Tag Archives: Memorization

Breaks

I took a break from writing over the past three weeks. I love writing and sharing my thoughts on singing with you, but I also needed the time and the rest to focus on a performance project that culminated on May 24th.

Breaks are important. Short or long, they allow you the time to step back and refresh yourself so you can return with better work, ideas, and energy.

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Enjoying a break on the beach near Sooke, BC.

My performance project was an opera performance of Mozart’s opera Cosi fan tutte, put on by Fear No Opera, a local company for emerging artists. It was a really fun show with a wonderful cast and production team. We had just one show on May 24th. Many laughs were shared by both the cast and the audience.

Putting that much energy into one performance is extremely demanding – the week before the show particularly, is what’s known as ‘production week’. It is an all-consuming, rehearsals nearly every night, week; where the show grows and changes to prepare for the performance. The intensity required for this week is one of the reasons I took a break from writing.

When it comes to singing in general, consistent practice is good, but so are breaks. Consistent practice will help you add to your skill sets and open your voice. But breaks are necessary to create space for you to physically and mentally integrate what you have been learning.

Athletes don’t train the same way every day, they have rest days built into their training program. Singers should do the same.

Vary your own practice; where you practice, how you learn (not all practicing is singing), what you practice, and how you practice.

Variety will give your brain the constant stimulation it needs to learn your craft. Breaks will integrate that practice on a deeper level. In the summer of 2010, I participated in a five-week intensive singing program in Austria called the Franz-Schubert Institute. I was singing several hours per day, starting at 8:00 am and often not finishing until 10 pm. I made amazing friends, learned 26 new German lieder, and it took me 6 months to integrate what I learned there into my practice.

Immediately after that program, I didn’t sing for 4 weeks. But once I started again and reviewed what I had learned in there, I found that I hadn’t ‘forgotten’ a lot, simply because my body was processing that intensive learning.

As we approach the summer months (at least in North America), I encourage you to sing intensively, then take a break. If you normally take 30-minute lessons once a week, take 60 minute lessons for 4 weeks, then take a break. Write down your observations at the end of the intensive period of singing, then return to them after your break.

Let me know how it goes for you, or if you’ve taken a break from something and returned to it refreshed, share it in the comments below!

 

Words

Learning notes has always been easy for me. I have the proverbial ‘ear for music’. I can follow and pick up a melody, even predict a harmony to a certain extent, with little to no trouble. Uniting music and words together in memorization is what challenges me!

A singer's best tools: score, pencil, cue cards, and memory.

A singer’s best tools: score, pencil, cue cards.

Separating text from music gives us a deeper insight into the structure of a piece or song. In most cases, the words existed first in the form of poetry or a libretto (the words of an opera). In an oratorio, the story is usually taken from a religious (Christian) context.

When you have experienced German art song (Lieder) spoken as poetry, the true beauty of the language shines through. Poets like Heinrich Heine, Eduard Mörike and Wolfgang Goethe were masters of the written word and inspired multiple composers’ Lieder. I have participated in several programs in Austria where poetry written in German was studied, translated, recited, sung, and performed. It gave me a wonderful insight into the beauty of the words and the environment in which they were written.

The next time you are listening to a favorite song –  no matter what the genre, find the words and read them out loud to yourself. See if it changes your experience of the song.

What was the writer trying to say? Does it change when removed from the music?

If you feel inclined to compose, try to set the words to a new melody.

As always, I’d love to hear from you. Did you experience words and music any differently after reading this?

Inspiration Part 2 of 4

On Monday night I saw a friend and colleague’s graduation recital for her Master’s in Voice. It was inspiring for a number of reasons.

The selection of music was both varied and moving. Oldest pieces were from the  late 16th/early 17th century and newest pieces were from the 20th Century. Her performance of them was both sincere and moving.

inspiration - picasso2

A single event can inspire someone to get out of a rut (in my case a non-practice rut, since I’ve had a cold for the past two weeks).

Being inspired by a musical performance is an external factor that motivates internal inspiration. As Picasso says above, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” Even though we don’t feel inspired at a particular moment to do, create, work, whatever, we must be open to the moments when inspiration will find us.

I wasn’t ‘working’ while at my colleague’s recital, (although I was listening closely), but it took some motivation to get me out of the house that evening. I am glad I went though, as I was inspired by the performances of all involved!

Inspiration doesn’t always strike when you’re working – sometimes it happens in the breaks between work. In which case you make a note of it in whatever way you can, then go back and use it!

Inspiration doesn’t have to be big or epic to be ‘inspiring’ either. It can be as simple as moving a house plant to a different location in your home, walking down the street and noticing a painted telephone pole, or just seeing kids play at the park and being inspired by their carefree ‘joie de vivre’!

The point is, be open to inspiration and it will find you – whatever form it may take. It’s up to you to act on it!

As always, I love to hear your comments, thoughts, and suggestions. What has inspired you lately?

Opposites

Have you ever been so firm in your convictions about something  you were so certain about, and the opposite ended up being correct or true?

But if a line of notes goes down, we go down, right?

Nope.

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Movement in singing (not just physical) quite often works better when we think of ‘movement of opposites’, or thinking the line goes in the opposite direction to which it is written. I have learned this from several coaches and teachers over the years, and I incorporate it into my own learning and teaching.

When you have a run of notes that descend, you need to practice and think of them as if they are ascending instead.

Another way you can practice this is to sing your written line backwards – start from the highest note and work down, or vice-versa.

By working through opposite directions, you learn your vocal line more thoroughly  – you bring the outer edges of your line closer to the centre of your vocal line. This creates a more uniform sound overall, which is generally what you want when singing.

Try it and let me know how it all works for you – I’d love to hear from you!

