Memorization Tips

Hello, everyone!  I wanted to share a few of my favorite tricks and tips for memorization.  Memorizing songs is something that comes very easily to some, and not at all to others, but it is a skill that can be strengthened and developed.

Here are some of the things I do when I am working on memorizing something:

  1. Write out the lyrics.
  2. With a partner, speak through the lyrics together.  The way this works is your partner holds the music/lyrics and says the first word.  Then, you say the second word, your partner says the third, and so on.  It’s surprisingly tricky, and really helpful!
  3. Look at your music one phrase or section at a time, really look at it, then close your eyes and keep visualizing the music on the page, and sing it.  Work through the song this way, spending more time on the phrases that you have trouble remembering.
  4. Imagine yourself singing the song.  Really hear it in your head, in YOUR voice, the way you want to sing it.  This is great for when you want to practice without making noise, or if you want to keep working on a song without tiring out your voice.
  5. Working on the scene or story of a song can also help with memorization.  Spend some time creating the world of the song inside your head, and connect the lyrics to the emotions that your character is feeling.
  6. For more advanced musicians, harmonic analysis of the song can also be helpful.  This works especially well for more modern or challenging pieces.  Understanding where the points of harmonic tension and release occur, and how that relates to the vocal line, helps me remember the structure of the piece and what comes next.

That’s all I could think of so far.  I’d love to hear any other favorite memorization tips or tricks that work for you, so please share them in the comments!

Frequently Asked Questions: Voice Lessons

What do you do in voice lessons?

My approach varies slightly with the age of the students, but the basic outline is the same.  Each voice lesson includes vocal warm ups, music reading exercises, and singing songs.  Students learn how to sing with healthy technique, good posture, proper breathing, and expressive stage presence.

How old should my child be before beginning voice lessons?

There is no minimum age for learning to sing.  Even very young students can learn basic technique, which will lay the foundation for advanced study as they get older, and prevent vocal damage that could be caused by unhealthy singing.  Singing simple, fun songs is a great way to build confidence and have fun, while also learning to read music.

What should we expect at a trial voice lesson?

First we’ll spend a few minutes talking and getting to know each other.  I’ll ask what kind of songs you like to sing and if you’ve ever sung in a choir, been in a musical or play, or played an instrument.  You can also ask me any questions you might have.  Then we’ll start with some simple warm up exercises so that I can hear your voice.  If you like, you can bring a song that you know to sing for me, but that’s not required.  A trial lesson usually lasts about 20 to 30 minutes, and allows you to get to know me and my teaching style, and lets me learn about you and your voice.  It’s not a test or audition, so there’s no need to be nervous!

How many lessons will it take before I notice improvement?

Every student is different and moves at his or her own pace.  Some students notice instant improvement as they learn how to use their voices more efficiently.  It’s also normal to go several weeks without any obvious improvement, because singing well requires muscle coordination that takes time to develop.  The best way to encourage improvement is through consistent, careful practice at home.

What if I am tone deaf, can I still learn how to sing?

Very few people are truly tone deaf, meaning they are unable to recognize changes in pitch.  Many inexperienced singers simply have trouble singing in tune.  This can be because their ears have not been trained to recognize subtle differences in pitch, which would be corrected through vocal exercises designed to help them hear when they are on the right note and when they are not.  Out of tune singing is most commonly caused by poor technique or excess tension, which improves as the student learns how to sing more efficiently.

What should voice students practice at home?

Beginning voice students should start with short practice sessions (15-20 minutes per day) and gradually increase the length as the voice gets stronger.  Singing for too long before healthy technique has been learned can be tiring and even damaging to the voice.  It’s important to begin every practice session with some warm up exercises before working on more difficult music.  It’s better to focus on specific skills that were worked on in the last lesson than to just sing through a song several times.  Some of my students like to bring a notebook with them so that they can write down what we worked on in the lesson and what to focus on while practicing.

Is it ok to sing when you are sick?

The vocal cords are delicate, and it’s important to take good care of them and prevent damage.  Singing with allergies or a stuffy nose can sometimes be fine, as long as the vocal cords are not inflamed.  However, cold medicines and decongestants should be avoided before singing because they dry out the vocal cords.  A singer who is feeling hoarse or having trouble making sound should not sing!  Hoarseness, or feeling like it’s difficult to make sound, can be a sign of swelling in the vocal cords, and continuing to speak or sing can cause serious (and even permanent) damage.  Singing should never hurt or feel uncomfortable.

What are Nodes?

