Much of the best in life and art seems to happen spontaneously, but often if we look underneath the apparent magic happenstance, we find structure, hard work, determination, and diligence staring back at us. Here is one method of many possible methods to learn a song from cracking open the score to a complete dynamic and engaging performance. The point isn't that this has to be the way for anyone to learn a song, but rather that it should spark a conversation with you and your teachers and colleagues about how you can create a structure of learning that works best for you. Give yourself a chance to have one of those spontaneous magical moments in your performance that can only happen if you've done "the work" ahead of time. A kite has to be tethered to fly.
1) Listen to several recordings for the overall sound world. Do not get too attached to one recording/one way of doing things. There is no "correct way." In fact, we want to hear your way, which is interesting to us because we've never heard it before and is personal to you and no one else. If I wanted to hear Jessye Norman's way, I can youtube it for free.
2) PUT ALL MUSIC AWAY!!!!
3) Go to the text/poem. This is where the composer, in most cases, started. Translate, even if it is in English. Poems/stylized language/archaic language can be tough. Y'all don't speak fluent Dickinson or Baroque English. It is also not enough to "rec music" it or "ipa source" it and call it a day. i.e. "yeah, I know what it means!...let me just check my translation..." Know what every word means when you are saying it AS WELL AS the overall thought/poetic translation. i.e. be able to speak the poem as sentences. Know what constitutes the whole thought so you are not stopping at the end of every line on the page or whatever musical phrasing the composer gave to the poem.
4) Put the text into your own words. What are you actually saying? What is actually going on? How would YOU say this?
5) Set up the drama for yourself: Who are you? Who are you talking to? Are you yourself or a character? How does that character differ from you? What do you/the character want? What is your/the character's obstacle? Do you get what you want? How does that make you feel? Are there any changes/pauses/beats along the way?
6) Personalize: have you ever experienced anything like what the text is talking about? If yes, try to remember as many specifics as possible: temperature, what you were wearing, sounds, smells, who was there, what had just happened, etc. Create a mental movie for yourself that the text can exist in. Make sure you can see the movie for every word that you speak: don't ignore a word. If you have not experienced anything like what the text is talking about, create the movie with your imagination. The aim is not to inject false feeling into anything, but to warm up your emotional memory so that if something does suddenly hit home, then you can have a real feeling.
7) Memorize the poem and speak it out loud. How do the words themselves feel? Does the rhythm of the words and the diction affect the meaning? Which words are stressed? Where are the syntactical pauses? How would you speak the text to best convey the meaning?
8) Return to the music. Play/ask a friend to play the piano part and speak the poem over top, not in exact rhythm. How does it affect your poem interpretation? How does the music relate to the words? Does it agree with your interpretation of the text? Does it highlight certain words? Does it dictate pauses or tempos different from how you spoke the poem without music? How does that shift the meaning of the text for you?
9) If you can, play through piano accompaniment on your own. There is no substitute for feeling how the piano itself must shift harmonies, fingerings, tempi, etc. Then YOU can decide how the music is made rather than reacting to one pianist's interpretation. On what words do special harmonies, notes, rhythms, shifts appear? Every musical idea and/or shift is giving you information. You must come up with a specific idea of what each musical cue is telling you. Does a seventh chord create anticipation? Do rests in the middle of a word indicate breathlessness? Does a sudden minor create a sense of longing or sadness or specialness? What is then special? Ask yourself the same questions about tempi shifts, dynamics, etc.
10) Play your part on the piano. Learn without singing at first. It is best if your voice and the words start as one, WITH meaning. How can you expect to phonate freely if you are unsure of the pitch or what you are saying? Give yourself the gift of learning a song with no chance of ingraining bad habits.
11) Continue working on the text/poem separately with all your new information. How has all this musical information changed the way you think about the poem/how you would read it?
12) When you feel that your singing part is secure (using vowels, solfege, or favorite nonsense syllable) add WORDS. Start singing words with meaning from the very beginning. Try to relate your singing of the song with words to your informed reading of the text as much as possible, i.e. not much should change. Let the music and words conjure up your "mental video/movie." Go to the special world that the text/music creates for you and your personal experience/imagination before the first note of music and stay with it at every second until after the last note. If you lose focus or "drop out of your movie" it is because you have not been specific enough with your work on the text and music. Every word, every note on the page, every consonant is telling you something. Be open to it and LISTEN. When in doubt of being truthful or overdoing it, you can always listen and remember that words have meaning and you say them every day with meaning. Continue to do so while you sing.
13) Your body: Lastly, experiment with gesture and focus. Often times we forget that we will be performing these songs for an audience who will be watching us, and we leave our bodies as an after thought. Think of how you would naturally speak the text to a specific person. When do you look at them? When do you look away? When do you search for an idea inside your brain or an image outside of you? How would you use your body to tell the story: shifts of weight, hand gestures, etc? Would the character experiencing this text behave differently from you? How would they use focus and gesture to tell the story? Don't be afraid to experiment. Sometimes, what feels "right" is just what we are used to/a habit. Push yourself to make other modes of expression equally comfortable, i.e. if you find that you often shake your head "no" when you sing, try shaking it "yes", try holding it still, try a sharp move in one direction, etc. Never feel trapped in any one mode of moving/expression. You may be absolutely still, but there should always be the POSSIBILITY of moving. You may be in constant motion but there should always be the POSSIBILITY of suddenly becoming completely still. There is no "correct" way to use your body as long as your body is "free". Play with possibilities and then make a choice.
14) Synergy: Let all the modes of expression inform each other. (Vocal/musical, psycho-emotional/acting, body/focus) Sometimes a breakthrough in one can lead to a breakthrough in another. If staring at one spot brings a legato, go for it. Or play with staring intently at an object in your mind's eye/movie and singing as staccato as possible. Try opposites from what you would think or the words/music suggest. You may be surprised at what you find/is helpful. Mix it up. On a 1-10 scale, don't be afraid to go for a 10 in your practicing: as piano as possible, darting glances continually, gummy legs, not moving a muscle, fully experiencing love won and lost, being completely stony and unemotional, etc. Practicing should be about (safely) stretching the limits of what is possible for you as a performer. This can ONLY be accomplished if you go outside your comfort zone. Performance, however, is not the time to go outside your comfort zone. Performance is the time to let yourself play in your comfort zone with all the wonderful things you have discovered in your practicing.
15) Have fun! Make a choice and commit 100%. This means turning off "judgement" because you can't be present in the moment/performing and judge yourself (or your pianist) at the same time. Afterwards, discern between what worked and what didn't, but enjoy the play that is inherent in all great work. No judging! Your choice is perfect for where you are in the moment and is valuable because no one else can be you or offer what you have to offer as well as you can. You will lose the sing like "Renée" battle every time. Renée will win. You "do you!"