Role preparation & How I know I'm ready
I was lucky enough to get to talk to the Missouri State University Chorale about a career as a professional singer. I was in town for a Mozart Requiem and they were our fabulous choir! (A gig in 2021?? I know....)
I started with the last semester of grad school. We talked about the hustle of the first year out of school. We talked about the 5 Professional P's (that blog here.). They asked so many great questions! However, there is one that I wish I was able to answer more in depth. One girl asked, "How do you know you're prepared for a gig?" I never thought about the specifics. I've put a lot of thought into how to prepare for a role, but never put words to how I know that I'm ready. So, here it is: A comprehensive guide for how I prepare roles and how I know when I'm ready.
This will be in three parts: Score Prep, Learning, and Memorizing.
Highlight your part! This will give you a general overview of your role and your responsibility throughout the show. I'm a highlighting fiend. I utilize different colors so that everything pops out to me. I use yellow for my lines, green for dynamics, pink for musical notations, orange for time signatures, and blue for tempo changes (If there are a lot of them). Then, I tab the score to my heart's content. Depending on how the show is set up, I'll tab it by Acts/Aria/Scene number or Acts/Entrances. This will always and forever be one of my favorite parts of learning a role. You can never over tab a score in my opinion. This saves you time in coaching and rehearsal.
Translate EVERYTHING. Even if you're not in the scene. I use blue pen for the translation. I also go through any unfamiliar words and write out IPA and write out diction reminders for open and closed vowels in red. Then, I underline all doubled consonants and phrasal doublings. Even though I have been dealing with the Italian language for about 10 years now, I will somehow put them in weird spots if I don't do this.
Listen to a recording of the show along with your score. This is to get a sense of the musical texture and tempos. I think it's important to understand the orchestration underneath you. I do this a maximum of 3 times (if it's tricky/unfamiliar) and I don't listen to the same recording twice at this step.
Write out all of your text in a notebook or separate sheet of paper. Include all punctuation, accents, and repeats. Your future self will thank you later for when you are memorizing, but for now, this step is for speaking through your text without the chains of rhythm. I personally only write out my lines unless it's recitative. In that case, I write out everyone's line like a play. Regardless, I count how lines I have for each scene. How much am I talking and how much am I listening? Again, this helps me understand the level of responsibility I have in each scene.
NOW you get to sing. Well, sort of. If there is anything I have learned in the past decade, it's that you shouldn't just sing through everything. Sometimes I sight sing, but I'm usually in a car or airplane for those sessions. I plunk out the scene on the piano and get my brain around the melody before I sing it. I take it one scene at a time, and I like to go in order during this phase.
Speak through the rhythm without the notes. You can speak it with or without the text, whatever you're ready for. If the rhythms are particularly tricky, I write out the counts. There are some shows where I have the counts written out on every measure...
As you go through this part of the process, you'll find the parts that still make you stumble. Write down what you're missing for those sections (rhythm or notes?) and dedicate a practice session to it. There are plenty of times where I am exclusively working on rhythm for an entire session. Looking at you, Adamo.
I am a certified chart maker. I like to make a chart with each scene listed out. Then, I make checkboxes for Notes, Rhythm, Notes & Rhythm together, A capella, and With Recording. As I go through the learning process, I try to work away from needing the piano. I use the recording to work through timing in busy scenes so I know what it will generally sound like with everyone else around me. This works well for ensembles and recit. But remember, don't listen to the same recording every time!
Last for the learning stage, I conduct myself through the score. I only started doing this a few years ago, but it has become one of my most important tools for learning a role. I can physically move through the timing. I'm also finding that it helps me have an idea of what I'm going to see from the conductor. THIS IS GREAT FOR IF YOU GET LOST. You know exactly where to hop back on because you've done the counting work. I also highly recommend this for new works that don't have a recording yet. This step helps me transition to the memorizing stage.
Coloratura: If you have sections of coloratura, I work on those as early as possible so that it feels easy in my voice.
Ornamentation: I personally don't like to ornament until I understand who the character is and the rest of their music. We don't repeat to emphasize, we repeat to say something else with it. However, I still play with options as I learn.
Recit & Patter: I get really tripped up with patter, so I also spend extra time speaking through this kind of text.
*THIS IS WHERE I BEGIN COACHING. I don't show up to coachings with half-learned music. I want to be informed to the best of my ability, therefore, getting the most out of my coachings. You pay good money for those! It only took one scary coaching in grad school for Marcellina in Le nozze di Figaro to learn the level of preparation I actually needed. Obviously, there will be areas where you trip up. Unless you can fully accompany yourself, you do have to put it together with piano at some point. To save money, I usually employ a piano friend to help me just sing through it.
*Also, I decided not to include Interpretation in this because this blog is long enough. (Maybe I'll do a separate blog on that subject.) But I will say that it's important to understand all of your subtext and have opinions on what your character is saying and doing. This process takes place through the entire journey and is never really over. Even after you've played a character 3-4 times, you are still learning so much from them. For a quick tip on this: For every line, every rest, every scene, ask yourself "What does it mean?" and "What does it mean to me?"
At this point, I can comfortably move through the score without doubt for entrances, notes, rhythms, etc. I know where my notes are coming from within the musical texture. Now I'm ready to be off-book.
This is where your handy dandy notebook come into play. As I said earlier, I usually only write my lines. This is so I know my level of speaking in a scene. For example, Mrs. Grose in The Turn of the Screw, I only have 3 lines in Act 1.8 "At Night." However, in Act 1.5 "The Window," I have 9 lines including her aria "Quint, Peter Quint." I automatically know where I'll be spending my memorizing time.
Does this mean I don't pay attention to what others are saying around me? Absolutely not! I do it this way so I can test myself for what the others around me are saying around me. Where do I fit into the dialogue? But if it's recitative, I need to write it out like a play.
My favorite memorization techniques:
1. Memorize it backwards: Start from the last line or last few words and add more on to the line. I'll even memorize the counts during the rests and make that a part of the process.
2. Make a recording of yourself singing through a scene: Occasionally, I will make a recording of myself and listen to it on my way to work or long drives. This is super helpful if you are an auditory learner! Hearing yourself sing it will help you not develop the habits of other singers.
3. Change it up. . At this point, I change things up. I sing the show out of order. I sing through it really fast to see where those hesitations are. I sing through it really slow. I sing it in different positions and areas of my house.
4. Sing along. Sing along with different recordings. You'll get a wide variety of tempos and color choices, but also a glimpse of the end result. Doing this and the Change it up technique help me be prepared for any tempo when rehearsals come around.
5. Do other activities while you test yourself. Multi-task. Clean your space, do your dishes, vacuum, play solitaire, solve a puzzle, or even stage the scene. Anything to distract while you are singing. After all, you are going to be doing and learning other things while you are singing when you're in rehearsal. Try to mirror that process.
6. Also, I'm still conducting myself through the entire memorization process.
Now, for the question:
How do I know I'm prepared for a gig?
When I can wash my dishes and sing through a scene
correctly and comfortably with no hesitation.
I know if my mind can be on something else and I can still comfortably get through the scene, then I'm ready to go. I also know that my muscle memory will kick in for when I get nervous and forget my first line. There are a million things going through your head during a performance and rehearsals. I feel most comfortable when the music isn't my biggest worry.
Photo by Brent Calis
Did I miss anything? What is your process? Let me know below!