Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Musings on Preparation

I've spent the past month making the initial preparations of the music for this recital and have reached the point where I'm ready to start putting things together with a pianist. In fact, I'll have my first rehearsal with the wonderful Carol Zinavage on August 5.  We'll have about seven weeks (probably 7-14 hours) to put everything together before I have to travel out of town for another engagement.  When I return, we'll have four days (probably 2 hours) before the performance to brush up the work of August and September.  That might not sound like a lot of time, but in this business where operas can be rehearsed and performed in the span of two weeks, it's plenty.  (To highlight the luxury of time, I will have even less time with my other pianist, Tyson Deaton.  We will probably have 4-6 hours of rehearsal together before we give our first performance in February.  Because of that, we've been in constant communication on the music, discussing what we've learned from our solo practicing.  I'll have the advantage of having already performed the music when we have our first rehearsal, which will lighten the burden of our rehearsals.)

With that, I thought I would take a moment and share some thoughts on preparation and the music so far.

Each singer has a different process for learning music. The ideal approach championed by most is to look at the text first and familiarize yourself with it, learning the ins and outs before you put it to the music. After you've mastered the text, you're ready to learn the music. Some learn the music sans text, first singing through a piece on "la" or some nonsense syllable.  Once they have the notes firmly lodged in their brains and throats, they add the words. Sometimes adding the words comes when the pianist is added into the mix; sometimes the notes are learned with the pianist behind the piano...much to the chagrin of the pianist.

My approach is a little different. I do like to familiarize myself with the text first, but when I'm singing in English, I don't always do this. This time, because of this blog, and because of the research I did prior to setting a program, I already had some degree of familiarity with the texts. So, when I was ready to sit down with the music, I went ahead and worked both the text and music almost simultaneously.

Sitting down at the piano to start learning a piece is probably my favorite moment as a musician.  There's hope, possibility, and a sense of uncovering a treasure for the first time.  My piano skills aren't great, but they are good enough to play my line and to get a feel for the accompaniment.  I've always found that if a melodic line is firmly in my fingers, it's firmly in my brain and easier for me to sing.  So, I sit down and play through the music lightly humming along so as not to reinforce any wrong notes that I probably will play in the beginning.  After my line is played into my fingers, I add the voice to put it all together.  This starts with me "marking" or half-singing so that I don't waste voice while I'm working the words into the music.  When I feel comfortable that the synapses are adequate, I add more voice.  A standard practice session at this stage can last anywhere from an hour-and-a-half to three hours where I'll hammer out maybe three songs, depending on their length and difficulty.

The most difficult pieces on this program to learn have without question been the Thomas pieces.  They're vocally difficult, musically difficult as well as rhythmically difficult.  The intervals are not what you would expect and he uses a lot of meters that I'm not used to seeing or counting (6/4, 7/4, 9/4, 10/4, 3/2, etc.).  The question of tempos and whether to feel the "big beats" (in 6/4: feeling the two big beats) or the small beats (in 6/4: the six quarter notes) was a big one to answer and one that me and the pianists will have to ultimately decide together.  These pieces are a big sing.  Every piece is, in every sense, an operatic aria demanding different styles of singing (loud, soft, high, low, legato, declamatory).  It's tricky because you have to pace yourself so that you're able to still sing the vocally challenging passages in the other pieces, both in the set and the rest of the program.  As a whole, these pieces call on every tool I have available as a singer and musician; as a result, they will end up being the center-piece of the program.  I'll talk more about this when I discuss the pieces individually in another post.

So, how do I know I'm ready to merge my work with the pianist?  For me, it's when I'm comfortable with the notes and have a feel of the line of the piece, how its parts make up the whole.  I know I'm comfortable with the notes when I can step away from the piano and sing them correctly a cappella.  I'll check in with the keyboard every-once-in-a-while to make sure I'm staying true to the intervals, etc.  When that goes well, I know I'm ready for the next step.  At this point, some memorization is also starting to happen.  It's another clue that it's time to put it all together: when you find yourself singing (correctly) snippets of the songs at random points throughout the day.

I think a singer must be secure in their music when going into rehearsals with the pianist.  It's at this stage that the knowledge of the song will take on a new depth as you learn another artist's perspective on the piece.  Without at least a basic familiarity with the piece going in, it's very easy to be overwhelmed, which raises the danger of running into the inability to do anything more than a surface interpretation of a song.

One other thing I'm thinking about at this stage of prep, is, of course, interpretation.  Do my interpretations agree with the composers'?  If not, am I able to reconcile the two, or do I have to set my thoughts aside and go more with what the composer wants?  So far, I've been able to reconcile some of the differences.  I'll expand on those differences in the individual song posts, but I have been happy to find that the differences have not been great ones.

Preparing for a recital is a huge undertaking.  This program has twenty-four individual songs on it which have to be learned and memorized.  They have to be mastered so that I can communicate the pieces without any barriers between me and the audience.  The regular theatrical aides of communication aren't available to me in the recital setting.  As we all know, there are no sets, no costumes, no make-up and no lighting.  I have to rely on the music and the colors my pianist and I are able to bring out of that music.  Watching two people on a stage with none of the finery of an opera production sounds like a boring evening.  But, if the performers are in complete command of their music, the audience can sit back and be led on the journey mapped out by the performers.

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