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!

Practice Makes Perfect

One of the biggest challenges I face with my students is getting them to practice regularly.  Consistent, focused practice is a necessary part of developing good vocal (or any other instrument) technique.   Students with good practice habits progress much more rapidly than those who only practice occasionally or not at all.

The goal is not to practice for hours every day, but instead to practice carefully and deliberately, reinforcing what was learned in your lesson and practicing those skills so that they become comfortable.   Pay close attention to what you are doing, how you are singing, and how it feels.  Focus your attention on practicing difficult sections and trouble spots.  Don’t just sing through the same song over and over and expect the problems to fix themselves.

For more on how to practice effectively, see this excellent post on Bulletproof Musician: How Many Hours a Day Should You Practice?

Finding time to practice regularly is something I struggle with myself as well.  Besides teaching, I work an office job, and I don’t have a lot of free time.  I also live in an apartment building with thin walls, so I try to be considerate of my neighbors by not practicing too early or too late.  I’ve been trying different methods of scheduling my practice sessions, and have yet to find the perfect solution.  I usually do some basic warm-ups and vocalizes during my 20-minute morning commute, but it’s pretty much impossible to accomplish any productive practice while driving.

One thing that has helped for me is finding small chunks of time for practice, and setting a timer so I am not distracted by the clock or all the other things on my To-Do list.  Fifteen minutes is a good place to start when it seems like there is no time for practice.  Even with a crazy schedule, you can always find 15 minutes for singing, and you might be surprised how much you can accomplish in that short amount of time.  If I have a little more time, I’ll sing scales and exercises for 15 minutes, then work on a song for 15 more.  I am often more productive during these short practice sessions than I am when I have more time.

As a coloratura soprano, a lot of the repertoire I sing is very vocally demanding.  Repeatedly singing through some of these arias is tiring, and not the most effective way to practice.  This is where mental practice comes in– a technique I first learned about at the OperaWorks summer intensive program.    Especially with difficult coloratura passages, being able to hear the notes in your head (sung in your voice, the way you want it to sound) is crucial.  While mental practice is not the same as physical practice, really visualizing yourself singing (or playing) the way that you want to sound can be very helpful.  For more on mental practice, see this post, also from Bulletproof Musician: Does Mental Practice Work? 

For many musicians, keeping a practice journal also helps.  I’ve found that writing down goals (repertoire to learn, technical concepts to focus on, etc) can really help me focus my practice time.  Also, keeping a record of what was accomplished can help me track my progress toward those goals.

What do you think?  I’d love to hear from you in the comments.  Thanks for reading, and happy practicing!

Big Decisions – Part 2

Part 2: My Story

I grew up in a small town.  I was stubborn, and all I knew was that I wanted to be a singer.  I only applied to a few schools, all in my home state of California, and I figured that if I was good enough to get in to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, then I’d go there.  My parents weren’t crazy about the idea, and they thought I’d be better off getting a more well-rounded education at a regular university.  But I was stubborn and determined to pursue music no matter what.

Once I got to the conservatory, I was immersed in a whole new world of music.  I’d played piano and sung for my whole life, but I knew very little about music history, literature, or theory.  I was fascinated.  My grades hadn’t been that great in high school, but once I was studying the things that interested me, I excelled academically.  Emotionally, however, I struggled, and I was often lonely and insecure.  I also struggled financially, and worked hard to support myself.  I missed many opportunities for additional education and training (summer programs, etc.) because they were simply too expensive.  There were many ups and downs, and I was incredibly fortunate to have a wonderful, supportive voice teacher who taught me how to sing as well as how to survive.

The main problem was, I was not quite mature enough to handle the pressure.  To be perfectly honest, I was kind of an emotional wreck for most of those  4 years.  I spent too much time in unhealthy relationships and friendships.  And I took rejection too personally, so every time I didn’t get the part I auditioned for (or any part, for that matter), I was absolutely devastated.   I knew I was making progress, but I still wasn’t being cast in anything.  I realize now that there are lots of reasons for this, but mostly I was awkward on stage (since I had no real acting training, and very limited experience) and not confident enough.

