So you’re a few weeks into the semester, you’ve rehearsed everything a couple of times and the panic you felt at the open house has begun to subside…now what? You’ve heard (about a zillion times) to spend time with the music outside the rehearsal hall but, besides singing it, what should you do?

I’d recommend going back to that high school biology class and the unfortunate frog…dissect it a bit.

Sure, you’re getting a handle on the words and notes but what about the navigation of it? How do you open the thing up and look inside and what are you looking for when you get there? Well, here’s a list of the quick things…it’s not a complete list (you can always spend more time with the score), but it’s my go-to when I pull a piece of music out of a drawer and want to get familiar enough with it to conduct it without looking like a complete idiot.

Bring a pencil and, if you’re like me and need a little contrast, a highlighter.

First, we must acknowledge that the people who take a composer’s score and put it to paper hate singers. Don’t believe me? Check all the page turns and what you’re supposed to be singing. See what I mean? Some are in the middle of a run of eighth- or sixteenth-notes. Some have key changes. Some have weird intervals you have to navigate. Mark the goofy ones so you won’t be surprised when you get there, sometimes it’s worth jotting scary things from top of the next page at the bottom of the previous page.

Next, let’s take a look at entrances (if there’s one at a page turn, please see “hates singers” above). Once you’ve sung a piece a bunch of times these start to get automatic, but you need a clue when you first get started, especially if the accompaniment doesn’t have your note or (gasp!) there ain’t no accompaniment at all. Is your starting note in a previous measure? Is it in another voice part where you can catch it? Does it come at the end of a logical progression (do-re-mi and you start on fa, for example)? Is it a recognizable interval that you have a tune that always helps you to find (like how “here comes the bride” is a fourth)?

When in doubt, write it down. It’ll help.

On to the more esoteric bits, assuming you read music. Find the dissonance. Embrace the dissonance. Dissonance is good (for the audience…it can be a pain in the okole to sing). Look for those places where the note you’re singing is only a step away from the note someone else is singing and warn yourself that it’s coming. Yeah, it sounds weird to you so make sure you’re ready for it. Be aware of where words split in funny places and aren’t pronounced like you would speak them (like where “se-ver-al” comes out “sev-rel” and you lose a syllable or when you gain one when “ha-lle-lu-jah” becomes “ha-lle-loo-oo-jah”). Find the “gotcha” words and phrases and write them out phonetically.

Once you get the song wired, the notes that you’re noting during this process will become second nature but they’ll make learning the thing a whole lot easier.