Archive for August 12th, 2010

Singing from Memory

First attempt at capturing kitty via webcam.

Second attempt.

Third and final attempt. I wasn't holding him down, just scratching his ear at a funny angle.

Ah, well. I can still take a picture of myself with moderate success.

A lot of non-music people over the years have asked me how I could possibly remember all the songs I’ve learned since I started voice lessons. The short answer is, I can’t. XD There are a lot of songs I’ve learned over the years that I couldn’t just start singing from memory, because I haven’t been practicing them for a long time. On the other hand, there are some songs I still know almost perfectly, because I sing them periodically for fun. It just depends on the song.

The main thing about singing is that it has very little to do with what’s going on in your head. About 80% of the singers I know have problems because they’re over-thinking. There are myriad ways of fixing that problem (one time I observed a lesson where the teacher had the student stand on one leg, I tried it in a following voice lesson and it worked pretty well), but the underlying problem is that singing doesn’t happen in your head. It happens in your throat. XD And no matter how much you think about it, memorizing a song in your head isn’t going to cut it.

In voice lessons, a lot of teachers talk about muscle memory. Now, muscle memory is something that a lot of people don’t associate with singing. The basic idea of it is that if you do an action enough times, your muscles doing that action begin to remember (in a completely different way from your mind) how to do that action. That’s how a person with any kind of mental memory loss can still play sports or instruments they did before the memory loss (things like Jim Carrey remembering how to play piano in The Majestic actually can happen, in other words).

Most people who talk about muscle memory use it in the context of exercising or sports. But singing is one of the most muscle-intensive activities you can do, at least if you’re doing it correctly (that is, in a manner that does not harm your voice). You don’t just use your throat muscles to sing. You use most of your abdominal muscles, your leg and arm muscles, and most of the muscles between your diaphragm and the top of your head. Every part of your body has to be engaged, and that doesn’t mean you’re moving your arms and legs around, necessarily. It just means that everything is working together as a cohesive whole to produce the sound you need. Even tiny changes, such as raising or lowering your chin, or standing mainly on one leg instead of both, can affect your voice (and don’t even get me started on hormonal changes). Sometimes the difference is small enough that only you and perhaps your accompanist/teacher/voice coach notice, but it can be a change that negatively impacts your ability to perform (ask me about the time I pulled a thigh muscle on stage in the middle of an opera). Sometimes it just means you get hoarse after a couple days, sometimes it means prolonged damage over a long period of time. The point is, knowing how to use your body in singing is extremely important.

One of the worst things about singing, IMO, is trying to go back and re-learn old songs. Not because they’re hard, but because I still have that dormant muscle memory from when I sang them before. There are songs I wouldn’t sing as an undergrad, because I didn’t want to hurt my chances of being able to learn them later (which is why I never did the Habanera from Carmen). It really sucks, knowing that you can sing at a certain level, and then trying to go back and sing a song from two years ago and hearing yourself make all the stupid mistakes you haven’t made in a year because you learned to sing that song before you fixed those mistakes. It makes you feel dumb, like you just can’t do things right, when it has nothing to do with your current abilities, and everything to do with your muscles hanging on to the feeling from the last time you sang it.

For that reason, there are a few songs I’ve worked on periodically over the years, because I love them and want to be able to continue singing them. Prison, by Gabriel Faure, is a good example. Faure is my favorite French composer, and Prison is one of my favorite songs of his. I sang an English song set to the same poem, translated, when I was a freshman in college, but that song doesn’t capture the feel of the poem the same way Faure’s work does. It’s a poem about being in prison, and bemoaning ones lack of foresight. It’s very bittersweet and beautiful poem, and the song is equally lovely. I would love to do a recital program of just French pieces someday, and sing a whole bunch of Faure and Debussy and Poulenc. ❤

There are songs I still remember the melody to but have forgotten most of the words, because the muscle memory in my throat doesn’t register the diction (after all, your mouth does all that work). I can generally sing the song just fine if I have the words in front of me, in those cases. There are even a few songs I have almost memorized entirely still, because the words had an effect on me and I thought them worth keeping in mind.

Of course, a lot of people ask me how I can sing in other languages and memorize that. Honestly, it’s not that hard. All you have to do is translate the song and understand the meaning behind it. If a French song is just a collection of sounds to you, you’re not going to remember it very well. That’s like taking an English song and just throwing random words together for lyrics. No one is going to remember a song called “fish house Singapore couch table”. You need to actually understand each word and what it means, even if it’s just “the”. If I’m trying to memorize “Weisst du die Rose die du mir gegeben”, saying it over and over again is only going to do so much. However, if I hold the meaning in my mind, I remember the words because I remember the meaning behind them. “Do you remember, the rose that you gave me?” is a lot easier to remember than “dishwasher cat meatloaf purple.”

The thing is, music (and especially singing) has always come easily to me. I could match pitch back in kindergarten, and was able to sing lines back to my choir director by the time I was 6. Remembering notes isn’t that difficult, I can generally learn a song’s melody after hearing it only two or three times (depending on the complexity, some songs require a bit more listening than that). It’s getting the meaning behind the words, and capturing the emotion behind that meaning that provides the challenge. And that’s the fun (and frustrating) part. ;D

Now to get back to working on my German piece…


Read Full Post »