Learning Atonal Music
Poking among some neglected subscriptions in Google Reader, I just came across this interesting approach to learning how to sing atonal, or otherwise difficult, music. This is from The Concert, the blog of a New York soprano.
In a nutshell, the idea is to break the piece into smaller tasks, the first being to concentrate on one small section at a time. Within each section, strip the material of text and rhythm, only focusing at first on the pitches. Basically, learn the string of pitches one interval at time.
But, here’s the part that, for me, makes this so smart: in learning this string of intervals, sing against some held note on the piano. Our soprano suggests finding the closest thing to a tonal center, or just “C”. I would suggest looking at the accompaniment to the material you’re learning, and find something prominent there to sing against, so you’re ahead of the game when you actually get to the point of singing with accompaniment. If the music is well-crafted, there should be all kinds of things in the accompaniment to support the singer.
Now, personally, I don’t write (or like) atonal music in general, and I think it’s particularly problematic for the voice as an instrument, but I really admire this soprano for being willing to take these careful measures to get it right!
I’m also not a huge fan of Modus Novus, that bain of musicianship students everywhere, which contains atonal sight singing exercises, but I recognize it as a necessary evil. Along those lines, I think the technique described here is a great approach to doing those exercises, not only for singers, but all musicians, no matter what their instrument is.