I have a confession: memorizing music has been getting harder for me. In my 20s and 30s, I never had to try to memorize . . . the task of learning my music resulted in a memorized aria or song, except for recitative. I had to spend time memorizing those recits or they didn’t stick. Last summer, I listened to a TED Talk about memory champions and I heard something that resonated with my own plight. “Distraction is the competitive memorizer’s greatest enemy.” —Joshua Foer, “Feats of Memory Anyone Can Do,” www.ted.com, TED2012
We, as singers, are competitive memorizers. And the way we memorize our music may differ from singer to singer, but we all need quiet, focused time to learn and memorize. With my family of three demanding young children and a full-time teaching job, it is no wonder that memorizing new material seems more difficult. My life is full of distractions. I do not claim to solely own the distraction excuse.
Many college students hold part-time jobs and have roommates that party late into the night, and the smartphone phenomenon is a constant distraction for those who allow it to be. So, I have researched several memory techniques and will share what I believe correlates most closely to what we, as singers, need to understand about our memories. These techniques all require concentration. Shut the door and turn off your phone. Allow yourself a quiet space and enough time to concentrate fully on the memorization task at hand.
Memorization is an essential part of your music studies. Whether you are memorizing dates for a history exam or lyrics for an art song, the act of memorization must be accomplished to succeed. For some, memory comes easily, and for others, it can seem like an insurmountable task.
An important fact about memory is that it is a skill that can be learned. It is not some talent you either have or do not have. Memory champions around the world do not possess higher-than-average IQs or hold terminal academic degrees. They simply work daily on their memory.
Ultimately, to memorize anything you must be mindful and find a way to make what you are memorizing meaningful to you. In studying singing, you are learning vocal technique, studying languages, and learning music. Since I am writing for voice majors, I will devote this information to song or aria texts.
Most music must be memorized for performances, except for some chamber works and oratorios. So, for this discussion I am setting technique aside and focusing on the music you learn and memorize. Whether you speak the language of the text fluently or not, the words, rhythm, and pitches will stay with you when they make sense to you.
Memorization vs. Learning
Q: What is the difference between memorizing and learning?
A: “Memorizing something results in you knowing something, learning something results in your understanding something, and these two couldn’t be more different.” —Willie Chang, “Memorizing versus Learning: Is There a Difference?”
www.theprospect.net, February 6, 2015
One of the first things I tell my students to do for art songs and arias in foreign languages is study the text independently from the music. “Learn” the text: i.e., translate every word, employ International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) for pronunciation, and practice speaking the text to the point that you grasp what you are saying. Your teacher or coach will help you with diction. After the text has been worked to the point of comprehension, it is much easier to learn the music. Whether you learn the notes and rhythms as a vocalise or with the text is up to you. For many, this process differs with different types of music, but undergraduate students will benefit from trying different methods on different songs to help you learn how to learn.
When you have learned the text and learned the music, you are ready to put them together and learn the song. As quoted above, “knowing” and “understanding” are quite different. As a university voice teacher, I’ve experienced countless times where a student cannot get through a song in a lesson and they immediately say, “I knew it this morning,” or “I knew it yesterday,” etc. The student thinks they “know” the song, but quite obviously they don’t, because they cannot sing it alone in a studio for their teacher.
It has become imperative for me to teach students that to “know” a song or aria, one must “understand” it and then practice the way they want to sing it. After you understand your music, you are ready to learn it and memorize it.
Memorizing will come quickly to some and be painstakingly arduous for others. But remember, memory can be improved by practicing. Some people equate memorization with long charts of multiplication tables or lists of dates for history exams, and these abstract facts may appear boring or uninteresting. Why would anyone want to memorize something that does not hold your interest?
If you hear a clever joke, you are more likely to remember it because it made you laugh. The human brain has evolved to quickly memorize interesting and colorful facts or stories that engage us. We can memorize material (songs, arias, information for tests, etc.) more readily when we understand how to engage with the material in a way that is fun, not anxiety ridden.