Vocal fold nodules, commonly called nodes or singer’s nodes, are basically small blisters or calluses on the vocal cords.  They can be caused by vocal abuse, such as excessive screaming, or by singing or speaking with poor technique.

To better understand vocal fold nodules, it’s important to have basic knowledge of how the voice works.  The vocal folds (commonly called vocal cords) are a small pair of muscles inside the larynx, which are covered by a delicate membrane.  As air passes through the larynx, the vocal folds vibrate together, which produces sound.  To make a higher pitch, the vocal folds stretch to become thinner and longer.  For more information on this process, see my previous post, “How the Voice Works: An Overview.”

Nodules are generally caused by prolonged unhealthy use or overuse of the voice.  Vocal abuse can cause hemorrhaging (bleeding) in the vocal folds.  Over time, the vocal folds can develop callus-like lesions, which we call nodules.  Nodules come in many shapes and sizes, and their effect on the voice varies accordingly.

The singing voice of someone with nodules often sounds breathy or raspy.  It may be hard to hit higher pitches or feel like extra effort is needed to make sound.  In severe cases, the voice can be extremely raspy and rough sounding.  Nodules are usually not painful, since there are no nerve endings on the vocal folds.

Nodules are usually treated with speech therapy, which corrects the behavior that caused the nodes and develops healthy vocal habits.  In some cases, surgery may be necessary.  Rehabilitating the voice must be done carefully and under the guidance of a speech therapist and laryngologist.  Singers suffering from nodules should be sure to carefully follow their doctors’ instructions to ensure a full recovery.

The best way to prevent nodules is to sing and speak in a healthy way.  Many people don’t realize that speaking is just as tiring for the vocal cords as singing.  Vocal fry (speaking at the lowest part of your range, with a creaking or rattling quality) is a particularly unhealthy speaking trend, which leads to tension and fatigue in the vocal folds.  Hoarseness or a scratchy-feeling throat can indicate that your vocal folds are fatigued and maybe even slightly swollen.  When this happens it’s important to let your voice rest.

Another important (and easy!) way to keep your vocal folds healthy is to drink plenty of water.  Staying hydrated protects your vocal folds by keeping the mucous membranes moist.  Dry vocal folds are more prone to damage and fatigue.

How to Choose Songs for Auditions

Choosing the right song for an audition is important, because it shows that you know your voice and what you can do.  This article from Opera News has great tips for opera singers who are competing or auditioning at the professional level.  Here are a few more tips that I share with my students.

1.  Always sing something that you are comfortable with!  An audition is not a good time to try out a new song that you’ve never performed.

2.  Sing something that fits your voice well.  If it’s a little too high or a little too low for you, pick another song.  It’s important to show that you know your voice type and how to show off your strengths.

3.  If they ask for two songs, use this opportunity to show the full range of what you are capable of, but don’t pick songs that are so drastically different that they are not right for your voice.  Choose contrasting styles, but both pieces should still fit your voice comfortably.

4.  Know the character and subtext.  Acting is just as important as singing, and getting into character will also help settle your nerves and keep you focused.  Try practicing in front of a mirror so that you can make sure your facial expressions and gestures look the way you want them to.

5.  If you are auditioning for a specific role, sing something similar in voice type and character.  You want them to be able to see you in the role.

And a few more audition tips…

6.  Dress nicely and professionally.  Avoid revealing outfits, flashy patterns, or bright colors that will distract from your performance.  Dressing nicely shows respect for the judges and yourself.

7.  Be nice to the pianist!  This means making sure all your music is readable, with any cuts clearly marked.  The pianist wants to help you sing well, but will be unable to do this if your music is hard to read or missing important markings.  Also, knowing how to indicate your tempo to the pianist is important.

8.  If you are given specific instructions for the auditions (bring a resume and/or photo, sing something from the show, don’t sing something from the show, wear comfortable clothes for dancing), follow those instructions!  If you have questions, don’t be afraid to ask.

9.  Be professional and polite while in the audition.  Clearly and confidently state your name and what you will be singing, and don’t forget to say “Thank you” at the end of your audition.  Even if they cut you off mid-song (which is not necessarily a bad thing), just smile and thank them for their time.  Manners are important.

How the Voice Works: An Overview

As a voice teacher, I often find myself explaining to students how the voice works and why it’s important to take good care of it.  While it’s not necessary for all singers to know all the tedious details (muscle names, etc), a basic knowledge of how the voice works is important because it helps singers understand their instrument.  

