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Friday, February 3, 2017

Memorization, Part 3 - How Others Memorize (023)

The theme for January had been Memorization. Well, it was Memorization and COME TO MY CONCERT! But let's get back to memorization!

In Part 1, we discussed what it means to be memorized, and what some of the industry standards are. Then, in Part 2, I gave an overview of how I go about memorizing - when I do it as I intend to do it.

Here in Part 3, I'm going to summarize a number of other singers' strategies for memorization. I got some really great feedback on this subject a couple weeks ago - and then there was Traviata and Winterreise, and I couldn't get the results out to you all.

A lot of the comments were verbal, but for here, I'm just going to use the great stuff that came through my own personal and professional contacts on facebook. There were three comment threads: one on January 16, another on January 23rd, and a third one on Cindy Sadler's The Business of Singing forum, also on January 16th. Around that time I had just finished filming Memorization Part 2, so none of my comments in that video were affected by what came out here.

You can see all of the comments together in my other post for today. Go check them out in their entirety, it's some great reading! This post will just be a summary, snippets and common themes that I noticed in the posts.

I'll start with Chris McCafferty, who simply said:

Write. It. Out. (text)
In fact, of the seventeen people that responded, ten people specifically mentioned writing the out the text, either in translation or just by itself. The writing, however took many forms.

Chris McCafferty preferred writing it out on a full-size notepad. In his practice, he would leave enough space on the notepad that he could write out in IPA (the International Phoenetics Alphabet, not the beer) above it, and a word-for-word translation below it.

Melyssa Rice and Ryan Bede write in IPA as well, as he mentioned in our interview, Episode 22.
Writing things out repeatedly was another theme, shared by Ruth C Schauble, Laura Loge, and Suzanne Vinnik-Richards. Stephen Leigh Jones mentioned writing out the text seven times!

Translation, of course, was a big issue, not just in the doing but also in the knowing. Tom Forde briefly mentioned singers' favorite resource, Nico Castel, used as an initial tool, but no one claimed that that in itself was sufficient. Laura Loge calls us singers out on that by saying:

Simply copying someone else's translation inhibits the learning process, imo. Translating it yourself (ideally with an actual book dictionary but ok to reference other translations) helps internalize the meaning of every word and as a whole which aids in the memorization and helps you tell the story.
Of course, most everyone agreed that knowing the translation was vital. Getting to this point, however, was pretty varied. Erin Guinup summed it up well when she mentioned Howard Gardner's theory of intelligences. Here's some of the variations she uses with her students:

Draw pictures, visualizing a movie plot unfolding, kinesthetic movement of phrases (dance and feel), speaking the text dramtically alone or to a partner with the partner reading back the translation, an listening to recordings of their rehearsal.
Karl Reyes said that he would
"stage" himself so the imprint of the emotional intent is clear.
Suzanne Vinnik-Richards adds

Sometimes I draw pictures or make funny inside jokes for myself on difficult wordy music.
She also assures me that she has many colored pencils.

Michael Heitmann mentioned in a private message that he likes to conduct the music, helping get the rhythm into the body.

Almost as popular as writing out the text, however, was practicing speaking the text aloud as text. Six people specifically mention it. Here were a few of those:

Susan Eichhorn Young, a voice teacher in the New York City area, says:

I work language away from music first. All language is done as a monologue/script first.
She also has a newsletter called Artists for Artists, which are periodic resources sent by email. You can find the link on my Resources page.

Weston Hurt quotes from his former teacher, Steve Smith, author of the book The Naked Voice: A Wholistic Approach to Singing.
Speak the text aloud as though you're reading a dramatic poem
Speak the text aloud with projection, line and in rhythm
Ben Bongers says
If it's Mozart or similar repetition, I memorize the words first as a poetic text, then add the music. I feel the lyricism in the words as poetry first.
If it's more through composed, I learn the words like I learn an actors text. I take it by scenes.
And Carissa Marsh
I speak my text a lot out of rhythm , I make sure I speak as accurately as possible inflected as it would be in the spoken word. If my head knows what I am saying, and my emotion is in the moment, I don't fear forgetting anything.
Repetition and drilling, naturally, was part of the process, too. There were a few variations here, too.

Cindy Sadler, creator of The Business of Singing, recommends working backwards:

I start from the back of the score and forward, painstakingly, measure by measure… if you do it like this, by the time you get to the beginning, it's memorized!
Julia Benzinger, on the other hand, works in both directions:

I try and step away from the music and drill it section by section, in chronological order and out of chronological order.

Chris McCafferty tries to find patterns, much like I described in my own video on this subject. He credits his teacher Rich Asher, at Edmonds Community College who taught him this way:
- Search for the patterns, circle them. Repeat them.
- Search for the changes in the patterns, circle them, focus on them.

Once you have the patterns down, especially for repetitive or florid works, most of your time just needs to be spent on the changes.
Rick used to live using 2 color pencils. Red for areas you personally need to fix. Blue for general notes.
Myself, I think I got into the habit of looking for patterns with Bible study groups in high school and college.

