I’ve done quite a bit of contemporary classical music in my career so far, and I sing nearly every piece from memory. I am often asked, “how do you do it?”
My answer is simply that I would be a horrible performer with music in front of my face. Some people can do that extraordinarily well – and I greatly admire them for it – but, for the most part, I need to internalize a score before I can relay it with expressivity, and for me that means that I really must first learn the music by heart.
I seem to have a kind of affinity in personalizing what is considered ‘difficult’ music. I regard this as a gift, I’m not quite sure what it is and wherefrom it comes, and I’m incredibly grateful for when it’s THERE (which isn’t always the case…). In connection to this, I wanted to write a little bit here about my process of learning and performing.
I don’t consider myself to be one of these prodigious, naturally super strong musicians. I don’t have perfect pitch, and I can’t sit at a piano and just figure a whole song out on the spot or blurt something out that makes wonderful sense. I’m so envious of musicians who can do that easily.
I can’t discern structural patterns or exact chord progressions upon listening to something in real time. My brain just isn’t big enough. So I’ve had to figure out my strengths and then work on them. A lot.
I have an agile and expressive voice. I do possess a good ear for melody, and rhythm, and good ear-voice connection for correct pitch. And I whole-heartedly adore, endlessly love, and have infinite passion for the expressive and communicative magic of music.
Eric’s (Whitacre) ‘5 Hebrew Love Songs’ is one of those pieces which, for me, exhibits that kind of magic:
Being surrounded with such music makes me want to work hard, hard, hard to be able to get to a place where I can articulate and support that miraculous quality. So when I see a score for the first time, first my insides do a little freak-out session, and then I dive into preparation.
If there are words, I tackle them first. Learn them by heart, and internalize and work on them from a dramatic stand point. What meaning can I glean from them? It’s incredibly useful for me. It makes me feel like I already have a connection to the work, even if the music is so jagged or stylized that it may actually go against the natural impulse of the lyrics.
David Del Tredici, one of my favorite composers, seems to me to be able to tap into some ‘higher’ sense of meaning than the simple words themselves – sometimes making the actual syllables appear quite non-sensical – combined with this cohesive web of a confident underlying principle. Here’s a little part from his “Vintage Alice” that I recorded with the Cleveland Chamber Symphony:
After learning the lyrics plainly, I then attach words to rhythm, without the actual notes. I try to study this by heart as well, and sometimes that alone is an unbelievably effective learning device.
Admittedly though, sometimes it is the tones themselves that allow me to make the music fully concrete in my body. For example, when studying Ariel’s part in Thomas Ades’s ‘The Tempest’ the intervals make so much internal sense to me that I really HAVE to learn the pitches (and practice it in the correct octave as well) for it to truly become second nature. (I still can’t believe Eric videotaped this…):
I study the melodies, learn them by heart as well. Then all the pauses, breaks, quiets moments; the in-betweens – which, for me, are sometime the hardest elements to integrate in a big piece. Then I go back, try to connect it with that place of deeper meaning, that thread of dramatic intention.
For instance in John Corigliano’s ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ cycle (set to poems by Bob Dylan), I find that his version of ‘Blowing in the Wind’ adds such a powerful and emotional layer to the already ingenious lyrics. I also have to work on reminding myself, every single damn time I perform it, of all the different, minutely different pauses within the song:
Blowing in the Wind
I love rehearsing, I love the process. But the honest truth is that preparation is also just a way for me to overcome my anxiousness… is it one of the main tools that help me with my jittery insecurities. A nervousness that persists all the way through the ticking moments before a performance, and only truly go away once I’m on stage.
And then it’s time. And it’s all it is really – just me and the ensemble (whatever that might be), and something called ‘time’. It will begin and at some point (hopefully) end, and my control over it is purely delusional. So I work on letting it be, and perhaps even having some fun:
Grammy award-winning soprano Hila Plitmann is a glittering jewel on the international music scene, known worldwide for her astonishing musicianship, light and beautiful voice, and the ability to perform challenging new works. She regularly premieres works by today’s leading composers while maintaining a vibrant and extraordinarily diverse professional life in film music, musical theatre, and song writing. View full bio…