Sound is produced by the vocal folds (commonly called vocal cords), which are tiny muscles inside the larynx (aka “Adam’s apple”).  They are about the size of a dime in women and the size of a nickel in men.  They form a “V” shape, which can open or close, and when they are fully closed they block the airway to the lungs.  (To experience this, try to lift something very heavy while inhaling or exhaling.  It should be difficult if not impossible.)  To produce sound (for speaking or singing), the vocal folds gently come together and vibrate as air is passing through.  This process is called phonation.  

The vocal folds stretch to become longer and thinner for high pitches, and thicken and shorten for low pitches.  When the muscles of the larynx are trained to work together efficiently, the singer will be able to smoothly and evenly move throughout his or her range.  Voice breaks and cracks are signs that these muscles are not working together effectively.  

The vocal folds are covered  by a delicate mucous membrane, which is an important part of the vibration that creates sound.  This membrane moves in a wave-like rippling motion.  It is very important for singers to drink plenty of water so that this membrane stays moist and does not dry out.  A dry mucous membrane is much more susceptible to damage, including hemorrhages and nodules.  

The sound produced by the vocal folds is different from the sound we hear outside of the singer’s body.  At the source, it is a soft buzzing sound.  As this sound passes through the throat and mouth, or resonators, it is filtered and amplified into the sound that we recognize as singing.  This process is why things like jaw and tongue position and mouth shape are so important for singers: these things shape our sound, and a small adjustment can make a big difference.  

There are some really cool videos on YouTube that show the vocal folds in action.  Just search for “vocal fold stroboscopy” (this process uses a tiny camera and a strobe light to show the vibrations in slow motion).   

If you are interested in a more detailed and scientific description of the vocal folds, watch this video from Anatomy Zone.  

Recommended Materials for Voice Students

There are many different music anthologies and songbooks out there, so I thought I’d put together a list of the ones that I recommend for my students.  I’m always looking for more music for my students, so I’ll keep adding to this list as my music library grows.  If you have any favorite books, I’d love to hear your suggestions as well!

MUSICAL THEATER ANTHOLOGIES

The Teen’s Musical Theater Collection – Young Women’s edition or Young Men’s edition, with available piano accompaniment CD.  Great collection of standard repertoire in a variety of styles and ranges.  Recommended for beginners.

Broadway Presents: Teens’ Musical Theatre Anthology – Female Edition or Male Edition, with piano accompaniment CD.   Slightly more advanced songs that venture outside of the standard repertoire, with some mature themes.  Contains songs in a variety of vocal ranges, so not all of the songs will work for each singer.  Recommended for older teens who may not have settled into a specific voice type yet.

Singer’s Musical Theatre Anthology Series – Several volumes available for each voice type: Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano/Belter, Tenor, and Baritone/Bass.  Piano accompaniment CDs available.  Volume 1 generally contains standard songs from classic musicals, while the later volumes have songs from newer musicals.   Highly recommended for serious musical theater singers.

FOR CLASSICAL SINGERS

Easy Solos for Beginning Singers series – For Soprano, Mezzo-soprano/Alto, Tenor, and Baritone, with available CD of piano accompaniment.  Edited and compiled by Joan Frey Boytim.   A great starting point for students interested in classical singing.

First Book of Solos series – for Soprano, Mezzo-soprano/Alto, Tenor, Baritone, with available CD of piano accompaniment.  Several volumes of songs for each voice type.  Most songs are in English, with some in other languages as well.  There is also a Second Book of Solos series with even more challenging songs.  Edited and compiled by Joan Frey Boytim.   This series is highly recommended for all high school age students interested in classical singing, but many of the pieces will be too difficult for absolute beginners (see Easy Solos for Beginning Singers series above).

26 Italian Songs and Arias – available for Medium High or Medium Low voice, with available accompaniment CD.   Great collection of Italian songs for beginning to intermediate singers, and an essential part of the repertoire for young classical singers.

The Lieder Anthology – from the Singer’s Library series, available for High Voice or Low Voice, with accompaniment CD.  Collection of German art songs for intermediate to advanced singers.

French Song Anthology – from the Singer’s Library series, available for High Voice or Low Voice, with accompaniment CD.  Collection of French art songs for intermediate to advanced singers.

FOR YOUNGER STUDENTS

36 Solos for Young Singers – compiled by Joan Frey Boytim.  Accompaniment CD available.  Classical-type songs chosen to be accessible to younger singers, but may be too challenging for my youngest students or absolute beginners.

Contemporary Disney – collection of 50 songs from a variety of Disney movies.  Great for young singers but some songs have vocal ranges that are too large for many young students.

Kids’ Musical Theatre Collection – 29 songs with CD of piano accompaniments.  Good selection of songs from popular musicals that are appropriate for younger singers.  There is also a second volume available with even more songs.