“Memory is the brain’s way of integrating sensory-motor information into a symbolic representation that allows prediction of future occurrences. This is the evolutionary basis for memory. When trying to commit information to memory, it is important to engage with the material in a fashion that complements how your brain naturally performs this task.” —York University, “Part 1: Learn How to Memorize—Top 6 Memorization Techniques,”
www.oneclass.com, January 12, 2017
Just Do It
Two thousand years ago the Greeks recorded a method called the memory palace, also known as the Roman Room. The idea is there is a place, or palace, in your mind where you can place memories. It is easier to remember something if you can see it. By linking an image to a phrase or word, you can turn a random word into a meaningful word. When text has meaning, you will remember it.
Another memorization technique is making a story. For example, let’s take a song from the Twenty-Four Italian Songs and Arias that many undergraduate singers are assigned: “Sebben, crudele.” Together, we will employ both methods by picturing specific images and linking them together to create a story that is unique enough to become memorable.
Imagine the image of a movie star you find devastatingly attractive. For the sake of research, I will suggest Channing Tatum. Now imagine your actual, real-life mailbox—your empty mailbox. Next, imagine that you have been social media stalking Mr. Tatum for months with lengthy messages about how you would be willing to do anything for him, including dressing in a maid’s uniform to serve him and only him.
You have messaged him countless times that you remain faithful to him. But, alas, there is no response in your mailbox. Channing Tatum is so cruel! Finally, imagine your wedding picture: kissing Channing Tatum on a remote beach.
Memorizing a song text will be quicker if you reward yourself with dreamy, funny, weird, colorful, or otherwise unforgettable images that you can see. Let’s apply the images I described above to memorize the song “Sebben, crudele” in context of the order of the phrases.
Sebben, crudele (“Although, cruel”)—Channing Tatum, you cruel man
Mi fai languir (“You make me languish”)—because my mailbox remains empty
Sempre fedele (“Always faithful”)—after seeing Magic Mike, I have been writing to tell you that I am yours alone
Ti voglio amar (“I want to love you”)—which I have been telling you in sordid detail
Con la lunghezza (“With the length”)—with my long and amorous messages
Del mio servir (“Of my serving”)—dude, I’m willing to serve as your maid
La tua fierezza (“Your pride”)—you are famous, you’ve got moves, whatever, I get it
Saprò stancar (“I know how to wear you down”)—I will marry you when you realize that I am your ever-faithful true love
The title of an art song is either the first phrase or the topic of the poem. “Topic sentence” can be traced to the Greek word topos, meaning “common place.” When you memorize an art song, attempting to memorize word by word will be at worst futile and at best not lasting. But memorizing topic by topic will work because you will remember what is happening phrase by phrase. When we add an image of a movie star and an empty mailbox, etc., and create a meaningful story, the song is placed in your memory palace and can be retrieved by imagining the first image and then continuing the sequence and making a story.
I Did It My Way
A memorization technique I have used my entire singing career is writing out the text longhand. Again, I remove distractions (shut the door and turn the phone off) and devote quiet time to writing down the text of a song or aria, phrase by phrase. I often write each phrase five times, including repeated phrases, so I put the entire song into my own handwriting, underlining the verb or an important word in the phrase that is meaningful to me. This has been especially helpful with recitative, where I also write down the other characters’ lines, so I can commit the entire conversation to memory.
In 2014, Scientific American printed the article “A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop.” Researchers found that university students who took notes on laptops could take more notes, almost capturing a lecture verbatim because typing is faster than writing longhand. But in three different experiments, students who wrote their notes by hand remembered more than their laptop counterparts. They remembered more immediately after the class, a day later, and even a week after the class. In short, this study addressed understanding, learning, and memorizing by demonstrating that writing by hand engages your thought process.
“Those who wrote out their notes by hand had a stronger conceptual understanding and were more successful in applying and integrating the material than those who took notes with their laptops.” —Cindi May, “A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop,” www.scientificamerican.com, June 3, 2014
It is my hope that as you practice your music for juries and auditions, these techniques will help make the memorization process more fun and less stressful. As I illustrated above, making colorful, bizarre, or silly images and stories is proven to help the memorization process. As always, your practice time is yours. When you try new methods, you might find more success—but the most important lesson is to find what works best for you.