Memorizing anything is possible if you break it down into manageable pieces. This post is Part II about the details of my working process. Be sure to read first half: The Herculean Task of Memorizing a One-Woman Show to get a better understanding of my memorization toolbox.
Remember, time is your friend. Taking breaks is very important. It allows the brain to sort and file and tidy up the neural connections that are being made with the practicing. If my brain starts to feel exhausted while I am working I switch to a different task, either with music or something completely different. (There are probably dishes to be washed… just saying.) Also, physical exercise has been shown to increase cognitive functioning and the encoding of new skills. Circulating the blood is good for so many things, so I do myself many favors and go for a walk. There’s also one more important use of time that shouldn’t be forgotten. Sleep. Lots of cleaning up and organizing happens in the brain while we sleep, so as tempting as it is, I try not to short-change myself.
Feeling more confident? By this time, the bits and pieces should be falling into place. My next step is, pencil in hand, to take a neutral vowel and sing my pitches in rhythm with the accompaniment and test how far I am. I absolutely will mark the questionable spots in my score. I also take time around now to make a note of the time markers for major sections in the accompaniment recording so I can find them more quickly in the future. Writing in the time markers for the tricky spots is also very useful.
I’d be closer to adding the words now, but there’s another intermediate step that is useful. Singing on just the vowels of the words. I imagine my lips have superglue on them and there’s no way I want them to touch, but I still say the words “inside” my mouth. This sounds silly, but it works. All the rest of the articulation muscles move (including the tongue), but my lips just don’t touch. Consonants can be such a temptation to cheat by not using helpful breath management muscles, so at this point in the process I keep temptation far away.
Success? Now I’ll add in the words with the accompaniment. This is where the fun level of vocal technique really gets to be teased apart. This does not concern memorization of words as much as memorization of muscle coordination, which is also very important. I look for places where my tonal resonance isn’t as strong and play detective to figure out the ins and outs of those details. Consonants, where the pitches are in my register, as well as what precedes and follows, all have considerable contribution to this layer of muscle memory.
Erasable Highlighters. Yep. These are immensely helpful to me and deserve a special mention. Once I feel I have a pretty good handle on everything, I’ll try it “off book” not looking at the score. I’ll either hand the score to someone else to follow along, or I’ll record myself so I can listen back. Any place that isn’t quite right will get highlighted with whatever color I’ve chosen for that time through. The next time I do a major test, I’ll use a different color highlighter. Where I start to see colors pile up, I know I have some major work to do. The beauty is that I can easily erase colors when it’s all over or if things have just gotten too colorfully out of hand. (NOTE: If you’d like to know more about these magical tools, I’ve written a “bonus” post that tells you more than you need to know about erasable highlighters.)
Polishing. By the time the colors are adorning the score, it’s up to careful repetition and focusing on the trouble spots that continue to elude my brain. Generally, inventing outlandish stories or finding quirky connections or out-there clues will help my brain put the last puzzle pieces in order. Sometimes, though, by this point my brain is so overworked that it’s helpful to have a friend (or the music director) step in and offer a fresh perspective. Usually they can help come up with an idea completely foreign to me since they have the ultimate viewpoint outside of the “picture frame” of my mindset.
Success of security. By taking the piece and practicing it in various contexts and levels of distraction, I can help gain the comfort of knowing that my brain has a firm hold on all of the material. In live performances, one can never be sure what might happen, and you don’t want every little jiggle to throw you off your game. Arlington was performed in a large coffeehouse that was in a 100 year old building complete with lots of charm and challenges. (The show was set in Sara Jane’s living room, and this space really felt like you were in her home.) I moved around within the seated audience throughout the show and there was never a moment that I couldn’t have reached out and touched, or been touched, by someone. At each performance my blocking (movement) was slightly different just because of how people ended up sitting. Interestingly, this space was just a portion of the coffeehouse and the main areas were still open to customers. Although luckily it didn’t happen often, unknowing customers could easily walk into the performance space in the middle of the show.
Memorization is a personal thing, and in the end you’ll need to experiment to see what works best for you. There are lots of times when I need to memorize something short for one performance only, and I’m not nearly this thorough in the process. I still want to feel secure, but I know that it’s not as crucial that everything stays in my brain for a long time. We are lucky to be in this amazing age of research where brain and learning scientists have unlocked so much information that is infinitely helpful. Why not use all of the tips and tricks to work smarter, not harder? Performing has enough challenges on its own!