Back in September, when I was rehearsing La bohème, I got this text from a fellow chorister:
Many of us had been furiously studying our music over the past week, getting ready for staging rehearsals, when we had to be off-book. I had also spent almost the entire month of July memorizing the role of Dame Quickly in Falstaff, so good memorization techniques have been fresh in my mind.
I thought it might be nice to share them here, for those who might be having some difficulty memorizing their own music (or play or test material or whatever…these techniques are fairly universal, although I will mostly be talking about memorizing words and music, since that’s what I do most often).
1. Repetition, Repetition, Repetition.
Usually when people ask me how to memorize something, I tell them to repeat it over and over again. It might sound a little obvious, but it’s the only way that you’re guaranteed to remember something. You know how some television and radio ads repeat a phone number so many times that it is annoying? It’s because they are trying to get you to remember it. In the marketing world, it’s called the Rule of Seven; in the psychology world, it’s called Miller’s Law.
Hold a strand of regular thread between your hands. If you apply a small amount of tension, you can easily break that thread. Now replace that one thread with two threads. It’s a little harder to break, but you can still do it. The more strands you add, the stronger the thread becomes. Your brain is wired much like this: each time you store something into your memory, your brain creates a unique chemical pathway along your neurons. The more times you do it, the more pathways become created, and the stronger and clearer the memory becomes.
The simplest way to accomplish the repetition is this: take one line, and repeat it seven times. If you mess up, you have to start your count over. Once you can successfully repeat your line seven times in a row, that line is memorized. Move on to the next line, and the next, and so on.
2. Make a game plan.
Everybody has their own way of learning things; some people start at the beginning and work their way forward, and others like to start at the end and work backwards.
Me? I look through the entire work and figure out which parts are the hardest to learn, then tackle them first.
In the case of Falstaff, I went completely OCD and put together a spreadsheet, marking out the difficulty level of every single line. I don’t usually go this hardcore, but this was the largest role I had worked on in a long time, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss anything.
The hardest bits took me the longest to learn, but they were also the most solid by the time I got to staging rehearsals. My mouth went on autopilot while my brain was busy figuring out where to go next on stage. I cannot recommend this method highly enough. It’s probably the least appealing — after all, who wants to work on the most difficult stuff first? — but it is, hands down, the most effective way to get it in your brain.
3. Take it in small chunks.
Just like any large project, memorizing an entire piece of music can seem daunting when you have the heavy score right in front of you. Don’t think about the larger picture while you’re memorizing. Give yourself small goals and work towards them.
This is really where my spreadsheet came in handy…each line was a mini-goal. When I was sure I had a line memorized, I would write in “y” in the “Memorized” column, and I wrote an algorithm in the final worksheet that calculated what percentage memorized I was for each scene, act, and the whole work. Seeing the percentages get higher and higher kept me motivated.
4. Go backwards.
Memorization, as I mentioned before, is done through repetition, and a common trap is to start from the beginning and add on as we learn each phrase. That’s all very well and good if you want to make a strong entrance, but that won’t mean anything if you completely forget the middle or the end.
Take the preamble to the U.S. Constitution — remember memorizing this one in grade school? Most of us, if we started reciting it on the spot, might come up with, “We the People of the United States, in order…um…to…er…”
- for the United States of America.
- this Constitution for the United States of America.
- do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
- to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
- (and so on…)
This way, you’re reviewing what you just learned while you are memorizing the new parts. Yay for efficiency!
5. Write it down.
Another way to strengthen those memory cords in your brain is to physically write the words down. The act of writing (and even typing) activates different neural pathways; if one pathway fails, you can still access the memory through a different pathway.
I write the words down several times (remember, repetition is key!). First, I write them out by hand. Then I type them into my computer. If the words are in a different language, I will write out the translation by hand as well.
The last time I write out the words, I input them into a flashcard app that I have on my iPhone (I personally like Study Flash, but there are tons of apps out there, or you can just make regular old-school flashcards). I then use the flash cards to test myself at random times throughout the day.
UPDATE (4/4/2016): The StudyFlash website seems to have gone the way of the dodo, so I am now using a website/integrated app called StudyBlue. Again, whatever method works best for you is the way to go.
As a general rule, I advise against listening to one recording in order to learn a piece of music, because we all have a tendency to mimic the recording instead of making the music our own. However, I do think it’s important to get the full harmonic structure of any piece of music in your head, even if you are only learning one line.
