Sometimes you get a gig with a week’s notice, and you have to memorize five arias. Or maybe you’ve got a jump-in offer for a role you last sang three years ago. Perhaps you’re just a little behind in memorizing your songs for a recital. Whatever the case, singers often have too much to memorize and not enough time.
Here are a few tricks to help you get your repertoire securely memorized as quickly as possible. Even if you don’t have a gig coming up, I always find that I sing better in lessons or coachings after committing the aria or song to memory. Once a piece is memorized, I find that it’s more in my body, and I can start to make meaningful musical choices.
1. Memorize the Meaning
Although it might be tempting to go straight to memorizing words without a translation, I find knowing the word for word translation makes it easier to commit the aria or song to memory. Try speaking the translation out loud, or speaking the original text while thinking the translation.
I also like to get into the character’s thoughts or the song’s poetic meaning. Particularly in long arias or complicated songs, this strategy can help you connect the words to an emotion, giving you an anchor in your memory.
2. Use Notecards
A friend shared this trick with me when I was speed-memorizing Gretel, and it has become a staple of my memorization routine. On brightly colored notecards, use a red pen to write out your words.
In addition to jogging your memory using colors, you can also use the notecards to practice singing away from the score. This technique allows me to have a quick look at the text without referring to the score.
You can also use the notecards to speak through the text. Leave the music behind, and speak the words like a stage actor. Separating the music and notes can help solidify both in your memory.
If you find it harder to memorize the notes or rhythms, try to work on them away from the words. Hum or lip trill through the piece, repeating sections as needed. It can be tiring for your voice to repeat sections over and over again while you memorize, and this technique gives your cords a break.
For rhythm, especially if you’re working on more modern pieces like Stravinsky or Britten, try clapping or speaking along to a metronome. I sometimes find myself emphasizing the rhythm with my voice, which inevitably tires me out.
Instead, use your body! Try using your hands, fingers, or feet to tap out the rhythm. Switch it up if you get bored.
4. Get Some Sleep
Try to complete your memorization work a day or two before your performance, lesson, or audition. Even a nap of just one hour can improve your ability to retain information by fivefold. I find sleeping on it helps with more than memorization. It also allows the piece to settle in my body and voice, meaning that I can focus more on my acting and presentation.
Perform Your Best
I hope these memorization tips help you leave behind any fears about memory and allow you to enjoy singing. The joy of singing is why we’re all here, and it’s important not to let anything eclipse it.