Jessica Tobacman


Memorizing “Hamilton”

I used to dread memorizing songs. Then I realized that I was already doing this—for fun. Listening to pop music on the radio or the recording of “Hamilton” in the car, memorizing was a blast, a way to get to know a piece and a character better, and to take the notes with me when the piece ended. It was only when I sat down with a score and had to learn a piece for a purpose that it became a chore. It was all in the mentality.

To avoid thinking of memorizing as a difficult issue, start out by selecting music that you like and want to listen to repeatedly. This repeated listening will make a huge difference in your ability to take the music with you after the recording ends.

For vocal music, learning music written in a language you already know is going to be easier than translating a piece composed in a strange language. Memorizing a song from the musical “Hamilton,” for instance, is much easier than picking an Italian aria from Mozart’s “Le nozze di Figaro” [“The Marriage of Figaro”], if you’re a native English speaker, and your knowledge of Italian is more limited. (If you grew up learning Italian, however, or are immersing yourself in it at a young age, then you’ve got an edge on someone else struggling to pick out the individual words of “Deh vieni non tardar” later in life.)

To learn Angelica’s toast in “Hamilton,” for example, I recommend listening to the soundtrack and singing along with it, rewinding for any words you miss, and getting a copy of the score. It’s also a decent idea to buy or borrow a copy of “Hamilton: The Revolution,” a book written about creating the musical that has the text of each of the songs. Then, of course, you also need to sing through the piece on your own to make sure you know it, and work to make it your own.

If you have a visual memory, you can also sit down with a score and stare at it, learning it phrase by phrase, as you hear it in your head. Study a phrase; hear it; cover it up with your hand; sing it through in your head. Go on to the next phrase and repeat.

Write down what you know about the character, including her likes and dislikes. In the case of Angelica, write about her emotions about Alexander Hamilton’s marriage to her sister, and the reasons why she introduces Eliza to Hamilton, rather than dating him herself. Rewrite the song in your own words to make it your own.

Part of researching a character is differentiating between her portrayal on the stage and her personal history in real life. What are the differences between the ways that Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote Angelica for the stage and the ways she acted in real life? She was already married in reality when she met Hamilton, but for dramatic effect, Miranda created a love triangle between her, her sister and Hamilton. Her toast, “Satisfied,” is about a dilemma created for the stage. This type of personal character history is what singers need to research to create an accurate portrayal. Knowing this background is what will give you a leg up in an audition, not to mention making it easier for you to memorize a song.

A song is part of a larger character arc. Learning about the entire arc, including where the character is mentally and emotionally at the beginning and ending of a larger work, will help you learn about the intention behind a song and the purpose of a piece. This will help you portray a character’s actions better, too. Out of authenticity can come hand or arm movements that help an audience understand your character better, movements that will add to a character, instead of seeming extraneous and detracting from your portrayal.

One of the dangers of learning a song by listening to one recording of it is that, that’s the only way you can picture it sung. It becomes harder to make the piece your own this way. At this point, there’s more than one recording of the songs from Hamilton. Although it can be fun to listen to one recording over and over, it will help your interpretation of a piece to sample different ones.

Learning the words to a song is always easier when you know what you’re saying. If you’re singing in a language other than English, get a good dictionary, or become familiar with Google translate or IPA Source, and write down the word-for-word translation underneath the text in a score.
Think about the motivations behind a song. In an opera like Marriage of Figaro, think about the overall character arc and where the piece falls within the opera. What is the character thinking about and feeling when they’re singing? How does each phrase advance the song? Where is a character emotionally before and after they sing a piece?

I often find that singing or playing a piece on the piano helps me think through a problem. Is this true for you, too? Characters may be the same way: as they sing about an issue, the music helps them move from point A to point B. Find ways to connect with them, and you’ll find that memorizing their words will be that much easier. Great composers like Miranda and Mozart have given you material worth performing. It’s your job to bring their phrases off the page and onto the stage. Go forth and memorize.

10 things to do before lunch to keep your mind active

1. Sing. Open your mouth and sing your favorite tune. Then, do it again. Listen to a recording and then sing your song again. Think consciously about how you want to sound. Listen to a different recording, and compare it to the first one and to how you were singing. Keep trying to improve your interpretation and see what you can do.

2. Write. Open up a Word document, a journal, or compose an email to yourself. You might be surprised what you come up with.

3. Watch a free webinar. Google a favorite topic like music and see what you can learn.

4. Move. Go for a walk, inside or outside. Light exercise can change your mindset and give you a different perspective on the day.

5. Go outside, or at a minimum, look through a window. There’s a whole world out there to remember and explore.

6. Make up a rhyme. Pick a word and go on from that. Then create a second one.

7. Read. Pick up a book or magazine, or open a browser and read Google news to expand your thoughts for the day.

8. Meditate. Sit back, close your eyes, and listen to the world around you.

9. Have a conversation. Reach out to a friend, relative or someone you haven’t spoken to in awhile to get their perspective on life, meaning, or current events.

