I use about every trick in the book, and some that I've made up, to learn & memorize my music. I had a conversation with a colleague the other day and we discussed how a few of our students don't really seem to learn in between lessons, even if we've given them action steps. It seems like a lot of newer students see their lessons as their time to learn music rather than how to learn technique. I approach every role as if I'm totally new to the process...and I find that especially helpful when revisiting a role. Each time, my flow gets better because I use my prep time to shed any habits that I had built into the role but no longer want.
Here are some of the basic ways I learn roles:
Step 1: Read the score
Step 2: Do my translations.
Step 3: IPA transcription above my lyrics. Yeah, it's messy on the page and I know most of my pronunciation, but I find it really helpful as a reference when I'm working on music and something isn't 'clicking' vocally. Usually if I go back to the pure IPA approach of reading the lyrics, I find the line better. Even when I do an opera in English, I still will write out the IPA of any weird consonant/vowel clusters. I write in any modifications I think are needed. And I won't write it out by word, but by how the line should sound when sung. I have a nasty habit of starting my ending consonants too soon and this helps me.
Step 4: Music work on my own: I learn everything backwards so I always know where I'm going. I start with the finale and go to the opening. I also learn coloratura and challenging diction this way, particularly Russian. I'll break the word or passage out by syllable or motif and then build to singing the whole word or phrase.
Step 5: Work with a coach to clarify and really sing through the piece to find what spots I need to take to my teacher and review. I am the sticky note queen. I have a sticky note on my score at all times for what I need to review and what I want to work with and with whom. I use my lessons and coachings really specifically so I'm using my money and time as best possible. I can't believe how many students come to lessons without agendas! Even "I need to identify which songs for X audition". But to just come to sing? Sing on your own time, learn something specific on your teacher's time. A typical lesson for me when I go to my teacher is "Hey Reid, I'm getting over a cold and need to work on my on sets & flexibility." And after we work on some exercises, I'll have an agenda of pages & measure numbers I want to cover. Sometimes it's songs, but mostly I work passages. I go to coaches when I want to sing through things. My lessons are for technique and its application.
Step 6: Character Research: I do the basics like reading source material and character analysis first. Then if anything stands out to me, I dig in. For instance, I was working on Marilyn Monroe. At that point, I never felt less like Marilyn Monroe. I watched a documentary on her where a friend said "Marilyn always thought it was a lark that anyone thought she was Marilyn Monroe." I had my in! I went through the score and marked all the times I felt like I as Marilyn was 'performing' or doing what was expected of me. And I came across how she learned her signature walk and practiced that to use for those specific moments that I'd marked. Character work does a lot for me & I could write pages & pages on it. But finding 1 "in" is a great start.
More Specific Ways I Learn Music:
Occasionally, the methods above are not enough for the role. Here are other ways that I pepper in depending on what I'm needing.
-Cue Cards: Make them specific to you. I memorize best through blocking, so I prepare my cards accordingly. I write out my own translation of what everyone is saying and then put my own words in the original language. I leave the back of the card blank for blocking notes. I rarely use the cards in staging rehearsals unless something is really tripping me up, but if I've made cue cards, I add the blocking to the back & throw them in my purse so that when I'm sitting in a waiting room, I can just glance at my cards and work on memorization.
-I once had to learn Peter Lieberson's King Gesar, which is a 55 minute monologue with orchestra. Making matters almost worse, the monologue was mostly spoken in strict rhythm and we were performing it as a split role! Luckily, I was working with Roberto Perlas Gomez who is a wonderful colleague. We only occasionally sang and usually were in strict ensemble with each other. It was hard! So, I painted my cue cards. I would paint one phrase, while speaking it in rhythm, until the image was complete and I "saw" the rhythm and text together. Seeing the landscape or event that I had described was immensely helpful to me. It used more aspects of my brain and creativity which has locked this piece into my soul!
-If I'm not going to get blocking because it's for a concert, I block myself in the full scene. That blocking muscle memory just gets me fully memorized and in my body.
-For French, a great trick Vicky Hart taught me is to speak the lyrics, over enunciating the words. The lip movements in the exaggerated speaking get it in your mouth easily when you go back to singing.
A picture of my Type A sticky notes and work schedule.
My King Gesar painted cue cards.