Learning New Music: Practice Hacks that Will Pay You Back
Don’t let these summer months lull you into practice complacency. Here are some practice tools—for both in and out of the practice room—that will help you make your practice time truly effective.
By Christi Amonson
August is just around the corner, and that means back to school! With every new semester, there is new repertoire to learn. Before becoming overwhelmed with a stack of new songs, take time to strategize your learning methods. Learning to prioritize, plan, and ponder before you enter the practice room can improve your results and reduce the hours you might otherwise spend in frustration. A recommended strategy by most voice teachers is to familiarize yourself with the music before entering the practice room.
Singers today are spoiled with the ease with which they can hear a legendary recording of most any art song or aria—so enjoy your spoils as you learn. With YouTube, Naxos, iTunes, and other music streaming services, most song recordings can be found within seconds on your phone. Listening to a new song performed by an outstanding artist is a solid introduction to the style and hopefully a motivating experience to learn it well.
As most teachers will advise: do not dwell on any single recording. Listen to your song, then get to a practice room and learn the music independently. Karaoke YouTube sing-alongs do not count as practice.
Even if you are familiar with the composer of your new song, take time to refresh your knowledge with some good old-fashioned research. What year was the song/aria composed and in which part of the composer’s career? For example, Schubert’s song Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel) is not only a gorgeous and dramatic song, it is rich with historical context. There is an article titled “This song changed the course of music” by Kyle Smith (www.wrti.org) that quickly describes the way Schubert, at age 17, composed this masterpiece that helped establish German Lieder as a genre. Music history becomes more meaningful when you understand why any song or aria has withstood the test of time.
Identify the style of your new art song before you sing a note. If you have taken time to listen and read, then you should know if your song is Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Bel Canto, Impressionistic, Contemporary, etc. Studying classical music is a lifelong pursuit and your undergraduate lessons are introductions to many styles of music. The typical senior recital requires art songs from these periods in the romance languages to ensure singers grasp the foundations of historically relevant vocal music styles. Many careers are built on excellence at one or two of these styles, but every young voice student will benefit from singing art songs from each of the significant historical periods.
Text First, Music Second . . . or at Least Separately
Now it is time to take a trip down memory lane with yours truly: Christi Amonson. We are going back to graduate school at the Manhattan School of Music and our French diction teacher has handed us a Verlaine poem. “Which setting?” we ask, because we are eager and ready to siiiiiiiing. “Not today,” we are told sternly. “Learn ze poem. Everysing you need eez een ze book. Ze forbidden liasons will not be forgiven. You want ze music? Memorize ze poem and speak it perfectly first.”
So, that was the drill. Learn ze poem first, which consequently required looking up diction rules and reinforcing the study of the language. To disappoint the French diction teacher would be the ultimate humiliation. Once the printed music was offered, learning the song was much simpler because the memorization was already in progress.
Next, I will invite you to my studio. As a voice teacher of undergraduate music majors, my goal is to capture their interest in a melody or a style. So, when we select an art song, the student has the music they like. If the music is in a foreign language, I ask them to work on the text separately: IPA, practice speaking slowly, translating and putting the foreign text into their native language in order to make sense. I advise students to work on the music separately, as a vocalise, and when they can speak the text, the singer is ready to put the words and music together.
When you are in the practice room, your practice strategy—or lack thereof—will make the difference in learning music quickly and efficiently or repeating mistakes with mindless repetition. Performance psychologist Noa Kageyama started the blog “The Bulletproof Musician” to put practice and performance research into action for every musician willing to employ/try new techniques.
In her article “Research-Tested Practice Strategies That Will Help You Learn New Pieces Faster,” Kageyama outlines a study at Indiana University where two groups of students were offered different ways to practice an etude for 20 minutes a day. The students that were offered self-regulation strategies (concentration, goal-selection, planning, self-evaluation, and rest/reflective activity) made significant improvements in their practice.
The two strategies offered in the Indiana study that I found most helpful for singers in the practice room are goal-selection and self-evaluation. Your teacher can suggest practice goals, but ultimately, it will be you up on stage, so prioritizing and evaluating your own goals according to your learning style can make you a “bulletproof performer.” Kageyama wrote:
Goal-selection: Rather than simply diving in and getting stuck in the mindless loop of playing things over and over until they sound better, take a moment to (a) make a note of the key areas that need work and (b) create a plan for how you’re going to solve these issues before you even get started. And prioritize them in some meaningful order—like working on the more basic, foundational things first, then moving to more advanced, higher-level issues. Or even in terms of difficulty—from most to least difficult.