If you can, find two or three good recordings of the work you are memorizing, and put them on “repeat” on your MP3 player/iThing. Listen to them until they become earworms and you are humming it in the shower. Listen while you are driving or on the bus or doing other work, so that they can enter your brain subliminally. The goal of this exercise is for you to become so familiar with the ins and outs of this piece that you don’t need to worry about which part is coming next.
When I was a kid, my mom used to do this all the time to help her with memorization. She would play her music on a tape in the car while driving me to and from school. Because of that, I now can sing the violin solos of Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat at the drop of a hat even today.
If you can’t find a recording of the music you are working on (maybe it’s a world premiere or nobody’s ever bothered to record it), you might want to find a friend to play the music for you on the piano while you record it. There are also accompanists online who will record the accompaniment for you — for a fee, of course. If you can’t find a local accompanist or coach to help you with this part of the system, I see no reason why you shouldn’t outsource it to a talented accompanist far away.
7. Take breaks and reward yourself.
You’ve already set goals in Step #3; when you reach them, give yourself a treat. Don’t cheat and go straight to the treat without doing the work, though! The only person you’ll be hurting is yourself.
Taking frequent breaks is also essential for the memorization process. Your brain needs time to move the information from short-term memory to long-term memory, so make sure you don’t overload it with too much at one time. I like to work in 20-minute chunks, as championed by the Pomodoro Technique, although I just use the timer on my iPhone instead of buying any fancy books or products. Each person is different, though, and only you will be able to gauge what your own time limit on concentration is. The most important thing is that you do take the breaks.
8. Don’t forget the rests!
Unless the work you have to memorize is a continuous drone for 20 minutes, you will most likely have rests in your music. You might be tempted to concentrate only on the music that features you, but beware! If you neglect the rests between your moments of glory, you will constantly be coming in at the wrong time, and very likely stepping on someone else’s part.
If you are performing a play, you not only need to know your own lines, but the ones that come before and after yours, so you know when your lines come in. Making sure you’ve memorized the rests is the same idea.
Here is where Step #6 comes back into play: if you are already comfortable with the work holistically, you will remember that you have to wait until the oboe solo is finished before singing about the birds, or you’ll be able to play with dialogue in an organic manner, instead of rattling off your part line by line. Complicated scenes with multiple characters can fall apart very quickly if even one person comes in early.
9. Avoid distractions.
Memorizing can be a very arduous (dare I say boring?) process. Why not turn the TV on or troll on Facebook, or even watch over your kids while going over your music? After all, we live in a world of multitasking, right?
In order for your brain to absorb the information efficiently, you need to be fully focused on the task at hand. If you take frequent breaks, it’s easy to concentrate on your music for a short period of time, so use that time wisely and don’t divide it among the other 100 things you need to do today. Even if you swear you can study and watch TV at the same time, I guarantee you are not learning that music as quickly as just turning the TV off and memorizing in silence.
The only time multitasking works is in Step #6. Having the music play in the background while you accomplish other tasks helps your brain absorb it subliminally. Bear in mind, however, that music and language are in two different parts of the brain, and just because you can remember the notes easily does not mean you will remember the words. You’ll still need to spend some quality time alone memorizing the words.
Say you’ve just spent Monday and Tuesday memorizing Scene 1, and Wednesday and Thursday memorizing Scene 2. If you don’t take the time to review Scene 1, you’ll have forgotten half of it by Saturday. Those neural pathways in your brain are very fragile, and the more time you can spend strengthening them, the better. The larger the work you have to memorize, the more easily different sections can fall through the cracks, and the important this step becomes.
While you review, try new ways of looking at the music. Practice transitions between sections so you don’t get caught in a memorization rut. And even when you think you are fully memorized, keep practicing your music to maintain a good level of freshness and comfort every time you get on stage. You will naturally be reviewing your work when you are in rehearsal, but what if you have a few days off between shows? Don’t become complacent; take the time to run through all your lines in your head before you return to the stage.
So there you go, folks. These steps have helped me tremendously, and I hope they help you too. Feel free to use my memorization grid as a template for yourself, or at least a jumpoff point for your own study practices. Good luck, and happy memorizing!
Do you have more memory tips? Leave them in the comments.