Memorising music is a bit of a nemesis for many of us not in the flush of youth, I’m afraid, but the good news is that we all remember much more than we consciously realise. That score or word sheet we have in our hands that we are so reluctant to put down “just in case we have a bit of a block” could be considered a kind of comfort blanket. However, at some point we need to take the plunge, trust our preparation, trust our musicality, put the copy down and let our ears take the greater responsibility.
I do think there is some similarity between memorising and sight-reading: when we learn a musical instrument, we spend so much time perfecting the pieces, so much so that the reason for sight-reading often gets lost. Just as we strive to do in our pieces we feel that we have to get everything correct when sight-reading. Keeping a sense of continuity can be held back by our enthusiasm for perfecting notes and rhythms. Accepting that these may not be perfect can be a tricky pill to swallow. Now I’m certainly not advocating that guess work overrides detailed execution of the written music, but singing through without the copy, like sight-reading, can be seen as another means to an end, another essential part of practice. In performance there’s no way we simply stop, or go back over the bit we didn’t sing well - the full piece must be delivered without interruption - so we need to develop a capacity for continuity despite our urge to rewind. The constructive side is that very often, by not allowing ourselves the luxury of rewinding, or looking at the music, we eliminate many of the areas of doubt.
I’m still steeling myself to insist on downing copies at choir rehearsals more frequently than I currently do. Even though I’d be happy for the members simply to sing what they can from memory, I know there is resistance but it is in my gift to guide the singers to trust themselves more. One of the wonderful things about singing in choirs is that between us we can remember everything - team work indeed! As a soloist, just singing through the song is not an economical way of nailing the tricky corners - these sections must be extracted from the whole and carefully worked into the voice - but any singer should factor into their practice singing the whole song through which not only consolidates the preparation but gives one the opportunity to realise where any memory issues lie.
Here is a list of ideas, some of which may suit you better than others:
* Break down the song into sections; these are usually clear but if not just take it page by page.
* Obviously knowing the notes helps! Couple this with visualising
the look of each page, and the words at the beginning of each page.
* Consider the story throughout the piece, or make one up.
* Use mnemonics to cue you for the start of each page or section: eg how is the first letter of each word on the page/section arranged in the alphabet?
* Listen to the piece in headphones while doing the boring
housework jobs or while on the daily walk/run/treadmill.
* Silently sing yourself to sleep; this is the moment when the conscious and unconscious areas of the brain appear to merge.
* Repetition, repetition, repetition.
* Line by line, sing/silently sing each at least three times, then gradually add the following line, then the previous line. Use the same method for whole sections of the piece.
* Work back from the end.
* Write down the words
* I’ve also heard that visualising words in the upper left quadrant of your vision seems to settle in the memory quicker……
This is not exhaustive and there is information on the web. Have confidence in the fact that any of the above methods will definitely improve your memory. Give them a go and begin to trust yourself. It is liberating to realise we’re not in need of the sheet music, and when we do eventually “take the plunge” it allows more freedom for interpretation.