The Process of Memorizing New Music

As people familiar with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus know, about 95% of our performances are from memory.  A singing friend of mine asked me yesterday, “How do you guys do it?”  She wasn’t expressing disbelief or praise.  She really meant it.  What does one actually do to go about memorizing all these pieces when you have so few rehearsals?

My answer was almost automatic.  “50-60% aural, 20-30% visual, 10-20% touch/mechanics.” Growing up learning to play piano, I had to memorize every piece I learned, to the point where it was hard for me to be happy playing something if I hadn’t memorized it.  That quote was from my music teacher; she always told me that learning a piece was a mixture of those senses but that you definitely needed all three.  Most people focus on the visual (reading the music) and the mechanics (once you’ve played/sung something often enough, it becomes ingrained in your muscle memory.)  She emphasized this by having recording my playing and practicing so I could listen to myself.

So when it comes to learning these pieces, I usually get a hold of a recording as soon as possible and use that to begin the osmosis into my brain.  I start passively listening to it everywhere – on morning commutes, on business trips, sitting at my computer doing other things.  I say passively because I’m not studying the music, I’m just trying to get a feel for its character, its structure, where the chorus comes in, that sort of thing.

Now, smarter singers than I have specific preferences about which recordings they buy and listen to, but I’m cheap and not really a connoisseur: I’m quite happy with the recording the chorus manager supplies for us.  And John Oliver himself has said he rarely listens to the recordings, because he can sit with the score and hear it in his head (and therefore not be trapped into one particular interpretation and its dynamics or tempi.  Hey, I’m Just Another Bass.  I’m not that good.

At some point I will sit down with the recording and the music and walk through it together, preferably with a piano nearby to play out tough passages.  The goal is to the point where when I’m passively listening, I can follow along mentally because I know the notes and text.  That way I can turn those passive sessions into active sessions and transform otherwise worthless commute time into study time.

As the off-book rehearsal looms closer, I start to do things like “on this 30 minute drive, I’m not getting out of the car until I’ve memorized this passage.”  I’ll sing along with the music, sometimes turning it off to see if I can sing it without the musical prompts.  I’ll back up and play the same 4 bars again and again… then add another 4 bars… then try the next 8… then see if I remember the first 8… then jump to another part of the piece and listen… then go back to the part I’m learning and see if I’ve forgotten it.  Sure enough, by the time I’m walking from the parking lot to my office, I’ve generally got it in my head.  On the way home, the challenge is, is it still in my head?  So I repeat the process.

Sooner or later, there’s a moment of panic.  Uh-oh, the off-book rehearsal is soon, and I still don’t know the piece!  That will usually trigger several hours of at the piano work with the score, or continually running a section over and over again trying not to look at the music as I sing.  I will write note cards (visual and tactile) to help memorize tricky text portions and flip through those while I sing the notes.  Hopefully by the time the final piano rehearsal comes along I’m feeling dangerous enough to forego those note cards, as they’re a crutch that’s frowned upon during those memorized rehearsals.

Whether you are memorizing your music or not, I’m interested to hear – how do you learn music?

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One response to “The Process of Memorizing New Music

  1. Pingback: The MacMillan off-book date is *gulp* WHEN? « Just Another Bass

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