My students at Smith College are in the last stages of preparing their fall term concert which takes place next week and I find it interesting to see who can memorize easily and who has difficulty. Any singer will perform better when he or she is singing without the music in front of them. Too often, if the music is right there, they 'fall in love with the ink'. Even though they may only plan to glance at the music occasionally, the fact that it is right there overpowers their vision and they can get stuck on the page. It's a magnetic force.
I realise that different people have different ways of trying to memorize anything. There are those lucky ones who have a photographic memory, or as a malapropic friend of mine used to say, 'a photogenic memory'. Whatever. The rest of us need to develop a system that works.
Olga Averino, my dear late friend and mentor, was once asked by Kousevizky how she had memorized Lulu for the first performance in this country, which she sang with the Boston Symphony. This was of course, before any recording of the opera was available. She simply had to learn the notes! She said 'It's like teaching the rabbit to ride the bicycle. You do it over and over until he doesn't fall off.' That works for me.
Today, while working with one student, I realized that she really didn't have a good grasp of the meaning of what she was singing in a Mozart recitativo. I suggested that she get out her Italian dictionary and look up every word, placing the English word right over the Italian word. This does not make for a lovely poetic translation, but you begin to know exactly what you are singing, thereby helping you memorize the text. Too many people simply try to learn the words as you would teach a parrot, who can learn to say any number of phrases, to mimic what you tell him, but he probably has no idea what they mean. Fortunately, not that many parrots have operatic careers!
The ideal, of course, is to be fluent in every language in which you plan to sing. But a word by word translation is the next best thing.
I have always envied those people who can look at a page of music or text and immediately have it stick in their mind. I wonder how long this stays there if they don't use it regularly. Hmm. I should do a study on this.
Anyway, during their Thanksgiving break, I trust my students are doing their very best to come back next week with their program memorized.