Tedium and Frustration: Learning New Repertoire

As I was leaving my voice lesson a week ago, I mentioned to my teacher that I think I need some coloratura in my rep.  She nodded in agreement.  “Fiordiligi or Donna Anna?” I asked, referring to two Mozart roles that would suit my voice.

I barely finished the question before she answered, “Anna.”

“Well that settles it.  Non Mi Dir it is.”

I hate to admit this, but I don’t really enjoy learning new music.  For me, the fun doesn’t come until you’ve got the thing in your voice, and you can start to really make art with it.  And when it comes to pieces with coloratura passages, runs, cadenzas, etc., the process can be especially tedious.  A friend of mine recently posted a snapshot of a brutal cadenza in the score for a Rossini aria he’s learning, cursing the composer for writing “A twenty-nine-tuplet!”

But alas, if we are going to be singers, we must know what to sing.  Every singer, and probably every musician, has his or her own process for learning new music.

I have heard Non Mi Dir, Donna Anna’s aria from Mozart’s masterpiece Don Giovanni countless times.  Now, I’m listening to it again, this time with the score in my lap. I search YouTube for recordings of three or four singers I respect, in this case, Joan Sutherland, Anna Netrebko, and Birgit Nilsson, and follow along in the score, pencil in hand noting where they take unwritten appogiaturas or where they breath in preparation for long phrases.

Many musicians think this can be a dangerous practice.  There is a risk that you will internalize and copy the style of the performers you listen to, instead of creating your own interpretation.  For me this is just a way to get a feel for the overall musical landscape of the aria, and to note any generally accepted performance practices.

The next step is hopping onto Google Translate.  I know that this is the aria where Donna Anna reassures Don Ottavio of her love for him despite refusing his marriage proposal, but just getting the general gist won’t do.  My knowledge from Italian 101 and the use of translation tools will help me better understand every word and phrase of the libretto.  “Troppo mi spiace allontanarti un ben,” becomes in my mind “Too much I’m sorry to postpone a good,” and is then converted a little further to “I’m all too sorry to postpone such a blessing.”

Now that I’m more familiar with the text, I set it aside and sit down at the piano.  Skipping past the recitative for now, I use my rudimentary piano skills to just play through the vocal line, noting anything in the melody that catches me by surprise, like the modulation into a minor tonality near the end of the A section.  Then I go back and sing through, phrase by phrase, without the words.  I might do this an octave below where it’s written first, just to get the notes in my brain without thinking about vocal technique.

Here’s a slapdash look at a recent practice session of mine where I was working on Non Mi Dir, focusing specifically on the tedium of learning the coloratura section.

As you can tell, there’s still a lot of work to be done here.  I’ll take it to my voice teacher and we’ll spend several lessons trying to get every note of the aria into that singer’s sweet spot (we’ve already spent some time on the A section together).  Then I’ll see a vocal coach who will work with me on making it musical.  Ideally, the finished product will sound something like this (here’s hoping!):


5 thoughts on “Tedium and Frustration: Learning New Repertoire

  1. Carol

    I love this post. I didn’t understand a bit of the Opera lingo you wrote about, but I loved getting a real live look at you practicing a new piece. The video was fun to watch and gives me a window into your (opera) world. More videos. please!

  2. mollymakesmusic Post author

    Thanks Jenni! I can’t believe what you can do with some string and a couple of sticks! (I was at Millie’s house the other day and she showed me a pair of socks you knit, and I geeked out for about five minutes going, “The toe! It’s SIDE-TO-SIDE! It’s so simple, but it’s BRILLIANT!”)

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