without getting too attached to one version of your part, as it may change even over the course of a single rehearsal. A workshop is everyone’s opportunity to experience the piece as it will be heard, so even if it is private, prepare as if it were a premiere performance. 

Remember that your particular artistry and interpretation is helping to form the piece—you are a peer in the process. If you are invited to give feedback, provide constructive commentary that speaks to your experience of learning and performing your part. Some aspects of this could include the following:

  • Notation: Is it easy to understand what the composer wants from the page? Are notes beamed in a way that makes sense to you as you read?
  • Text setting: Is it easy to make the text understood the way it’s set? Can you share ideas to make that easier?
  • Interpretation: Is what you got from the notation what the composer intended, musically and dramatically? If not, what can you try next?

Ihnen explains, “Interacting with composers who don’t know how to communicate what they desire, through notation or verbally, can often be a translation process.” She shares an example: “Can you sound more like Joni Mitchell?” “Sure! What aspect of her? Are you looking for a color change, more breathiness, less vibrato, more rubato?” Offering your specific vocabulary as an expert in your instrument can be an invaluable part of the creation process.

L-R Dave Ruder, Gelsey Bell, Paul Pinto, and Jeffrey Young, from thingNY, performing “Hack It” in Paul Pinto’s production of Thomas Pain in Violence during the Ecstatic Music Festival, NY, 2015

Remember that your musical instinct and expertise as a singer make you an active participant. You are a collaborator, and your relationship with the composer or conductor can allow for fruitful, mutually respectful dialogue about your experience and interpretation. This may even be the case in a premiere: one of the most rewarding aspects of working with living composers is that the work may still be in process, even as it is being prepared for presentation.

You trained long and hard to develop your musical instinct, and just because a piece does not have a performance practice does not mean you are without tools or authority to develop your interpretation. I have cultivated a balance between confidence and conviction in my musical instinct, as well as openness and humility to approach the score without the need to be 100% right. There may be a process of “figuring it out,” as Ihnen notes: “My responsibility is to engage in a process of figuring it out to the best of my ability—informed by my education, training, and the research and communication I do regarding the composer and work.”

Danielle Buonaiuto as Julie in New Camerata Opera’s production of Julie (an operatic film), 2020

It can be daunting or frightening to imagine originating an interpretation when we are used to operating in dialogue with a well established canonical context. For me, this is the most liberating aspect of this work. It is where I play, experiment, and bring myself fully to the music, regardless of any limiting expectations of a narrow musical tradition. 

“Trust and love your unique voice!” exhorts Bell. “Finding a beautiful sound is not about sounding like someone else but discovering where your comfort and control lie.” Working with new music, from preparation to performance, is an empowering and freeing pursuit that can only strengthen you as a musician, artist, and 21st century citizen.

 

Megan Ihnen is a professional mezzo-soprano on a mission to change the world through the commissioning, performance, and proliferation of new music. She is excited about understanding music business, arts administration, audience development, and creative placemaking. Visit www.meganihnen.com.

Gelsey Bell is a composer-performer. She is a core member of thingNY and Varispeed Collective and is finishing an opera called mɔːnɪŋ commissioned by the HERE Arts Center. Bell is on faculty at the College of Performing Arts at the New School, has a PhD from New York University in Performance Studies, has published multiple articles about the voice, and is an associate editor for the Journal of Interdisciplinary Voice Studies and a contributing editor for TDR: The Drama Review. Visit www.gelseybell.com.

Danielle Buonaiuto

Danielle Buonaiuto’s work is driven by community, compassion, and access. She is a cofounder of ChamberQUEER, a teaching artist with the Met Guild, and a PhD candidate at CUNY Graduate Center. An impassioned performer and advocate of new music, Buonaiuto can be seen on stages all over NYC from the Met to a porch in Ditmas Park, and as one half of the cello/soprano project Duo Calisto. Her album Marfa Songs is out on Starkland. Visit www.daniellebuonaiuto.com.