Three Steps for Memorizing Music
Updated: Aug 17, 2020
Do you struggle with memorizing music?
You're not alone! It's not many singers' favorite thing to do.
Memorizing music can be difficult, but it doesn't have to be. You just need a roadmap and some strategies!
For the sake of this post, we're talking about memorizing music for solo performance, but much of this advice can be applied to other musical memory situations, as well.
I'm a believer that a good deal of memorizing should be happening organically as you practice, and should be in process as soon as all the pitches and rhythms of a song are learned correctly. If you're singing something over and over again, chances are it's more memorized than you think it is. Test yourself with your current rep and see where you are. If it's not completely memorized, you'll at least know the sections to focus on.
When you're trying to memorize something as complex as a piece of music, do so in small chunks. It may only be a couple measures at a time, and that's okay. Only move on to a new chunk when you feel you've done sufficient work on the first one.
After you feel fairly confident you've memorized something, put it down for a few hours, or until the next day. If you can remember All the Things when you pick it up again, congratulations - you can move on to the next section. If not, it means you need to spend more time per section, work more efficiently, and/or try some different strategies.
After you've memorized something, practice it from memory as much as you can; do, however, still consult the score from time to time to make sure you're still remembering things correctly.
There are three main layers to memorizing pieces for solo performance. That's right - it's about more than just the words and notes.
LAYER #1: TEXT
First, there is the text. (I say "first," because you really should be working the text of a piece before you do anything else with it.) This is where a lot of singers get tripped up, especially if a piece is strophic (multiple verses with the same music but different text each time).
Some strategies for memorizing the text are:
Writing it out (without looking at your score)
Speaking it as you would a monologue
Being aware of the rhythm and rhyme scheme of the text itself
Associating certain words with a movement or gesture of your creation (especially helpful if you're a kinesthetic learner)
Recording yourself speaking the text, and listening several times a day
Reciting the text to yourself as often as you can throughout the day, either out loud or internally - while driving, while walking your dog, while exercising, during TV-time commercial breaks, while washing dishes, etc. (Be creative. Yes, you may get some funny looks from your family or co-workers.)
LAYER #2: MUSIC AND VOCAL TECHNIQUE
This layer is a lot more complicated, because in addition to memorizing the music on the page, you also have to lock in how you're going to approach it technically. Internalizing the way you prep vocally for high notes, long phrases, or dynamic changes goes hand-in-hand with internalizing the fabric of the music itself.
Assuming that the pitches and rhythms will get locked in organically as you practice, you
should focus your attention on finer details as soon as you can.
Start with cutoffs and entrances. How many beats do you hold the last note of your phrase? How many beats until you sing again?
Make sure you know where you dynamic changes are (soft/loud). This may happen organically too, but you need to make sure you're 100% specific, because changes in dynamic level require certain feats of the breath, and you want to make sure you've planned for them.
Make sure you're singing the right articulation (staccato, legato, marcato, etc.). Again, this is important to practice early on, because each one requires your breath to do specific things.
Practice exactly how you want to execute any tempo changes, fermatas, or cesuras, so that you can lead them in a way that pianist will be able to follow you.
If your pieces contains any improvised/unwritten ornaments or riffs, make sure they are also memorized.
LAYER #3: PRESENTATION
This layer encompasses everything about how you're going to perform the piece. Assuming
you've already done some background work with the character and context of the piece (nod your head "yes"), you should being memorizing your character and interpretive choices, and any movement or gestures you choose to incorporate.
Be sure that all of your choices are specific. A character does not just feel "happy" or "sad." Those vague emotion words will lead to a vague performance. The same goes for gestures - you must choose specific movements to go with specific words, and have a memorized plan for them.
The next step is to put all of these elements together in your practicing and see if you can present an accurate, thoughtful, and authentic performance. This kind of synthesis takes time, so make sure your memorizing work is done well ahead of your performance time, if possible. The more prepared and specific you are, the less nervous you will be!