Don’t Memorize The Words – Tell The Story

I follow Marketer Extraordinaire Seth Godin’s daily blog. The biggest thing about Seth Godin is that he doesn’t talk about selling your product, he talks about telling your story. Consequently, a lot of his blogs, even though most people would think they were intended for someone in a traditional (non-artsy) business, relate to us as performers. A recent one was called “Awkward Memorization,” and I’ve attached it here.

A few lines that stood out for me:

Watch a great performance and you’ll see no artifacts of memorization. Instead, you will see someone speaking from the heart.

This is what it means to know something by heart.


Don’t memorize your talk. Memorize your stories.

Are you working on a song for an audition? What’s the story? Is there more than one story? Identify your story or stories. Where does one finish and the other one start? Tell us the stories.

Singing a string of words is rote memorization and it’s boring. Sing from the heart. Be vulnerable. Be authentic. Tell your stories.

What If You Were Your Own Teacher….

I just read the phrase, “as if they were their own teacher” on a FB page of independent teachers, in regards to how a student would do self-evaluation, including:

  • Finding three things they did well
  • Finding a couple of things they’d like to fix
  • Figuring out how to fix them
This was based on the idea of submitting a video to a teacher in the event that you were unable to make your lesson that week. The teacher would then review the practice video and give his/her own observations and suggestions. I thought this was a really great option. I’m thinking of making this an option in the fall.
So here’s a challenge for you this summer:

  • Video your practice session (you can use your phone) as if it were a lesson. Include:
    • Vocalises
    • Repertoire
      • Do each song all the way through without stopping
      • Stop and address the issues you need to address
  • Watch the session – either afterwards, or stop after vocalises
  • Evaluate it
    • Were your vocalises varied enough? 
    • Did you vocalize long enough?
    • Were the things you stopped and addressed the things you should have stopped and addressed? Did you leave anything out?
    • What did you do well? (There must have been something.)
    • What do you need to address the next time you practice? How are you going to address this? When?
    • Is there anything you noticed that you need to ask me about?
I’m going to try to do this too. Let’s see what happens.

Learning Your Music

[From the April/May 2000 newsletter]

Many of you probably go about learning your music the same way I have for most of my life – through constant repetition. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I would like to address the topic of learning and memorizing your music so that we can work toward a more polished performance.

First of all, there is a lot you can do without having to open your mouth. You can practice on a bus, on the treadmill, in the car, during lunch – silent study is often the best way to cement a piece into your brain. Perhaps you are studying your text, that you have written down onto an index card (along with the word-for-word translation directly under it); perhaps you are listening to another singer singing the piece on your iPod or watching YouTube for a different interpretation; perhaps you’re listening to your last lesson on your iPod (for those of you who don’t record your lessons – hint, hint!).

Another effective method, frequently used in language study, is to work on something right before you go to bed so that your subconscious mind will continue to work on it while you sleep (“Oh, great, so I can dream about ‘Ici bas.’ Just what I always wanted.”) I am a big believer in index cards, and have been known to tape them to my bathroom mirror so that I can work on memorizing something while I blow-dry my hair. [Obviously written before I took up air-drying.]

Experts agree that isolating the text and its rhythm from the music is the best way to approach learning music. You should be able to speak your words in rhythm at a tempo a little faster than you need to go (kind of like warming up higher than you’ll actually be singing). This is especially helpful when you are singing in a foreign language.

After you have learned the text and its rhythm, add the melody. This is one of the reasons that we frequently sing the melody through on a nonsense syllable – so that you won’t be thrown by the words. Get the melody “into your voice” and the words solid, and the union of the two should be much easier to accomplish.

The last thing to add is the accompaniment. Know what your pianist is doing underneath your vocal line and between your entrances. This eliminated the tendency to stand there looking vacant and unsure as to your next entrance. (Frequent singer joke: How do you know that there’s a singer at your door? You don’t – she can’t find the key and doesn’t know when to come in!)

In Shirlee Emmons’ and Alma Thomas’ book Power Performance for Singers: Transcending Performance Barriers, it states, “Rehearse the meaning of the information regularly. Don’t just read or sing; do it with understanding and meaning. This way you will remember it better, while, at the same time, you are working on other skills as well.” (I really, really recommend this book, especially if you are contemplating any kind of performance as part of your life, whether as a professional or just for fun.)

Those of you have been with me for awhile have improved your performance skills tremendously. There is still work to be done and I look forward to developing a deeper understanding of the elements involved in a truly communicative performance!