Two other methods mentioned by a few people each include speaking the text in rhythm, and trying to memorize just with vowels.

An interesting thread started where people would talk about the whens and wheres of the drilling. Ryan Bede, Michael Heitmann and a few others mentioned budgeting time and setting goals. Let's start with Mike's comment:

Whiskey and Incense. Or possibly setting small goals to get it done by the deadline. It's a toss up really.

He added a little more in a private message later, however, where brought up something else: recordings. His method involved making cue-to-cue tracks to put onto your phone so you can listen anywhere.

This also is true for Weston Hurt and for Tom Forde, who would also make his own for those troublesome recitatives:

I will begin by making a recording of me singing all the lines (everyone else in a funny voice and then my voice for real).
Tom, Weston, and Melyssa Rice also made special mention of working with a professional coach/accompanist. Melyssa says it this way:

This is an important step for me - I pay for a rehearsal with a professional collaborative pianist and record it. ... I then play that recording ad nauseum, while driving (not singing along), while cleaning, walking, etc., and also use it for practicing.
Drilling just about anywhere and anytime was another theme. Patrick O'Halloran insists:

ALWAYS before bed! Stays in your brain when you wake up

Stephen Leigh Jones includes just about everything:

Cooking, Cleaning, Walking to the Bus, Never while driving the car, etc.
The idea here is to do something in a slightly distracted state so that you can test yourself. But Laura Loge had the best example of when not to drill memorization:

Note for nursing moms, though - I don't recommend memorizing with nursing as it can cause let down when practicing or performing later. It is not comfortable (and very distracting) for that to happen while performing. And, yes, I am speaking from experience. Do not memorize while nursing your baby!!! Guys - you don't have to worry about this

I think she wins the prize for best comment!

I would never have thought about that - and that's exactly why I'm going to end it here. There's so much we can learn from each other, so I'm so glad for all the comments. I hope you enjoyed them too!

If you want to see the whole thing, check out my other posting here on the website. And many thanks to our contributors:

Ryan Bede
Julia Benzinger
Ben Bongers
Susan Eichhorn Young
Tom Forde
Erin Guinup
Mike Heitmann
Weston Hurt
Stephen Leigh Jones
Laura Loge
Carissa Marsh
Chris McCafferty
Patrick O'Halloran
Karl Reyes
Cindy Sadler
Ruth C Schauble
Suzanne Vinnik-Richards

As a reminder, there's many ways to connect with Singerreise. Check out the Singerreise facebook page, "like" it, "favorite" it, and comment and share! Help make this community richer as the contributors above did. You'll also get notice when new stuff is released, like these articles and the videos.

Speaking of videos, make sure to visit and subscribe to the Singerreise YouTube Channel. Most of the articles that appear here become video presentations like the one you see down below.

Finally, please consider supporting Singerreise financially by going to the Singerreise Patreon website. There, for only a few dollars each month, you'll get some great rewards, like patron-exclusive audio tracks of Sarah and I performing. Without your support, this project simply can't move forward. With it - there's lots more to come. I have oh so many more things I'd love to share with all of you!

Oh, and if we missed you favorite memorization technique, there's still time to chime in with the comments below! Thanks for reading!


  1. Which of these memorization techniques do you think are specific to singers? For example, memorization for pianists seems quite different from memorization for singers, and both of those seem quite different from memorization for violinists. And all of those seem different from studying for a chemistry test or a history test.

    1. I came up with a line when doing the Translation videos: "Text is our unique province as singers." Memorization of texts is usually the hardest part of memorization of music for singers, and it is something that no other instrument has to deal with. Furthermore, memorization comes up far more often for singers than for instrumentalists. The only time that an instrumentalist memorizes is to perform a major solo in a concert setting - for example, a concerto with an orchestra. But think about those ratios for a minute: One soloist per 65 orchestra members. None of the orchestra members are performing memorized, and solo players are pretty rare. Chamber music is rarely done memorized, too.

      Memorization for a singer is more like a preacher memorizing a sermon, or a speaker at a conference. I'm pretty sure that the text element winds up accessing an additional part of the brain.

      Compared to chemistry and history? I'd say it's probably similar, but from the other direction. Those would access only the language-specific areas of the brain, whereas memorization for singing would access the language areas *and* the music areas.

      But I'm no scientist. :)

      I am, however, reading a fascinating book right now called the Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, who just stressed how important it is for students to take piano lessons and sports in order to build up their self-discipline, or their "willpower" skill. If it is lacking at an early age, it won't be there when studying for tests needs to happen later. The student will "use up" their willpower reserve after only a few minutes if untrained by something like music. The long practice hours of music, however, prime the student to excel in other areas.

      This book is totally a contender for a later book review. :)

    2. Cool -- thanks! Sounds like an interesting book.

      I would say that one other difference for instrumentalists is the heavily kinesthetic element of memorization (such as for a pianist, for example).