10. Laugh. Google your favorite comic (Amy Schumer, Mindy Kaling and John Oliver are three of my favorites) and start your day off with some humor.

Classical Singer magazine article

Happy New Year! Hope that it’s peaceful and musical.

Check-out the first part of my new article here and more on Classical Singer magazine’s web site: “In 2004, the Royal Opera House made headlines by dropping the dramatic soprano Deborah Voigt from the cast of Richard Strauss’ opera Ariadne auf Naxos because she couldn’t fit into the little black dress assigned as her costume for the production.” (Paywall)

5 reasons to practice

I’ve found that one of the most difficult aspects of continuing to improve as a musician is that, once you reach a goal, complete a performance, compete in a contest, your motivation dries up. Here are some reasons for you to keep moving along the path to improvement and to nailing your next goal, even if you haven’t figured out what it is yet:

1. Routine, routine, routine. It’s part of your life. Making music makes your day better. If you keep it in your life in between performances, you’ll feel better.

2. Surprise, surprise! Performance opportunities can come out of nowhere. Your parent’s friend, who happens to be a musician, is visiting and wants to hear you. Your music teacher wants to show off her best students for a visiting teacher on short notice. You have a rare opportunity, and if you’ve kept up your skills, you’re ready for it. If not, then, Houston, we’ve got a problem.

3. When you show up for people, they show up for you. You want to present your best musical self at each of your lessons. It might be easy to forget this since you see them every week, but your private teacher’s opinion of you matters. If you want them to recommend you for a summer program, a master class, an ensemble they’ve recently heard about, then you benefit by playing/singing your best each week. This way, you’re more likely to get more (and better) opportunities.

4. The same holds true for any ensemble you sing or play in. Conductors can tell whether or not you’ve been practicing in between rehearsals and for chair placements. If you play well each week, rather than only bringing an apple for the teacher on the first day, then you might get opportunities otherwise invisible to the naked eye (i.e. playing/singing in select ensembles, and better audition times for advanced groups). Not to mention that continued practicing makes it easier to succeed when those special opportunities show up.

5. Oh, the places we’ll go…when we have a little extra time. The things we’ll discover when we’re not under pressure. You gain that extra finesse when you play/sing more. You can choose your own repertoire to explore. The pieces you heard when you were a kid that inspired you to become a musician? You can finally dig them out. The extra songs you’ve been meaning to learn that always fall by the wayside when an audition rears its ugly head? You have time, yay! You’re always saying you want to do a duet or trio with friends, and never have time? That time has just arrived! Use the blank space on your calendar to remind yourself why you became a musician, and what continues to make it fun! This “extra” time is yours for the taking…pretend that Facebook and other “social” networks don’t exist for a day or two, and remind yourself what it’s like to make music in person with other musicians.

7 Pointers for Performance Anxiety

Performance anxiety is somewhat common. Here are some pointers for dealing with this aspect of being a musician:

1. Practice as if you were performing, including starting each piece the best way possible several times in a row.

2. Practice with relaxed concentration. Figure out where you tense up when you perform, and address it when you rehearse. Practice in front of a mirror, and notice whether your shoulders rise. If you’re singing, and you can see your bottom row of teeth, practice squatting and keeping your back straight while singing, to build up back muscles and rid your tongue of tension. Drop your jaw while rubbing the area in front of your ears and sighing on an “ah” to release tension there.

3. To perform at your best, it helps to focus on one element at a time, such as keeping the musical line flowing, or imagining singing each syllable in front of the previous one.

4. If singing, think about the meaning of the text. Speak the text in advance and notice which syllables and words you emphasize, and replicate this as much as possible.

5. Before you begin, mentally rehearse performing a piece with correct rhythms, contrasting dynamics, accents, staccato or legato where indicated.

6. If possible, get at least one positive person in your life to come to your show.

7. Keep in mind that your audience wants you to succeed. They want to be elevated and transported to the world you’re creating with your music.

Your brain on music

Earlier this year, researchers at MIT came up with a new tool for looking at the brain and discovered that music has its own neural pathways, separate from the ones for speech. “Why do we have music?” Dr. Kanwisher said in an interview. “Why do we enjoy it so much and want to dance when we hear it? How early in development can we see this sensitivity to music, and is it tunable with experience? These are the really cool first-order questions we can begin to address.” http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/09/science/new-ways-into-the-brains-music-room.html?_r=0

Playing music helps us process speech

“It goes back to pitch, timing and timbre. Kraus argues that learning music improves the brain’s ability to process all three, which helps kids pick up language, too. Consonants and vowels become clearer, and the brain can make sense of them more quickly.”

For more information, check out this article from NPR: http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2014/09/10/343681493/this-is-your-brain-this-is-your-brain-on-music.