Broadway Presents: Kids’ Musical Theatre Anthology – with CD of piano accompaniments.  Contains some of the same songs as the Kids’ Musical Theatre Collection above, but also has some more challenging pieces from a wide variety of shows and movies.

Practice Tips for Beginning Singers

How to Practice Singing

Step 1: Always Warm Up!

Loosen up your body with some stretches, shoulder rolls, and deep breaths

Start singing gently, with some of the warm up exercises you’ve learned in your lessons

It’s usually best to start each exercise in the middle of your range, and then move by half steps up or down to stretch your range.  Don’t push your voice to extreme high or low notes, instead you should stay within the range that is comfortable for you.

Once your voice has had a chance to warm up with simple exercises, it’s a good idea to spend a few minutes singing some of the more challenging scales that we have worked on in your lessons.  This is the most effective way to build technique and strengthen your voice.

Step 2: Practicing Songs

When learning a new song, it’s best to practice the words and the melody separately at first:

  1. Speak the words as if they were lines in a play, so that you can feel connected to the meaning of the song.
  2. Speak the words in rhythm.  Do this slowly at first to make sure your rhythms are accurate.
  3. Learn the melody without the words, on a neutral syllable like “ah” or “oo”
  4. When you are ready, put the words and melody together.

Try not to rely on listening to recordings to learn new songs.  It’s important to come up with your own interpretation, rather than imitating another singer’s performance.

Rather than singing through the whole song over and over, try focusing on the sections that are most difficult first.  You can try singing these passages on an open vowel “ah” or “oh,” or on a lip trill to help relax the tone.  Pay attention to which sounds are most comfortable, and use those to help relax your voice when you have trouble.

Step 3: Learning to Read Music

I encourage all of my students to develop their music reading skills and learn the basics of music theory.  This will improve your overall performance, improve pitch and tuning, and make learning new songs much easier.  I use several sets of exercises that focus on developing basic music reading skills using Solfege (or Solfeggio) Syllables: Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do.  I will try to work through at least one of these exercises during each lesson, but it is very beneficial to practice them regularly at home.

When learning a song, try to get as much information as you can from the printed music, rather than learning by ear.  Which direction are the notes moving?  Are the pitches close together or far apart?  How many beats does each note get?  Are they loud or soft?  Asking yourself these types of questions about the music will help you become more skilled at interpreting the symbols of music notation.

Step 4: Follow Up

I recommend keeping track of your practice sessions, and writing down any questions or concerns that come up so that they can be addressed in your next lesson.  I’d like to hear about improvements you notice as well as difficulties you might have during the week.  If something is not working for you, we can try another approach.

If you are not sure what to practice, please ask!  Remember that the goal of practice is to reinforce the new skills introduced in your lesson, so that is usually a good place to start.  Also remember that consistent practice at home will help you learn songs faster, which allows us to focus on more advanced (and more fun!) concepts in lessons, instead of spending our time learning the notes and rhythms.  Also keep in mind that taking time to learn new music carefully and accurately will save the time you’d spend re-learning music learned incorrectly or undoing bad habits.

Additional Tips

I’d recommend using some kind of system to keep track of your progress.  You could try keeping a singing journal, where you write thoughts and reactions to lessons, practice sessions, and performances.  A journal is also a great way to keep track of goals and your progress toward them.  Or you can track of your practice time in a calendar or planner.  I use my Google Calendar to schedule practice time, because it helps me make sure I stay on track and practice as often as I’d like to.

Set a timer while you’re practicing so that you can stay focused.  I’m much less distracted if I know I need to keep going until the timer goes off, rather than constantly checking the clock.

Even if you’re busy and it seems like you have no time to practice, 15 minutes of practice is better than nothing.  It’s better to practice a little every day than for an hour at a time only once or twice a week.

If you are struggling with something and can’t seem to make progress, take a break and work on something else for a while.  Doing the same thing over and over unsuccessfully is not productive and will only make you frustrated.

Practicing in front of a mirror can help in two ways: first, it will let you keep track of your facial expressions and help develop your acting skills.  Secondly, it lets you see when you are doing something that will get in the way of your singing, like tightening your jaw or lifting your shoulders.

When you do listen to recordings of other singers, try to analyze what they are doing and find things that you specifically like or don’t like about their performance.  For example, is the tone breathy or bright?  Is the singer using head voice, chest voice, or a mix of both?  Where does the singer change the tone, and why do you think he/she does that?  Asking these questions will improve your listening skills and make you a more analytical singer.

Happy Practicing!