Getting a new score is always so very exciting.
It's the perfect opportunity for the stationery lover in us all to thank our past self for the over-purchasing of highlighters and grey lead pencils...not to mention packet upon packet of Post-It tabs markers.
With my Turandot excerpts score in hand, for my tour of China with the Australian International Opera Company, I sat down to the task at hand. I always start with the obvious - highlight my own part...I chose orange highlighter. Each page turn of this Puccini score seems as though it brings a new time signature change.
Reminds me of my much loved Sweeney Todd score, particularly in the final scene when Todd waltzes Lovett into the oven with more time signature changes than is polite (for Lovett - 6/8, 5/8, 6/8, 3/8, 6/8, 4/8, 9/8; all teetering over piece of 6/4, 9/4, 9/8 joy for Todd and the orchestra...in the end, it was great to master, and a delight to sing).
Counting - so simple and yet, such a sticking point for so many singers. To help my brain not explode during the learning process, each time
signature and tempo indication gets its own green splash of colour.
...till I started to look closer.
The first big chorus from "T-dot", 'Gira la cote', has various themes which repeat - simple.
But, when they return, it's not in the manner, or order, you were expecting - not so simple.
And the line you have to sing might invert itself at one point - doable, but tricky.
Or your vocal line is harmony in one place, but melody in the other place - tests the memory.
There was only one thing for it - get out the coloured pencils. Go to town with identifying the passages which are similar and bring back the same motif idea. Use five different colours if needs be to see the forest for the trees. Label variations within the repeats, but know what comes from which family. This trusty method has been such a saving grace for me in the past, and will continue to be one I recommend.
Now, I can see what's what
After one day of working this way, I wasn't any closer to getting the music committed to memory.
It was time for a new approach.
More accurately, time to use an approach from another creative path in my life.
Time to 'chart' the piece. I used the colour coding from the opera score to build a chart in a spreadsheet. In one long line, I could see my sung lines against everyone else's lines. And to further aide my learning, I added in translation underneath. With the whole piece now laid out in front of me, I was on fire. The chorus went into my memory bank and has most certainly stayed there.
There are times when the memorisation of a new piece can feel utterly overwhelming. A bit scary, perhaps. At the times when good old rote learning won't be ideal, just remember that there are plenty of tricks you can use to help - everything from a bit of colouring in, to using of mnemonics (use the first letter of each line of the song to build a pattern/memory device), and lots of things in between.
And if your piece leaves you feeling like Puccini and Sondheim must be related (sneaky dudes with all their words and time changes), then give yourself all the time to learn the piece and learn it well. That way, you can enjoy the learning.