Performing choral music from memory is simultaneously wonderful and terrifying. It gives you freedom to engage with the music and to connect with the conductor and their vision. But it does make you worry about what will happen if your memory fails you. So what we can do to avoid that happening?
The CBSO Chorus is about to perform Beethoven’s ninth and Mahler’s second symphonies from memory, and have been known to find the learning process a challenge (I don’t think it’s just me?!). As an amateur singer with a busy life, it’s tricky to find the time to memorise these works. It’s also difficult to know the best way to go about learning music to make sure it sticks! There has been a surge of recent interest in education in how to apply information from the field of neuroscience on learning in the classroom. I’ve had a look at some of the cognitive psychology research, to see if their suggestions can help us learn choral classics. Disclaimer: I’m not a cognitive psychologist. However I do think that understanding a bit more about how we learn could help us.
Part 1: Learning the music
Ever felt like your brain was going to explode while trying to learn something new? Welcome to cognitive load theory. Our brains can only process a small amount of new information at a time in our working memory, and it’s possible to overload it. However, large amounts of information can be stored in long-term memory. That information is stored as ‘schemas’, which allow us to organise and store knowledge. You can build increasingly complex schema in your brain, and you will find knowledge easier to manage. For example:
“The limitations of working memory can be overcome by schema construction and automation. For example, try to remember the following combination of letters: y-m-r-e-o-m. In this case each letter constitutes one item, so you are being required to remember six items at once. Now try to remember the following combination of letters: m-e-m-o-r-y. In this case you are still required to remember the very same six items. However, because you have a schema in your long-term memory for the word ‘memory’, you are able to chunk the letters into just one item. Now your working memory is freed up to remember other items.” https://www.cese.nsw.gov.au//images/stories/PDF/cognitive-load-theory-VR_AA3.pdf
The more knowledge you transfer into your long-term memory, the more of your working memory you will free up to learn new information. Classical musicians will already have complex schema in place that allow them to, for example, read music fluently. So how might you go about adding further knowledge, such as being able to recall your choral part of his ninth symphony? Below are some evidence-based suggestions (i.e. people have actually researched this) about how to learn music, with the intention of transferring the information into your long-term memory.
- Start rehearsing with the intention of memorising the music. Don’t think you’ll do it all at the last minute! You’ll get better results if you are aiming to learn it from the first rehearsal, so start by telling yourself that’s what you’re going to do.
- Listen to a great performance of the piece – it helps to know what you’re aiming for and it will give you a sense of the musical structure, that will in turn help to learn the music. If you need a recommendation of a recording, I’m sure your conductor would be delighted to provide one.
- Singing through the entire piece initially will also help you with the structure, but then you need to get down to detailed work. Rehearse it slowly. Break down challenging sections and repeat them to make sure you have them right.
- Identify musical markers that are going to help you remember your next section (although I’d caution against making them from a solo part if that’s relevant, because quite often you can’t hear them properly in performance)
- Practise starting from different places in the piece – repeating what you already know is going to give you a false sense of security. It’s all too tempting to keep starting from the beginning and might mean you never make it to the end…
- Mentally rehearse the music – hear it with your inner ear – you can do this anywhere, no excuses!
But it’s not the music, I hear you cry, it’s the words I can’t learn. Well, a lot of the same applies. Sometimes you’ll notice the way your score is laid out makes it difficult to learn because the words are a long way away from the notes, or there are multiple languages to choose from. This results in the split-attention effect, and does slow down the learning process. It explains why you’ll often end up singing new pieces to random sounds in rehearsal, and adding the words later, because it allows you to focus on learning the music, and not overloading your brain. Learning will likely be even slower if it’s a language you don’t actually speak, but you don’t have a schema in your brain for it. So try the following to get those words in your head:
- Listen to the music. Again, understanding the structure of the piece, and how the words relate to that will help
- Write the text down separately from the score, so you can focus directly on it. If you need to, you may also need to write down pronunciation prompts.
- Read the words out loud. Practise it slowly so that you are getting the words right, then try to incorporate a sense of the rhythm that relates to them.
- Break the text down into small sections, and practise with the notes, as connecting words with melody will help.
- Test yourself by making some flashcards.
Part 2: Remembering what you’ve learnt
Put that score down!
What happens when your conductor asks you to sing without your scores when you’re in the middle of learning a piece for performance? Mild grumbling? A sense of panic? And aren’t there always a few people clinging on to their score until the last minute before the concert? Evidence suggests that if that last one is you, you’re probably doing yourself a disservice. One of the most effective ways to learn is through retrieval practice, or put simply, testing yourself on what you need to know. The more you practise retrieving the information you want, the easier it will be.
So why does it help you to practise singing a piece without the score if you know you haven’t learnt it all yet? There are two benefits. The first is that you are practising remembering what you do already know, which will strengthen the pathways you’re using to retrieve the information and help you move it from working to long-term memory. The second is that you will identify what you don’t know, which is just as important. Make a note of where you went wrong, or where your memory failed you. That’s what you need to study next (and that might be words or music). Using your score during an exercise like this will only give you a false sense of security. Next time, you should find the music is much easier to remember, as you’ve already practised doing just that. A sure fire way to panic during a concert is to realise you’ve never allowed yourself to try singing a particular section of the music without a score before.
You’ll remember it for longer if you take a break
The next approach you’ll want to try is distributed practice. And that is broadly what it sounds like – leaving gaps between learning sessions/ rehearsals. This is also an exam revision top tip! Cramming at the last minute is better than doing nothing. But you will get significantly better results if you space your learning out over time. The evidence actually says the longer the gap between study sessions, the longer you are likely to retain the information (some studies have left up to 30 day gaps between learning sessions). This explains why, for some people who have performed standard choral works over the years, they have embedded them into their long-term memory. It’s not just that they’ve repeated them lots of times, it’s also that they practised them with lengthy gaps between sessions, and that act of recalling something partially forgotten strengthens your memory.
However, this is all relative to the amount of time you have available to you to learn in the first place. For individuals who already have the piece more or less memorised, a series of rehearsals over a few weeks will likely be enough to reignite the pathways and allow the information to be retrieved easily. If you’re learning from scratch, you’re going to have to do your homework (sorry!).
So what should you do? If you’re short on time, evidence suggests that if you leave 24 hour gaps between learning sessions, then the overall effect will likely be you can retain the information for a week (which is probably what you need first time out!). If you leave longer gaps, then the more likely you are to keep the information longer term, but balance that against the total amount of time you have before you need to perform the piece. You simply have to keep revisiting it regularly.
So is there a shortcut to learning a piece? No, not really. But there are techniques that have been researched and shown to improve the efficiency of the learning process, so why not give them a try? And don’t forget to enjoy the performance, safe in the knowledge that you have done the right type of practise to allow you to sing a choral classic from memory.
The CBSO Chorus will be performing Beethoven’s ninth Symphony on 28 March 2019, with the CBSO conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, and Mahler’s second Symphony on 13th and 16th June 2019, conducted by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.