Self-evaluation: Rather than practicing until you can’t take it anymore, take a quick break every so often to take stock of your focus level during practice sessions, spending a moment to ask yourself whether you’re still practicing effectively or if you’re distracted and zoned out and should probably take an honest-to-goodness break to recharge . . . This could also mean checking in with yourself to do a self-evaluation of how effectively your current practice strategy is working—and moving onto a new section, or trying a different strategy if what you’re doing isn’t really getting you anywhere. (www.bulletproofmusician.com)
To Dream The Impossible Dream/ Two Hacks That Will Not Stack
The Think System
Harold Hill was charming in The Music Man, but his “think system” was a scam. If you think you can “think” about your music, you will not learn it. In short: don’t think, do.
The Last Minute
How many students have admitted they have not memorized a song or two the night before juries? You know the answer is roughly the number of students that did not pass their juries. Memorizing at the last minute is an unadvisable gamble. Prioritize learning your music early on and you will be polishing a fantastic performance at the last minute, not praying for a miracle.
- The action or power of focusing one’s attention or mental effort.
- A close gathering of people or things.
Our culture asks us to “concentrate” our entire lives, but we are rarely taught how to concentrate. There is an important correlation in the two senses of concentration’s definition that can teach us how: “focus” and “gather.” When you learn new music, you need to focus your attention in order to gather the information. In order to make sense of a new piece of music, you will need to fill your mind with elements of the composition: melody, accompaniment, text, diction, translation, interpretation and, of course, the technique to sing it well. How do you fill your mind? By removing the distractions of your everyday life for a short time, you will enable yourself to focus on the task at hand, one component at a time, until you have filled your mind with what you are practicing that day.
- Focus/ Remove Distractions
Music majors today experience more distractions than ever before. YouTube, Snapchat and all the alerts we get on our phones/watches about assignments or messages from a professor, your employer, your mother, or your romantic entanglements can take up hours of every day. Practice and learning music take the discipline to remove the distractions. This discipline can take years to master, but you don’t have that kind of time in college. You can start by turning your phone off and closing a door for 30 minutes. Multitasking is the norm in our overachieving society, but splitting focus lessens your awareness and ability to retain. Rather than continuing to multitask in the practice room, try sharpening your focus and your productivity will improve. So, turn that phone off for a while and allow yourself to experience practicing in the present moment.
“The present moment sounds so underrated, sounds so ordinary; and yet we spend so little time in the present moment that it is anything but ordinary.” (“Unwavering Focus,” Dandapani, TEDx Reno.)
- Gather/The Work
The work of learning music consists of gathering many components, studying them individually, and then making connections. The connections between text, melody, and the piano part, etc., are what will enable you to comprehend and ultimately memorize any given song. Your concentration, in the present moment, with focus, will lead to understanding the individual components and how they come together as a whole. The way you gather the music on your printed page and put it together in your mind and with your voice will become your interpretation.
What if you took away the goal of a perfect performance? What if you allowed yourself to look at a score and admit that there’s a lot of German to memorize or just notice some of the tempo markings? Removing the pressure of the end-goal can help you actually buckle down and learn the exact thing that will make your ultimate performance the best it can be. Crazy thought: when you plan and prepare and let go of stress that is beyond your control, you can “be” in the present moment and you will probably find that doing the work is actually the fun part of what we do. Learning to sing something new is probably the reason you chose to be a music major.
Consider this thought: “If we always think about the goal, about what we want to achieve, about where we want to go, about who we want to become, our focus is constantly on the future and not on the work that needs to be done now. So, removing the goal now and then is not as crazy as it sounds—well, scary at first. But that is how focus ends up on who we are and what we have instead of chasing after who we are not and what we do not have.” (“The art of focus—a crucial ability,” Christina Bengsston, TEDx Göteborg)
As a self-appointed Fairy Godmother of advice for young singers, I truly hope you don’t let the academic pressure chip away at your joy. The most fun we singers have is making great music. Plan accordingly, so you can gather many moments and do your work. The reward is a culmination of your preparation, practice, and performance.