The Fool-Proof Way to Learn a Role
Disclaimer: This post speaks specifically to learning and memorizing your music. Don’t forget to flesh out your character with plenty of background research and exploration.
YOU DID IT! You landed the role, you got the gig, you’re amazing. You can hardly wait until the curtain call when the audience is screaming for more as you stand positively dripping in their admiration.
But first, you have to learn this thing. This big thing. This big thing you haven’t sung before.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed at the thought of taking on a brand new role. Or perhaps you’re not overwhelmed yet, but you just can’t figure out how to get started, so you put it off… and put it off… until all of a sudden your time has evaporated and you have to do some serious cramming in order to learn the thing in time. Now THAT’S overwhelming, not to mention definitely not the best way to learn.
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
Step One: Break it Down
As soon as you can after your celebratory shenanigans, sit down and divvy up your role into bite-sized bits. There’s no rhyme or reason to this, just list every section of your role down on paper. For some roles this will be easy: an aria here, a recitative, there, that tricky quartet from Act 2. You may want to break longer recits or extended arias into multiple, smaller chunks. For through-composed pieces that aren’t automatically broken down in the score, find logical places to break bigger scenes into manageable sections. Make sure to note the page numbers for each section to help you navigate the score easily. Breaking things down like this allows you to see at a glance exactly how much learning you have ahead of you, and will keep you from accidentally forgetting to prepare anything.
Step Two: Set Your Deadlines
Now you have two jobs ahead of you. First, to learn the role. Then, to memorize it. My advice is to work backwards from the time you need to have everything memorized. In most cases this deadline will be set for you – the start of rehearsals, for example. If you are learning the role on your own as an exercise, feel free to select your own deadlines.
The trick to knowing exactly how much time you’ll need to prepare your role without cramming is to work backwards from this date, starting by marking down the dates by which you will plan to have each section memorized. Mark down that final date besides the final section of your role as your “memorized by” date. Now move to the next-to-last section you have to memorize, and write in a date that’s two or three days before that (or however long you think you’ll need for this section). Then move backwards to the section before that, and on and on until you reach the very first part of your role. See the date you just wrote next to that first section? THAT’s how early you need to start memorizing in order to be completely memorized by your final deadline. It’s probably a lot earlier than you thought, right? Ah, life without cramming. It’s a beautiful thing.
You can follow this exact same process when figuring out deadlines for actually learning the role. Work backwards when you need to have the last section learned. Depending on how you know you work best, you may be able to overlap your “learned by” and “memorized by” dates for different sections of the role – for example, you may just be starting to learn Act II but already needing to memorize the opening aria of Act I for your upcoming staging. It’s okay if these dates overlap, and it may be unavoidable at times especially if you simply don’t have a long period of time at your disposal. The point here is to get a real picture of how much time it takes to adequately devote yourself to the preparation of a new role.
Step Three: Get Thee To Your Teacher/Coach
Breaking down your role like this allows you to give each section as much time as it needs in your lessons and coachings. Make two little columns next to each section, one for “worked in lesson” and “worked in coaching”. Whenever you take a specific section to your teacher or coach, check it off on your sheet. This gives you an easy visual to know which parts of the role you have hit in your lessons. No check by a section? Maybe that’s what you take to your teacher next.
Note: I realize that not all sections of a role are created equal. Of course you will want to coach the recits far more frequently than the easy duet you have, or take the show-stopping aria into your lessons more than once when you might not have to work on your one-liner on page 267 at all. The point of this exercise is to have a visual of your entire role at a glance so that you can keep yourself from neglecting anything by accident.
Step Four: Get to Work!
By breaking it down like this, you take control of the role, rather than letting the role control you. You are the boss here. You know exactly how much you have to learn and exactly how much time you have to do it in. It certainly beats locking yourself in a practice room for some unknown quantity of time, randomly running recits and arias and hoping by some miracle that you’ve touched everything in the role come rehearsal. You can learn any role, concert solo, or recital by using this exact formula. Break it down. Know your deadlines. Keep track of what you’ve been doing.
All that’s left to do is break a leg!
Don’t want to make your own role prep chart? We have a handy-dandy printable Role Breakdown printable available to help you learn your next big thing – you can find it HERE.