I was recently asked to learn a lot of music very fast. To be precise, over a dozen pieces in two rehearsals (the performance is in two weeks). Now, there are mitigating factors into this music’s difficulty. 1) It is all pretty homophonic (meaning all of the parts move at the same time) chamber music. 2) I can carry my music when I perform.
Some less helpful factors in learning the music: I am in 2 other performance groups with concerts within a week of each other and have an audition for my minor to prep for. I also have Thanksgiving to cook for and 2 major papers/presentations to finish preparing.
So here’s what I did:
The night I got asked to be in the group another member lent me his music binder. This was very helpful because I need music to learn. It was slightly less helpful because all of his notes and corrections were in the Tenor line.
NOTE: for most effective fast learning (coming late to a group) get markings from someone singing your part.
As I was waiting for an audition I sang through the music. Thankfully I had sung some of it before either with my family or my Women’s Choir Cantilena for A Christmas Carol sophomore year.
When learning music fast it is very important to have a feel for how lines move–that is why you sing through them.Also, I found another Alto in the performance group and I asked her to sing a few lines I was having trouble with. The key when asking this kind of question is to have a specific question which will not take more than about 30 seconds to answer and say thank you sincerely. I always find being polite, cheerful and enthusiastic gets me a lot farther than acting like a diva. Ok, correction, polite, cheerful, enthusiastic and firm. No fluffiness!
NOTE: assumed here is that you can sight read. This is not a huge assumption for one reason: before I came to CMU I would not have said I sight read well. But having been given half a dozen pieces at the beginning of the year to learn, I learned to sight read fast. Before Thursday night (when I was given the chamber music) I would not have said I could sight read without a piano. Turns out I could. It’s one of those things you do over and over again and you learn because you have to. It takes intense focus to sight-read–plan to focus on getting every interval and every rhythm right.
Knowing I could sight read well set the course for the rest of my study time. After my audition and doing homework, I spent 45 minutes reading through all of my music again right before I went to sleep. Practicing right before sleep is an effective way to memorize music fast–and the more you have memorized the better you can sight read. Knowing I would get less focused the later it got, I started with the hardest pieces–ie, the pieces which were not purely homophonic, were in another language or which the other Alto had commented were difficult.
The key is not to try and learn every piece of music by heart. I can’t in a short time and you probably shouldn’t be reading this if you can. Think about how a good high school musical director teaches music. She points out hard parts where sight-reading might mess you up and then lets you sight read the remainder. If you know what you can sight read, go over those parts once but focus on the harder phrases–come rehearsal, those will be the ones you will want to be solid in.
The rehearsal went a lot better than I expected. The way I had studied saved me from a lot of mistakes I could have made (ie, I knew where the hard page turns were, and which in pieces I really needed to listen to other people). There were only two other Altos but they were strong and helped me with pitches. Afterwards, I asked the same Alto I asked for note help the day before if I could copy all of the notations I missed from coming to the group late.
In terms of learning music, I made a point to listen to the tunes and figure out how the best way would be the learn the songs (for chamber music, playing the notes of the singers around me but not my note and singing my part). Since we are also singing a capella I paid attention to the starting note which we would be given so I could practice finding my own note only from that. Also, depending on the kind of music you are working with you may share notes and rhythms with other sections. Those are places you should identify. For example, if you sing the same notes as the Soprano for the introduction, make sure you’re actually doing that. Likewise, if you have a weird rhythm section, see if you can listen to other parts to keep on track.
The next morning I had to get up early to catch a bus, so I took my music with me. I hummed and tapped through the first three pieces, using what I now knew from my first rehearsal.
NOTE: when learning rhythm I have fallen in love with both Metronome Online and tapping out the beat on my sternum. Using a metronome forces greater accuracy–even on pieces where the conductor will take rhythmic liberties knowing exactly what rhythm you should be singing will allow you to orient yourself and catch up faster after a Tenudo. My conductor always taps out rhythms on his chest. I found that that keeps me exceptionally more focused than clapping or tapping on my knee–it helps me to feel the rhythm in my body.
Throughout the morning whenever I had some time to sit down. Then I took a break and spent the afternoon doing homework. That night, while working out on the exercycle, I sang through a few more pieces of music.
Today I have a logistical rehearsal–so much fun!
All in all, learning music fast is just like studying effectively: You Need To Know What You Know, and Know What You Don’t Know. Then focus on what you don’t know.
Anyhoo, if anyone has something to add I love comments!
Traitor spare that tree
Touch not a single bough
In youth it sheltered me
And I’ll protect it now.