Memorizing, Time, and Resources

I have a ‘thing’ about  memorizing. In the past I have convinced myself I’m not good at it. “I used to be good at it, but I’m not anymore. There’s too much to learn.”, I would tell myself.

Brain music image

What it basically came down to was I didn’t give myself enough time or resources to memorize what I needed to. When I first started singing, I learned pieces very quickly – I memorized them and that was that. It might have been because I would listen to my lessons nearly every day as I walked to work, drilling them into my memory. It could be that I was just working one job and had the time and energy to practice every day for 30-45 minutes. That kind of time and devotion allowed me to easily integrate what I was learning into the repertoire I was trying to memorize.

As my studies intensified, I had to learn more and more with fewer resources. This culminated in my Master’s studies at at McGill. (It’s a Master’s, it’s supposed to be challenging!) But, it also taught me that I needed new methods and ways to memorize repertoire. I was (and sometimes still am) very ‘last minute’ about it.

Currently I work an office job 20 hours a week, teach 16 hours per week, plus manage my own studio – it’s the hidden hours of life-tasks that eat up the time and energy: email, social media, paying bills, managing a household, walking the dog, preparing food, etc. Sad as it is, my own singing practice often takes a back-seat to the necessity of steady income. Then there is the task of looking for, booking, and preparing for auditions. This leads to paid performance work. I know this.

Then why is memorizing such a big deal? Because it takes time, energy, and resources that are currently distributed elsewhere.

What to do? Here are some of my tips – I also recommend taking a look at the related links I posted at the end of this blog.

  1. Take a social media fast for one week. Maybe two. Devote that time to memorization instead. You may just be astonished.
  2. Take your music to bed with you. I mean it. Just a quick review (5-10 mins) of music before you sleep is a great way to improve the retention and learning you are aiming for. I do this and wake up singing the passages I’ve been trying to learn for days.
  3. Practice your music in small sections and change it up a lot. The bulletproof musician (see link below) had a great guest post on this a few weeks back. It’s something I’ve been trying and I like it.
  4. This may or may not be obvious, but to memorize vocal music, you do not have to sing it all the time. Speak the words in rhythm, break it down (related to #3).
  5. Read the score – at first with a recording if you like, then read along and ‘hear’ the music in your head. Do this ideally when you won’t be interrupted.
  6. Listen to the music away from the score – either your own lesson/practice (preferred) or a recording – while walking, running, or exercising.
  7. Repetition, repetition, repetition – correct repetition! It can take up to 7 correct repetitions to learn something accurately, but around 21 correct repetitions to re-learn something you’ve learned incorrectly the first time.
  8. Slow things down. DO NOT sing it or speak it at full speed all the time. If you can’t do something correctly at a slow pace, you certainly cannot do it correctly at a faster one. Use a metronome to keep you honest.

Try these out and let me know what you think. I’d love to hear from you if you have more tips to add to this list. I’ll collect them and put them in a follow-up post. Alternately, feel free to leave a comment below with your tip(s).

Thanks for your time and happy memorizing!!

Preparation

Preparation is one of those words that either excites you to no end (you’re thinking about the final result), or terrifies you instead (thinking about the process to the final result).

Cosi score image

A page from Mozart’s opera Cosi fan tutte. I’m preparing the role of Dorabella for a performance in May 2014

Musicians are perpetually in a state of preparation; the next concert, the next audition, the next lesson, the next masterclass, etc. As a performing and teaching musician, I prepare for each of my student arrivals. From the very smallest ritual of preparing to practice one afternoon, to the long months of preparing a role for performance, it is something we do all the time, we just don’t often consider the idea and process of preparation.

If you are a public speaker, you prepare the nuts and bolts of your presentation before you speak (at least I hope you do!). For a fantastic guide on preparing your presentation, I highly recommend Mitch Joel‘s recent post “How to Give a Great Presentation (Seriously)“. In fact, musicians could certainly take some of his presentation advice and apply it to their own preparation.

Preparation on on a small scale might include a brief ritual before you practice each day. It could be just closing the door to your practice room, turning off your phone and computer, and opening the score. It could simply be taking a breath for the next phrase.

Because my days are generally packed with work, teaching, and other life activities, I find it helpful to meditate in silence for 5-10 minutes before practicing singing. Sometimes it’s seated, sometimes I lay on the floor on a yoga mat and just breathe. I set a timer so I stay present and mindful. There are plenty of meditation timer apps out there for mobile devices that have pretty chimes, or you could just set the timer on your stove or oven! By being silent for a short time before practicing, I focus (prepare) my mind for the activity ahead.

I personally find it REALLY hard not to be distracted before and during my practice. By setting a timer for both my preparation for practice and my practice time, I know that I have to stay focused for that period of time. It’s part of preparation. Getting mentally in the space to do what needs to be done.

Preparation also includes planning. I am about to learn and memorize a lot of music in less than one month. I will create a practice plan so I can get the  most out of my time, instead of just practicing ‘when I have time’. This includes being SPECIFIC. ie. Today I will learn the rhythms on pages 231-240 and memorize the text. Tomorrow I will memorize the notes on that same page, keeping in mind the shape of each phrase, etc.

One of the great changes that has happened to the way I approach my life is preparing for the following day or week ahead. Instead of being caught off guard, I take 10 minutes to look at the day ahead the night before. I keep a small notebook with me during the day, then keep it beside my bed at night where I write down a few words about what I’d like to achieve, see, do, etc. the following day.

In the end, preparation helps us achieve a goal or other final result. The process of preparation can be arduous (speech, report, paper, project, etc.), but it is the journey to what will be a great end result. You will know that you did the best preparation you possibly could, and that will give you a great feeling inside!

What do you prepare for? What sorts of preparation rituals do you have? As always, thanks for reading and please follow if you haven’t already!