Monday, November 07, 2005

Some Ideas on How to Learn a Song or Aria

From Gwendolyn Koldofsky--University of Southern California

1. Read the poetry or a translation of the poetry. Songs are not abstract pieces, they are poems that have been set to music by a composer. Before even looking at the music, look at the poetry; in the case of a song in a foreign language, look at the translation of the poetry. Better yet, translate it yourself in order to sharpen your language skills. This first step is vitally important because it allows you to interact with the poem on its own terms, allowing you to discover important aspects such as line, syntax, vocabulary, trope, rhetoric, metre, and rhyme that may be transparent in the poem's musical setting.
2. Carefully learn the pronunciation of the poem in the original language. Pay careful attention to all the details of pronunciation that you have so meticulously learned in diction class.
3. In the original language, read the poem aloud. Pay attention not just to the sounds of the language, but to syntax and intonation, trying to sound as idiomatic as possible. Inject meaning into your recitation--don't just recite syllables out loud. Think of how a native speaker of the language would recite the poem. Many famous composers of art song are known to have recited a poem at length as a way into setting it to music.
4. In the original language, read the poem aloud in the rhythm of the vocal line. This will give you clues as to how the composer heard the poetry and how he/she may have wanted to interpret the text musically, ie. what lines of text are repeated, what words are emphasized, how fast or slow is the declamation of text, how important are the poem's line breaks and where they occur in relation to the breath.
5. At the piano, play the vocal line in the right hand and the bass line of the piano part in the left hand. This may take awhile, but is worth the effort. Now that you know something about the composer's setting of the text, this process will give you further musical clues regarding the song's melody, contour, tessitura, harmonic direction, and phrase structure, as well as help you to understand and hear the structure of and relationship between the vocal and piano parts.
6. Now learn the music. You'll be surprised.

From Rena Sharon--University of British Columbia

1. Who is the protagonist?
2. What is the setting?
3. What does each of his/her five senses perceive in the poem?
4. Does the protagonist stay in one place, if not, where does he/she go?
5. Where was the protagonist before his/her present state?
6. Is the narrator speaking to anyone in particular, if so, who is the person, what do they look like, what is their relationship?
7. What impetus causes the narrator to speak?
8. Why has the narrator chosen to speak?
9. What is the narrator's emotional and physical state?
10. Does the narrator change in the process of speaking?
11. Has the narrator's physical and mental condition changed?
12. What happens after the text stops?
13. What happens after the music stops?

Some quotes to remember:

"Imagination is more important than knowledge." --Albert Einstein

"Melody is the sensuous life of poetry." --Ludwig van Beethoven

"To be willing to live within the imagination is to commit oneself to the gathering together of the pieces that might begin to form a self. To avoid this territory is to avoid the encounters that might validate, inform, or enhance one's experience." --Deena Metzger, from Writing for your Life: A Guide and Companion to the Inner Worlds

"In art, one has more often to fight against oneself, and the victories one wins are perhaps the most beautiful." --Claude Debussy

"...there are others who welcome the transport poetry provides. They welcome it repeatedly. They desire it so much they begin to crave it daily, nightly, nearly abject in their desire, seeking it out the way hungry people seek food. It is spiritual sustenance to them. Bread and wine. A way of transformative thinking. A method of transfiguration. There are those who honor the reality of roots and wings in words but also want the wings to take root, to grow into the earth, and the roots to take flight, ascend. They need such falling and rising, such metaphoric thinking. They are so taken by the ecstatic experience--the overwhelming intensity--of reading poems they have to respond in kind. And these people become poets." --Edward Hirsch, from How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry

"Reading is like writing in beginning in uncertainty and driving toward speculation and experiment. The reader follows, via the poem as a ghostly map, the many paths that were not taken by the author, but whose possibility leaves a shadow like crosshatching on the paths that remain. To read this way keeps a poem always provisional and still in the making, which is how the process of reading absorbs the act of writing to their mutual improvement in terms of skills and understanding." --Mary Kinzie, from The Poet's Guide to Poetry

"The spiritual desire for poetry can be overwhelming, so much do I need it to experience and name my own perilous depths and vast spaces, my own well-being." --Edward Hirsch, from How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry


  1. Anonymous11:26 PM

    thanks for this Chris! concise and clear. Should be on the syllabus for EVERY voice major!

  2. Thanks, Susan. The Koldofsky method requires a bit more time to learn a song initially, but it is a much more efficient way to learn music in the long run, since you only start singing once you've already learned the translation, language, rhythm, and notes.

  3. Wow, these quotes are really beautiful and inspiring. Thanks for the creative post. I especially love the quote by Claude Debussy. Right now, I'm looking into buying a new piano lamp. Any suggestions on which one of these would be best?