7 Steps to Learning All That Music

SheetMusicWhat do “Mister Sandman,” “Jai Ho,” “The Girl from Ipanema,” and “Defying Gravity” have in common?

I’m singing all of them on the cruise ship.  And they’d better be memorized by next week, along with a whole bunch of other material.

Not all theatrical/singing jobs are like this, I suppose, but it makes sense that with 5 full-length shows and a handful of smaller shows, you are required to show up totally memorized to learn choreography and blocking. How else can you get all that done in three weeks??

I’ve had quite a few people ask what kinds of shows these are.  Each cruise ship has their own take on entertainment (Norwegian Cruise Line does full Broadway pop/rock shows, for example), and Princess’s approach is the forty-five minute revue-style show.

What’s a revue? Not something you see very often these days, admittedly!  In the early days of theatre, most Broadway shows were actually revues, spun out of the vaudeville variety show days that preceded them.  They took popular songs and strung them together with lots of dance numbers, sometimes with a very thin plot, other times eschewing the idea of structure altogether. The most famous, of course, were the Ziegfield Follies shows, which often featured a few singers doing huge production numbers surrounded by dancers/gorgeous women in elaborate costumes.  However, motion pictures soon took over the consumer base that had been the revue’s staple audience, and Broadway changed its approach to a more story-specific genre – thus birthing the more recognizable version of “musical theatre.”  (The “End of Broadway?” is not a new headline – even though they’ve always been wrong!)

So a revue-style show, such as we’re doing, is an assortment of popular music that’s surrounded by amazing dancers and good, old-fashioned spectacle (which today means awesome technological effects).  A couple of the shows we’re doing have pseudo-storylines, but there are no scripts, no lines, and no pressure to deliver anything except joy and delight. Does that mean there’s no drama?  Not always – it depends on what each song calls for.  (“Con te partiro” and “Once Upon a Dream” have plenty of poignant heft!)

Fortunately, these shows feature four singers and thirteen dancers.  So I am not learning 225 minutes of solid music (oh my, if I were, I would definitely be panicking right now).  Rather, I’m learning three to five songs for each show, plus one full show for which I sing backup harmonies in every song that isn’t a solo.  That is considerably more manageable!

Additionally helpful is the fact that I am familiar with most of the songs.  I’m not sure every singer has that particular advantage – since I have decidedly eclectic tastes, musical theatre, Motown classics, 80s pop, and 50s standards are all equally recognizable to me.  But I’m not complaining!  Having been heavily overscheduled this past month, I can use the leg up of already knowing what most of the songs sound like.

So what’s my process for learning a lot of music?

  1. Start listening to the songs on repeat. This enables me to begin internalizing the structure and general harmonic movement of each song.  So when I sit down to study the music, I’ve already got an unconscious outline of each song in my head.  Makes memorizing a lot simpler!
  2. Sit down with one show at a time. Studying each show as a unit helps me plot the progression – which, naturally, helps with memorization.
  3. Take one song at a time, focusing on the musicGenerally I sit at a piano and plunk notes out, singing through each song to see if there are any difficult spots (harmonies, weird leaps of the melody, etc.).  I often try to figure out the line just by sight-reading first – it’s a great way to practice a skill that you never seem to need until you’re in the middle of an audition (panicking at trying to read music you don’t know while delivering a believable moment of honest emotion). Then I sing through larger sections several times at once, always seeing how far I can go without looking at the page.  Learning + memorizing at the same time = efficient. Eventually I start stringing those sections together until I’ve gotten the skeleton of the song’s melody solid in my head.
  4. Give it a rest. It took me years to accept it, but the counterintuitive step of walking away from learning/memorizing for a day or so is crucial.  This is also why it’s better not to procrastinate TOO long!  I have to let the songs simmer in my head for a bit. What happens is that I’ll find myself starting to put the lyrics into the structure in my head, a bit like a puzzle – “Okay, meadow and farm are the first stanza, but the owls come later, right?”  Not only does this reinforce the melodies I’ve studied (I figure out pretty quickly where I need to go back and drill something!) and start to commit the lyrics to memory, but it’s when I start to connect with the song on a more intimate level, enabling me to mean what I sing later.
  5. Focus on the hard ones. If I already know the song, I’m not going to spend as much time drilling it as the ones I’ve never heard before.  Fortunately, I seem to fixate on new songs, but I try to gauge my fear levels regarding the different songs, in order to attack the ones that scare me the most.
  6. Quiz myself.  I’m sure this is because Dad’s idea of a fun activity in the car on the way to school was a spelling bee, but quizzing myself is really helpful.  Quiz myself on remembering the building blocks of each song (if it’s a simple AABA structure, then what is each section about?; or what is the structure itself, if it’s more complicated).  Quiz myself on the flow of the lyrics.  Quiz myself on the small differences in the melody the last time through, etc.  If I have any doubt whatsoever, I’ll go back to look at the music first thing. Or pull up an audio recording, if it’s findable on YouTube.
  7. Review often. In the days leading up to my first rehearsal, I’m probably going to go back and review this material a lot.  I’ll be that girl mouthing along with her music on the plane, hearing the harmonies in my head as I go through each song.

So that’s pretty much it!  I’ll report back next week and let you know how I did with this set of music.  I’m not sure I’ve ever had such a large pile to learn at one time!

(Confession: I never follow these practice tips when I play the flute.  It’s a good thing I don’t want to be a professional flutist!)

How do you approach large projects like this?

photo credit:  Scores via photopin license

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