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Friday, January 20, 2017

Memorization Part 2, How Jonathan Memorizes (021)

Welcome back to our series on memorization! In the previous article, we talked about what being "on-book" and "off-book" means, and what the industry standards are for each type of performing. In this article, I'll cover my personal habits on memorization.

This may be a little under-whelming, though… As it happens, I tend to learn music very, very fast. I'll actually be honest here, and say that sometimes I learn music too fast, and sometimes I do not learn it thoroughly enough. Sometimes I rely on being able to piece something together at the last minute, and then I don't allow enough time. My procrastination habit is alive and well, and sometimes, my procrastination really terrifies my wife.

It almost always turns out just fine. I would not be where I am today if I routinely showed up to events without being memorized, but I know that I can be better about this particular area in my professional life.

I do have a few things that I do - when I do it right.

Step 1: Run-through

The first things I do with a new score is a single run through everything. This serves a couple purposes: I need to know if it is going to fit into my voice or not. I'm a bass-baritone, so I need to know if it is impossibly too high to sing, or if it is too high for too long in spots. In that case, I need to turn down the contract. But if it's merely a challenge, then at that point I'm making a mental note of where I will need to spend some time working it into my body.

The other thing I'm doing in that first run-through is mentally noting where the tricky spots are going to be for memorization. Particularly wordy passages, fast passages, and recitatives are chief among these.

Step 2: Score Prep

The second thing I do with a score is put tabs in my score for every entrance, and for every number that I sing in. I use Post-It flags for this purpose. Regarding memorization, what this really does for me is give me a visual on which parts of the opera or concert involve me the most. If I have a really skimpy Act I, but an intense Act II, I don't want to spend half of my available preparation time on each act. I need to get started on Act II.

Another big part of score prep is writing in a translation. You can check out everything I had to say about that in my three previous articles. However, physically writing the text into my score goes a long way towards internalizing the text.  For some reason, the physical, slow act of writing it cuts down on the amount of time that I need for the next part.

Step 3:

And then: it's drilling. Repeating over and over and over and over and over. No magic tricks, no special sitting positions, no chemically-induced trances. Just good, ol' fashioned work.

There are a few bits here and there that help. I look for patterns - for example, consonants that clump together. I just had a line in Winterreise No. 10 that goes "Die Füßen frugen nicht nach Rast" - that one was easy because of the two F's in "Füßen Frugen", and the three N's in "frugeN Nicht Nach". Finding rhymes from line to line can help too, as can identifying where lines start with similar words.

Sometimes when there are multiple verses with the same tune, they can be hard to keep separate. Finding out where they are different helps.

Knowing the translation here really helps. If you can keep track of what you are saying, you can tell the story, and the text will come to you because you know what part of the story comes next.

In the drilling, I start with just a couple words, then add on more words one or two at a time until I have the whole line down. Then I'll move to the next line, doing the same thing. Then I'll put the two lines together. Then the third line. Then the page. One little bit at a time.

I also don't try to get it all in there in one sitting. I work hard and focused for 15-25 minutes, then step away for a bit and do something else. Then I come back to it. It requires several sessions like this, but it will get there. I'm doomed for failure if I try to do it all at once.

If it's fast, I don't try to memorize at full speed. I slow it down to the point that I can physically wrap my mouth around the words, and I keep it there as I memorize. While things are still getting worked in there, it also gives my mind a little more time to think forward. Once I start getting it reliably at the slower tempo, I bump it up until I can sing it faster and still without error.

One big thing - I'm not singing full out as I memorize. I do almost all of my memorizing while "marking," or singing at a very soft dynamic and often in lower octaves. And it's not always by the piano. For drilling, I'll often just have a keyboard app on my phone or tablet available for when I need to get check a pitch here or there.

Step 4: Memorize the other stuff

There is a later stage of memorization, where it's no longer just about memorizing words, but also memorizing dynamics, drama, and how it works with the body. That's the point where I will be practicing in full voice and at performance tempo.

Step 5: Check memorization

The last part of memorization is to check how you are doing against a pair of outside ears. Usually, what I do here is try to sing it from memory with my lovely wife, acting as a vocal coach, at the piano. When she's not available, I will sometimes bring out a few recordings and try against those.

And that's all that I usually need to do. However, there are as many techniques for memorization as there are singers. For the next video, I'll go over a few of the other popular memorization techniques out there. And I could use your help! If you have a favorite, let me know by your comments or emails. I'll summarize everyone's thoughts in the next article.

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