Memorizing music and lyrics always came easily to me. Whether it was classical or musical theater, English or a foreign language, I could learn music and have it ready to perform just like that <snaps fingers.>
Not so much anymore.
Maybe it’s aging. Maybe it’s lack of practice – before I moved back to Milwaukee in 1996, memorizing was a regular part of my life, because I’d been on stage pretty much non-stop for the past 15 years. When the performing slowed down, I got out of practice.
But when I had to learn music for the Bernstein concert I did in 2015, and especially when I added three songs to my assignment a few weeks before the concert, I was able to do so with no problem. In fact, it turned out memorization was optional, but I felt that I had to do it for myself – it was my NYC debut and I was not going to do it on book. (If it had been an oratorio or something, that would’ve been different.)
According to Dr. Noa Kageyama of The Bulletproof Musician, there are two types of memory on which musicians rely:
- Serial Chaining – basically memorizing the song in order from beginning to end. Pretty much how we learn songs – and if all goes the same way in performance as it does in the practice room, it’s … fine. I would imagine that it could leave you with a very rote kind of performance and one that relies on either visualizing the music on the page (photographic memory) or listening to an inner soundtrack in your head. But what if something goes wrong? Something minor, or something big? If that’s your primary way of memorizing, can you overcome those inevitable blips that might happen? What if they ask you start from some place other than the beginning?
- Content Addressable Access – in other words, finding cues or markers that trigger us. Dr. Kageyama says that there are four kinds (my notes below each in Italics):
- Structural cues are natural breaks or logical sections that form the structure of a piece. Like the exposition/development/recap, or where phrases begin and end.
For us as singers, this can be as easy as verse/chorus, or as complicated as a song that has multiple sections, like “I’m still hurting.” A dramatic key change, as found in Frank Wildhorn’s “Someone like you” is another example.
- Expressive cues are mood or character-based. Sections that you decide should be mysterious, or pensive. Or that communicate happiness, sadness, or sarcasm. Or involve characters who form part of a narrative in your head.
Here’s where we have an advantage over instrumentalists – we have words! Now, that means we have an added layer of memorization, but it gives us something very specific to hold on to. All the more reason why, if we’re singing in a foreign language, we need to do a word-for-word translation of the text – and perhaps write out an inner monologue, even if it is in English (or whatever our native language is).
- Interpretive cues are also musical in nature, but related more to the hints that the composer has left us in the score. Like changes in tempo, phrasing, dynamics, and all those Italian words we suddenly realize we should have looked up when our teacher quizzes us in a lesson.
Again, key changes, but also what is happening in the accompaniment? Is it transparent? Is it full? Is the melody doubled?
- Basic cues are technique-related, such as bowing, sticking, or fingering choices.
For us as singers, this includes marking your breaths, based on not only your technical ability, but on the grammatical demands of the text. Also, approaching different notes in your range and knowing how you’re going to handle your passaggio, that high note at the end, etc.
I have an audition this Saturday for Washington National Opera, and I decided to learn two brand-spanking-new pieces for the audition. I picked them out on January 1. I have since decided, based on where I’m at in memorization and what I really want to sing, and with the advice of my teacher, Nicholas Perna, that I am only going to sing ONE new piece, and it is “O pallida, che un giorno mi guardasti” from L’Amico Fritz. The other piece will be something I’ve known for years, “Dido’s Lament” (aka “When I am laid by Henry Purcell”) from Dido and Aeneas. I suspect they will ask for the Italian, so that’s the one I will focus on.
Here are the methods that I’ve been using over the last two weeks:
- Week 1: Largely serial chaining-based for the first few days
- Play it through on the piano
- Sing it through and see where the technical issues might be Find a few recordings and listen to/watch them
- Set up an Appcompanist track and adjust the tempo to where I am at (and adjust again when I’m stronger)
- Type the text onto my laptop, erase, and retype (some people swear by handwriting it, and I used to, but I have thumb arthritis, so that’s not ideal anymore)
- Work BACKWARDS – start on the last page, then go back to the prior one, then to the beginning. This “breaks the chain”*
- Week 2: Find cues, mainly based on the text/translation/interpretation
- Look at the translation provided and break it down into word for word translation rather than the poetic one provided
- Break that down further into the vernacular (even if it’s amusing to me – that’ll help!)
(For example – I decided to approach each line of the song like a fortune in a fortune cookie and add the words, “in bed” to the translation. It makes me smile and tweaks my interpretation so that it’s got a little bit of spice to it. It kind of reminds me of the “oh shit” method of counting that I created a few years ago – stay tuned and I’ll tell you about that another time).
- Type that under the Italian translation
- Erase the Italian text and sing it while looking at the English translation (this is a new technique for me and it’s working really well, because I’m really associating the word with its translation instead of parroting syllables with some vague understanding of the text)
- Repeat without looking at the words
- If I make a mistake, even if it’s minor, STOP and repeat the phrase correctly [PRACTICE MAKES PERMANENT SO GET IT RIGHT BEFORE YOU MOVE ON]
- Rinse and repeat
*Speaking of “breaking the chain,” Dr. Kageyama has a really interesting exercise to work on that:
Sing the Alphabet Song but instead of starting with A, start with F. Can you do it without having to think “ABCDE” first? I’m not sure, honestly, if this is supposed to start with F on the first note of the song or F where it’s supposed to be in the song. But that could be another interesting way to look at it!
In an ideal world, you would have more time to work on memorization and internalization the song. And I should have planned further ahead, but I wasn’t honestly that sure that I would be doing the auditions this year, post-Covid. I do like this aria a lot, and Dr. Perna thinks it’s a great choice for me vocally and as an audition song – it’s short, which the panel will appreciate, and it shows what it needs to show. So – I think I’ll be ready for it. Assuming my Covid rapid test is negative tomorrow…..
(Watch them choose “When I am in laid” instead. Now there’s where I should add the words “in bed.”)