6 Hints to Learning Your Next Musical Theatre Song

6 Hints to Learning Your Next Musical Number:

For singing actors it can sometimes be overwhelming to meet the demands of learning new repetoire for upcoming auditions or performances.  Sometimes it can take several days before a song is ready to be performed in one of those settings.  Here are some hepful hints that you can follow towards tackling that unfamiliar number:

Take out the acting temporarily: Very often singing actors want to jump into acting the song without having learned the song entirely yet.  ‘Shelf’ the acting for now and you can bring it back in, once you become more familiar with the melodic phrasing.  Sometimes the acting can distract us and prevent us from learning the correct melody versus how we think the song goes.

Work with the sheet music.  Unlike pop recordings, most of the time you have to stay true to what the composer wrote.  Working with the score will make sure you have the correct rests, note values, tempo, and suggested dynamics.  Sites like musicnotes.com are great because you can find the original key and also change keys if necessaray.

Listen, then sing: Sight read while following along with original cast recordings.  Let your ear become familiar with the phrasing.  If the phrasing is quite fast and you aren’t sure about the melody, sight read the melody at the piano, or have a teacher play the melody on the piano at a slower tempo.  Like a pianist would, work the piece in sections, rather than trying to sing the song in its entirety from beginning to end.  Understand the song structure and take the verses and just work them.  Then move on to the chours.  If you come a accross a challenging phrase, break it down and practice that melodic line about 4-5 times and then move on to the next one.

Modify vowels when necessary:  In musical theatre (depending on what style of musical theatre it is) very often the lyrics are pronounced more articulately than other styles of music.  Work with your singing teacher to ensure you are pronouncing the lyrics correctly.  Sometimes you may have to modify the vowels especially when transitioning through vocal bridges.  For example, from the musical A Chorus Line:  “What I did for LAH-ve”, try modifying to “wh-uh-t uh-eye did for L-UH-VE” and see if you are able to remained vocally balanced on that sustained high note.  

Know where you need to breathe:  Breathing is not always before the next phrase,  sometimes breathing is carried over to the next for dramatic effect and the breathing may be delayed.  Mark out where you want or need to breathe.  Once again, listen to original cast recordings for reference, or conuslt wth your voice teacher.

Bring back the acting:  Most importantly, once you know the song well enough and have learned it ‘off book’, it’s time to bring back the acting.  This doesn’t mean staring straight ahead and pretending to feel something.  In her book “What Do I Do With My Hands, A Guide to Acting for the Singer” Rhonda Carlson suggests:  “The first thing you should ask yourself when you are performing a song is “To WHOM am I singing?….Next…WHY you are singing the song.  If your WHOM is going to be specific and real, he or she must be more than a stationary spot on the wall.  Instead, your WHOM must be living, breathing and responding in your mind’s eye.”  In other words, it has to be authentic.  What experience in your life can you recall in order to better relate to this song?  Working with an acting coach in the musical theatre field can be helpful in taking the characterization to the next level.

As challenging as it may be, the process of getting to know new repetoire can be very rewarding!  Don’t forget to applaud yourself when you’ve done all of your prep work.

Alida is a singing teacher in Vancouver and the owner of Alida Vocal Studio, which provides singing lessons to singers and actors.