Singing from Memory

Question: Do you have any tips for singing from memory? I can never remember it all and usually get stuck in the middle.

– Courtney (UK)

Albert’s reply: It’s most important to integrate the different types of musical memory as you practice. The brain absorbs information through the senses in addition to that gained through its analytical faculty. Thus, we have aural memory, visual memory, kinesthetic (touch) memory and our analytical memory.

Most of this “data gathering” takes place subconsciously. Our task is to make as much of the learning process fully conscious as is possible. The way to do this is to break the learning process down into its individual components, then integrate them through controlled repetition.

Learn the melody separately from the text. Study the text as an actor would, and if the song, lied or aria is in a foreign language make sure you understand it completely, for reasons of both interpretation and memory.

Solfège the melody. This means using the solmization syllables do, re, mi, fa, sol, la and ti (or si) for the notes of the scale. I’ll explain solfège in a separate article, as there are multiple methods. In short, I recommend fixed do solfège, in which each note is always sung using the same syllable regardless of key or even accidental. Thus, C, C-sharp, C-flat, C double sharp and C double flat are all do, and so on.

Keep your eyes on the score as you practice so that you take a “mental photograph” of the piece. You can practice closing your eyes and trying to recall the visual details of the score. Can you see all expressions, all text and all notes in your mind’s eye? This exercise will improve your visual memory.

We need to give extra attention to the middle of pieces, for several reasons. The first is that the brain naturally tends to recall beginnings and endings. How often do we remember the opening and punch line of a joke, only to forget the details!

One solution is simply to create more beginnings for the brain to learn. Each piece only begins once, but we can create more “virtual” beginnings by consciously specifying starting points elsewhere in the music. In this manner we can break the piece up into smaller units, with each unit (such as a phrase or section) having a distinct beginning and end. (The “end” should generally be the start of the next unit, so that we connect sections of music in our minds.)

The middle sections of pieces is also where most harmonic action takes place. As a singer, this is of slightly less concern to you since you’re dealing with a single voice – but only slightly. Pianists need to hear and play all voices simultaneously, and those voices combine to form harmony (and by definition polyphony). The more you study harmony, the greater will be your understanding of music, and this can only have a beneficial effect on your ability to sing from memory.

Remember that learning music is integrative and synergistic. This means that the different types of musical memory all build on one another and reinforce each other. The solution to learning music thus involves a sound practice methodology that facilitates conscious, careful, accurate learning and steadily improving your musicianship – the essential musical skills.

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