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28 Days to Diva: Day 16 – What a Memory! (#28daystodiva)

February 16, 2013

The anxiety of performing from memory is one of the biggest challenges singers face. We fear our memory failing us in front of an audience. The fact is that opera singers have a more opportunities for memory issues to develop because of the sheer amount of music one must memorize for a full-length show. No one has found a magic bullet for memorizing; which means most of us must spend hours upon hours drilling notes, text, and rhythm into our brains. God help those singers with poor memorization abilities. Being able to recall an overabundance of music is a truly valuable asset in our market. The Day 16 challenge, if you choose to accept it, is to work on your memory skills.

Musicians employ four types of memory: aural (the sound of the music), visual (what the music looks like on the page), tactile or kinesthetic (muscle memory) and intellectual (analysing the structure, intervals, and patterns in the work). ¹

The easiest type of memory to acquire is tactile which would explain why we fall back on rote or repetitive memorization techniques. Singers use many of these types of memory and sometimes without realizing. Aural memory is the practice of being able to hear the music in your head. This is particularly useful when you are studying music on a plane or in another public space. Aural memory also deals in the area of imagery – although imagery is a more general term than “mental practice.” “Symbolic learning theory” suggest that when we “sing through” music in our mind before vocalizing we are encoding movements in our brain that our body will later carry out. We attached symbolic elements to the images based on our default skills. Singers are likely to instinctively raise their soft palette or breathe based on the encoded imagery from the page just because that is what we have been trained to do. But, what if we could actively use these four types of memory to help us prepare operatic roles or our upcoming recitals? Freedom to interpret and connect with the audience truly comes from solid memorization that will not falter when it is time to perform.

Sensory Learning Styles

Let’s break down the four types of memory into sensory learning styles. By employing these techniques to our practice sessions we can accelerate the timeline on memorization.


Aural learners will often listen to a piece to identify auditory patterns and harmonic progressions. You will rely upon your ear to create a representation of the overall piece in your mind. Further listening will help you pick up variations in melodic line or rhythm to help you in your performance. It is often your aural memory that will help you determine if a vocalized section is indeed correct.


Those lucky ducks with eidetic memory are definitely winning with this learning style. They are able to recall a mental picture of the notation on the page. Photographic memories will often need backup with the other learning styles to make sure the memorization is solid. The rest of us can strive to create a mental picture of our own of either the music or our internal vocal anatomy.


Try adding movement to your music. Body movement, kinesthetics, has been shown to enhance the effects of mental practice. This learning style is often referred to as muscle memory. Kinesthetic memory develops rapidly for singers because we rely on “the feel” to make sure we are producing sound efficiently and effectively. We repeat sections with large intervals to formulate the feeling of jumping back and forth. Whereas a violinist would employ both visual and kinesthetic learning styles to practice a big shift, singers must trust the muscle memory.


Analytic learning forms relationships and identifies patterns within the musical work. This type of learning explains why many musicians find it difficult to memorize atonal or modal music. The reasoning is that our Western ears identify patterns in tonal music much more quickly. Advanced or experienced musicians may find it easier to use analytical learning to break down their scores into smaller practice segments.

Retrieval cues, automation, and maintenance are all parts of the sustaining phase of memorization. Being able to bring music from long-term memory to the front of your working memory is an important skill. Periodic practicing and reinforcement of the aural, kinesthetic, and visual elements of the piece will help you retain the music longer.

Another exercise that may work very well for opera singers is the “method of loci.” This technique was introduced by ancient Romans and Greeks. Spatial relationships are used to recall memorized content, which is why it is also called the memory palace. I would wager that opera singers already use this technique subconsciously because we coordinate certain memories with stage points. Did you remember to sing Addio, del passato because you moved over to the mirror or did you remember to move to the mirror because you started singing Addio, del passato? Ah-ha. The “method of loci” can be used beyond an opera set. For example, you can use it to help your memory for your upcoming recital. Imagine your own house for example. You begin your first set in the living room and then move in to the kitchen for your second set and so on and so forth. Recalling the pieces in your set would be achieved by “walking” through each “locus.”

We would probably get a flood of answers if we asked for traumatic memory flub moments. But, imagine what it would be like to be free from anxiety when it comes to your performance. Let’s start to re-write that narrative so that it doesn’t include fear of memory failure. Using imagery to conjure up a positive experience of your future performances will also be helpful.

Do you have any memorization hints to share with us? Please leave them in the comments below for good memory karma.

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