The Herculean Task of Memorizing a One-Woman Show

Earlier this year I had the incredible experience of playing Sara Jane in the midwest premier of the musical Arlington, written by Polly Pen and Victor Lodato. This one-woman show is unique on many levels, but I’ve had the most questions about the memorization process and thought I’d share some of my experiences here.  (Note:  As I was writing this, I realized how gigantic this post was becoming, so I’ve split it up with some supplemental posts… be sure to follow the links!)

A little background on the show.  The performance time was about an hour, completely sung through.  There were a few moments of singing duets with the accompanist, but mostly it was just me singing with the piano.  Although it is essentially a tonal piece, there are very few instances to point to and say “that’s a song.”  Sara Jane makes it a point to tell the audience that although she sang when she was younger, she doesn’t sing songs anymore.  The musical is more like a sung-through monologue, with the piano accompaniment reflecting another layer of emotion.  Basically, the musical “cues” that typical song form offers aren’t there.  This aspect of composition raised the level of difficulty for memorizing this piece exponentially.

So, how did I do it?  When I’m beginning to learn anything, I imagine it as a fascinating object displayed on a shelf.  Beautiful, but I don’t really know much about it.  If I take it down and start to turn it, seeing and feeling and sensing it from all directions, I get to know it on more intimate terms.  I know that I’ll increase my success of understanding with the more variety of ways I can absorb the piece into my brain and body.

Baby steps. The first thing to know about memorizing anything is that time is your friend. Ideally, I’ll have the score far in advance so I can take all of the necessary steps to properly “tame” it.  In a perfect world, I will flirt with it a little.  I’ll take a listen to a recording once, then go away from it for a week.  Perhaps the next time I’ll pick up the score and just read through it casually.  I’ll go away for awhile again, then test myself by writing, speaking, or singing what I can remember from these brief interactions.  By testing the brain I’m telling it that I mean business.  I want it to really start paying attention the next time I pick up the music. After that brush with panic and realizing that I don’t actually remember much, I go to the score and start to look at it intentionally.  The brain will approach the task in a more focused way this time.

In a musical utopia I would also have gotten the accompaniment track from the music director by this point.  I’d start to split up my practice sessions independently between:

  • the words
  • the rhythms
  • the pitches

I keep these categories very separate at first so that my brain has a chance to get to know each aspect thoroughly and independently before layering them together.

Words.  For the words, I write or type out the entire show as a monologue in paragraph form.  At first the brain will complain that this (or any of the breaking-it-down steps) is a waste of time, and decidedly not as glamorous as just jumping into singing the words.  I find the fun in diving to the depths of a piece this way, though, and have always been well-rewarded.

Once the words are all laid out, I start working on the words as a spoken monologue.  I make it as much of a relaxed and conversational tone as I can so that it is easy to focus on the storytelling.  It’s also a great opportunity to pay close attention to the “mouth feel” of the words.  Speaking the text in slow motion is a useful way for the brain to avoid triggering autopilot habits and especially helpful to encourage the face/mouth muscles to pay close attention to what is happening.

Rhythms.  I go to the score and ignore the words and pitches and imagine myself as a percussionist.  I zero in on the rhythms of the melody and pay close attention to how they fit in with the accompaniment.  Now is when I start marking “anchors.”  For any spot that is tricky rhythmically, I look for reassurance markers in the accompaniment.  I draw a vertical line connecting my vocal line with the accompaniment to create a strong visual image to help me know that I’m on the right path.  I set a metronome to a slow tempo and go through the piece sounding the rhythm on a neutral syllable.  I mark where the problem spots are so I can isolate them and spend more time separately figuring them out.  I believe that writing in subdivisions of counts is a perfectly valid practice helper.

I gradually increase the metronome tempo until I am able to sound the rhythms at performance tempo.  Next, I’ll pull out the accompaniment recording and continue working with the rhythms alone.  Once I feel that I’m solid with sounding the rhythms on a neutral syllable, I switch to speaking the words (a cappella) in rhythm.  When that’s comfortably up to tempo, I speak the words in rhythm over the accompaniment.

Pitches.  Again, I keep the words far away from this step at first.  I want to get the basics settled into my instrument before complicating things.  I’ll pick a neutral vowel at first and work with legato articulation, playing my melody on the piano and singing along.  Then I’ll switch to staccato (repeated “bee. bee. bee…” is useful) so that my brain/voice can’t cheat.  I’m always amazed how much pitch adjustment can happen while holding out notes.  With staccato, the pitch is either right or it is not.  A fun thing I do to test my accuracy is to play the correct pitch on the piano just a slight bit after I’ve sung.  I then can clearly hear if I was correct (or not).

Also, I take the time when I’m focusing on pitches to also look to the accompaniment for support and clues.  Where and how is the melody supported?  I circle helper pitches and chords in the accompaniment so I know where to listen for help, especially at the beginnings of phrases.

Start at the very beginning: Rarely. Perhaps it’s worth mentioning here that I rarely start at the beginning of a piece during my practice sessions.  This is a very common error that many of my new students frequently make.  I guarantee if you do this you’ll know the beginning very well, the ending not well, and the tricky spots in the middle will stay a disaster.

Spotlight the transitions.  I usually find midway into the memorizing process that once I’m into a section everything flows easily.  Getting the sections started, though, is a different story.  I’ll spend a lot of time at this point focusing on the transitions by themselves.  The last words of the previous paragraph going into the musical interlude going into the beginning of the next thing I sing.  If I was memorizing something that was interactive with another character, I would memorize the final few words of what they were saying as my cues to lead me into my response.

There’s more!  To not make this post too overwhelming, I’ve split it up, so make sure to read: Memorization: Part II.






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