When I finished my Bachelor’s Degree, I wasn’t sure what to do next.  I wanted to apply to other schools, but I didn’t have the money for application fees, let alone plane tickets across the country if I got an audition.  I thought that continuing at SFCM was the best choice, since I was happy with my teacher, and I was already there.  However, that turned out to be a mistake, and I was especially miserable that year.  My financial struggles increased as well, and I finally reached a point where I realized that the education I was paying dearly for was not the education I wanted or needed.  I needed stage experience and acting training, and I was not getting that at all.  I also doubted whether I was on the right path, and did not think I wanted to be a professional opera singer.  I decided to leave SFCM and move back to my hometown while I figured out my next move.

That summer I was also fortunate enough to attend the OperaWorks program in Southern California.  I’m not exaggerating at all when I say that those two weeks changed my life.   The program included classes in improv, performance techniques, and movement: everything that had been missing from my previous education.  I began learning how to move on stage, and realized how disconnected from my body I was.  We also took yoga classes every day, which made my constant back pain go away and started me on the path to a healthier lifestyle– over the next year I lost almost 60 pounds.

I was fortunate that my tiny hometown has an active music community, and I was able to sing lead roles in several productions with Mendocino Chamber Opera.  Working with just one or two other singers and the director gave me the training and confidence I needed to become a better actor.  I also started teaching voice lessons, and began finally figuring out what I wanted to do with my life.

The thing is, I love to sing, and performing in operas is so much fun.  But I am also sensitive, a perfectionist, and an over-thinker, and those qualities hold me back as a singer.  However, those are the same qualities that make me a great teacher.  I realized that, rather than trying to change so many things about myself so I could thrive as a singer, why not find a career that actually fits me?

But, enough about me.  The bottom line is, even though it was tough and maybe not the best choice for me, I wouldn’t change any of it because I learned so much and I am happy with where I am now.  But would I recommend that path to my young students?  That depends on several factors, which I will discuss in the next (and final) post in this series.

Why I teach music.

I’ve wanted to be a music teacher since I was old enough to appreciate how amazing my own music teachers were.  Freshman year of high school, to be more precise.  But I got distracted by what people thought I should do, and by my own ego and ambition.  I went to the San Francisco Conservatory because I was so excited to have been accepted, but I really had no idea what I was getting into.  Then I got caught up in the beauty of opera and the wonderful hard work of classical singing, and for a while I thought I wanted to be a professional opera singer.  Soon after I finished my Bachelor’s Degree, however, I realized I was on the wrong path.

Don’t get me wrong– I love opera, and I love singing.  Being on stage is fun and exciting, and I enjoy the intense, focused work that goes into preparing for an excellent performance.   But I’ve learned that I just don’t have the personality of a professional opera singer.  A professional singer needs to be tough, driven, outgoing, extremely confident, and able to tolerate rejection.   It’s not an easy career, and you have to want it badly enough to push through all of the challenges you’ll face before you start succeeding.

My amazing voice teacher in college used to ask me this question at least once a year: “What do you need in order to be happy?”  Do you need to be famous?  Do you need to be popular?  Do you need a family?  My answer was always the same:  I need to sing.  I don’t need to sing on big, fancy opera house stages.  I just need to sing.  I don’t need to always be the center of attention, and I don’t need fame to make me feel validated.  Not that I have anything against my colleagues who are pursuing a professional opera career–  I really admire their dedication and strength.  I often feel a slight twinge of jealousy when I hear about the success of my former classmates, and part of me still wishes I had kept going down that path.

But then I started teaching, and I can’t imagine devoting my life to anything else.  My students are amazing, and I learn as much from them as they learn from me.  Teaching voice is like solving the most beautiful, intricate puzzle you can imagine, and I love puzzles.  Teaching piano and music theory is equally rewarding, and watching my students learn and grow makes me so proud.  This is not some kind of marketing scheme or insincere exaggeration, I am lucky to have found a career that I genuinely love this much.

I will use this blog to express my thoughts on music, education, creativity, life, adventure, and other things that bring me joy, and to connect with others who share those interests.  Most of all, I want to share with young musicians the vital pieces of knowledge that I did not learn until later.