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Tips and Tools for Memorizing

From Chorus America

Conductors and singers from around 20 choruses offered these ideas for easing the process of memorization.

In Rehearsal

Start early to get "off book." "Six weeks or so into rehearsal, I ask that they put their music down and watch me," Schiff says. "I will mouth the words, especially at phrase entrances that might be contrapuntal. Usually, when they get the first word, the rest of the sentence begins filling in automatically. As a teacher of voice, I am not only giving them the words, but the shape of those words in my mouth. I am not singing - just mouthing."

Assign one or two songs per week to be memorized. That prevents having to cram in everything close to show time.

Speak the lyrics first—then sing! One choral conductor has her choral students get into mini circles and speak the lyrics with voice inflection and in rhythm over and over. "We sing it once, then speak in rhythm, then sing it twice with the sheet music. Then on the third practice during our session, we hide the sheet music and do the best we can! It seems to work wonderfully!"

Two to three weeks before the performance, run the entire concert in "lightning round." Holt of the San Diego Gay Men's Chorus learned this fun technique as a young theatre student at the Interlochen Center for the Arts:

"After we've run through the piece at ‘performance quality,' for one time only we run each song as fast as is humanly possible. We take out dynamics, fermatas, grand pauses, etc. The only requirement is great diction and articulation. In addition to being a fun exercise for the singers and accompanist, it helps achieve the objectives of requiring the singers to command the text in phrases, or even full sentences. It also gives them a different perspective on ‘beginning/middle/end' because everything seems so much closer together. After running each piece in 'Lightning Round' we all have a good laugh, and a 60-second affirmation that what we just did was a great memorization aid."

At Home

Listen often to voice part CDs. Schiff creates the CDs for her singers. "The benefit to myself as the conductor is that I thoroughly know their voice parts and all potential problem spots." She encourages her singers to listen while driving when they do not have the music in front of them. "After a short while, their part becomes memorized," she says.

Singers with Houston Choral Showcase use demo recordings, recordings of the accompaniment without the voices, or recordings where the chorus' own pianists or singers play or sing a single part over the demo recording.

Kidd's Barbershop Choruses "use top of the line learning sound files which we buy or commission from professionals who do this sort of thing. I never ever have to teach notes - even to people who don't read music. Notes, lyrics, and interpretation can be learned as chorus members walk, drive, or work. And perhaps best of all, they learn the pitches and chords dead in tune."

Jay Banta, member of an 8-singer Capella jazz ensemble, listens to MP3 recordings of his part using a software program called Sweet Midi Player. "With this program each part can be isolated and tempo controlled. You are able to hear only your own part at first; then as you learn, you can make the other parts louder and eventually sing your part without using the midi-player."

Rehearsal CDs and downloads of many of the more popular works in the choral repertoire are available at SingleParts, Cyberbass, ChoraLine and NotePerfect.

Write out - or type out - the lyrics. The words are often harder to learn than the notes, many choristers agree. Rossiter says typing out the words helps her note "patterns of repetitions or differences" in the musical line.

In the weeks before the Ridgefield Chorale in New Jersey staged their performance of show tunes, the following tips were sent to singers: "Pull out a song every day and write it out. Then carry the written song with you and read it throughout the day. Each time, say it out loud using the piece of paper less and less as the day goes on. You can also read the song into a voice memo on your phone and make it a point to listen to it at least four times in the morning and four times in the afternoon. Then listen one more time before bed and another time when you wake up."

Memorize from the end of the piece to the beginning. That is, learn the last two lines cold, then the last four lines, and on through to the beginning of the piece. This should help singers become comfortable with the entire piece, rather than being stronger at the beginning.

Don't practice mistakes. "Don't just sing through a piece from beginning to end," a singer with Houston Choral Showcase says, "but stop at every error and fix it before moving on."