How to Memorize Vocal Music

by Bruce Schoonmaker

1. Brute repetition. Speak the text repeatedly. Sing the text repeatedly.

2. The rule of three: Work a long phrase until you can repeat it perfectly from memory three times consecutively. Do the next phrase the same way. Combine the phrases and work them as one longer phrase. Build by phrases until you sing perfectly from memory an entire section of the aria/song three times consecutively. Build by sections until you have memorized the whole song.

3. Memorize the text without the music. In other words, memorize it as a poem, rather than as a song. Then put it with the music.

4. Speak the rhythm. Sing the rhythm, on one pitch.

5. Try memorizing while lying on your back. Studies have shown that actors memorize roles faster while working on memorizing in a supine position.

6. Memorize the song backwards. Memorize the last section first, then the next-to-last section, working your way forward.

7. Reward: Reward yourself with each song memorized. Get a frozen yogurt or goody that you really like. Don't get it until you've sung the piece successfully in the presence of others (in other words, performed it from memory under pressure).

8. Write the words on paper while repeating the song from memory.

9. If you visualize the words in order to memorize, visualize the words in the upper left quadrant of your vision. I read this in a book on Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Oddly enough, it seems to settle in the memory quicker and more deeply by using the upper left quadrant.

10. Try to "hear the piece in your head," and to "listen" to it, preferably right before you go to sleep -- or to "hear" it while you are listening to something else.

11. Delay Gratification: When working on an entire role (opera, musical, or song cycle), memorize your favorite piece last. Memorize the most difficult music first. Memorize ensembles before solos. In other words, delay the gratification of memorizing your favorite parts until the other sections are memorized.

12. Try working on memorization while doing some mindless chore. Repeat phrases over and over again while cleaning up or washing dishes or sweeping. Refer to the score when necessary, then return to the mindless task and work the memory.

13. Get a friend to "repetiteur" for you, playing the piano accompaniment over and over again while you sing, in order to memorize. Don't try to make the song technically perfect while doing this kind of drill; you may even "mark" the voice. Just repeat the music many, many times in order to drill it into your mind.

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