It is an essential but often underdeveloped skill to be able to learn a piece of music from the page, rather than from a recording.
Of course listening and imitating is generally easier and comes more naturally to most people (and honestly, I can’t judge a person for that), but limiting yourself to that method of learning music comes with a couple issues: one, you are risking copying everything another singer does, and so will have a harder time developing your own flavour and style; and two, you are doing your future self a serious disservice if you ever have to learn a new work, in which case you won’t have a reference track to listen to.
Some people may suggest a much more drawn-out learning process than what I’m going to suggest below; the following tips are a sort of middle-ground process for music learning, where the essential steps are there, but it shouldn’t take too long to learn a new piece (though of course the more time you put into a song, the better it’ll be, generally speaking). Each of the following steps can be done for as long or short a time as you need to let them sink in.
Steps to learning a piece of music without a cast recording/track:
- learn the rhythms; feel free to speak it out with the words in places, but switch to just tapping it out in tricky spots–isolate the rhythm, without letting words get in the way
- learn the melody; hum/lip trill/sing it through on vowels–be precise in figuring out not just the musical line itself, but how it fits in your voice*
- start putting everything together; sing/hum through the piece, paying attention to proper pitch and rhythm, and slowly start adding the words into it. Stop and go over any tricky bits for musical accuracy or vocal challenges
- as you go forward with step 3 and get more comfortable with the song as a whole, pay attention to the lyrics; what’s the story? what words can you play with? where does your character change/discover something? (Even in a non-musical theatre song you should play with character.) There are thousands of exercises and tricks that you can use to improve the performance aspects of a song
- PLAY! Experiment with style; pay attention to dynamics; invest in the character and story; and keep challenging yourself to master any difficult passages
As with anything musical (as with anything, period, I guess), it takes practice to figure out the music learning process. Fortunately, it’s something that’s relatively easy to pick up and start practising for yourself–just find a piece of music that you aren’t too familiar with (bonus points if you pick up sheet music for a song you’ve never heard before), and start going through the steps, seeking assistance where necessary (see the footnote addendum to steps 1 and 2). Eventually, learning and reading music starts to come more naturally; it may be cliche to call music a language, but it really does start to feel that way as you learn to speak it.
Need any help understanding or executing these steps? I’m here as a resource! Feel free to email me or leave a message on this post and I’ll try my best to help you out. Happy singing!
*for steps 1 and 2, if you don’t play an instrument and/or don’t have the experience or theory to go through rhythms and music on your own, phone a friend! Find someone who can play through your vocal line on a piano, and make a recording–then follow steps 1 and 2 with the recording for reference. It would be savvy of you to offer to pay for this service; although friends don’t always want to charge you, they would be offering their services as a professional and should be compensated. At the very least, buy them a coffee/pint.