It truly depends on the piece and/or the program. A piece like Mahler's 2nd Symphony is larger and takes more time to 'sink in,' so even though that concert is in May, I've already begun working on it. When learning a new piece of music, whether it's as long as a symphony or as short as Barber's "Sure on this Shining Night," there are several, over-arching steps to piece preparation:
- Wood-Shedding. This is the initial get-to-know-you stage, where you play & sing through a piece, look up and write in translations, listen to a recording or two to get an idea of what the piece sounds like with a full orchestra, and research the text, composer, and history of the piece.
- In the Thick of It. In this stage, a soloist works with a coach/accompanist and/or voice teacher to really work the piece into her voice. This is often where the emotional development of a piece takes place, although hopefully there was an immediate emotional connection in the woodshedding process. This stage could be just an hour, or it could be months depending on the piece. (Sometimes getting a piece "into your voice" takes years!) Remember that we're developing muscle memory, which is vital for the actual memorization of a piece.
- Polish, Please! Here a soloist runs the piece from beginning to end OR starts at the end and works backward, e.g. in a 10-page piece, she sings the final 3 pages, then the last 6 pages, then the last 9 pages, then finally all 10 pages. Here the goal is to create a cohesive, over-arching feeling of the flow of the piece and to make some final technical and dramatic choices.
All of this work must be done for thorough and complete preparation, however when done well, it is not 'work,' but PLAY. Music is temporal--it takes place over time--music doesn't simply exist on its own. It can't be placed on your desk or hung on your wall, those are different art forms. Therefore, music must be created and re-created every time it is performed and to achieve this, you create it whenever you play with a piece of music.
There are times when a concert or a program is requested, or you fill in for someone else who is ill or had to cancel at the last minute. Sometimes, you may have just a week or two to get a new concert piece into your voice. It’s a great challenge! Songs of Praise & Thanksgiving, for example, was created, learned, practiced, and performed in under 8 weeks--and it's 65 minutes' worth of music. That is a short amount of time to learn a complete song program and when such situations come about, you must rely on your sight-singing skills, your collaborative skills, and practicing becomes more intense and it must also, ironically, become more playful.