On Memorization – Part 1

July 4, 2011 at 12:40 pm 4 comments

Part 1:  “How Do You Do That?”

For the past six years, I have performed as soloist at the international headquarters of a church whose services are broadcast around the world.  During this time, I have sung a different solo each week matched to the sermon to follow – and I have performed most of the songs from memory.

Performing from memory is a must-have skill for any performer, and yet it can be a rather illusive process.  It was, at least, for me.

This is the first of a series of posts on memorization. Through the series, I hope to share some of the wisdom and insights I have learned through exploration, study, and sheer experience.

To begin, I have been asked the following questions often and with a certain kind of urgency:  “How do you do that?”  “How do you memorize your songs week after week?”

These are good questions.  How do I memorize a piece of music — the words, music, melody, timing, etc. and stand up and perform this way week after week?  It’s not easy.  I don’t recommend it for everyone.  But it’s so very worth it if you can take the leap!  It is an on-going spiritual, mental and physical process.

This process is really is a series of small, significant steps that come long before that big “leap.”  So as you read this and consider how it might apply to your own life, be sure to understand that my process came about through years of exploration, study and experience.  Be kind and patient with yourself, but also make strong, realistic demands for your own growth — one step at a time, each step of the way.


I’ve been a singer since I could climb the low branches of the willow tree in our back yard at age 3.  I didn’t know I was a singer back then.  I was just talkin’ to the sun and the flowers… making it up from my perch on the tree branch.  Later, that need to make music solidified into elementary band where I became a flute player and remained thus through high school and into college.  I was a music reader – I always had the score right in front of me when I played in band, orchestra, and even in marching band.

Then, in high school, I discovered, or should I say, rediscovered singing in a very big way.  I joined the sophomore girl’s choir and my whole world blew wide open.  There was nothing else but singing.  And with it came musicals, concerts, choir and madrigals — all with the need to memorize.

I was never taught to memorize – you just did it come hell or high water.  When I entered college as a freshman voice major, I was seriously studying more and more layers of music while memorizing art songs in foreign languages as well as in English.

I remember feeling very lost at sea, even as I prepared for my final voice juries each semester. (A voice major’s final semester exam where I had to perform several pieces before the whole voice faculty.)  That feeling continued as I progressed to opera scenes, solo recitals, and finally, performing entire roles in opera and theatre professionally in my career.

Up through my college days, I had only a vague sense of “rote” memory – the process of strict repetition.  There was no formal instruction as to how to memorize.  It was simply assumed that you did it and you knew how to do it.   Back then I was so busy learning how to coordinate many processes as a young singer, that the thought of memorizing was always the last element for me.

I had friends who could memorize circles around me.  If I had asked them how they did it, I don’t know if they would have been able to tell me.  They just did it.  We all did.

Memorizing terrified me.  I was often thrown out on the stage before I felt I was really ready – so I learned to survive.  That in and of itself is a tremendous skill to have, but not one on which to base your whole experience.  Survival on stage, for me, was akin to blind faith – a sort of hoping that I would get through without knowing how I would do it.

Clearly I had yet to learn the basics of how to memorize.  And that, my friends, actually translates into this:  I had yet to learn the basics of how to prepare.

So this blog series “On Memorization” is really an exploration on how to prepare… a piece of music, a monologue, a scene, a presentation, an interview, etc.

Whether you are a student, a musician or actor facing these same demands, or you are in a discipline altogether different, I think that this process crosses over all kinds of boundaries.  It is applicable in all kinds of situations.  And that’s because it is a way of thinking – a mental discipline – even a life choice.


Next up:  Part 2: “Why Do You Do That?”


Entry filed under: Inspiratus, Performance, Practice & Performance: Working It Out. Tags: , , , , , , .

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Laurie Bay Oyer  |  July 4, 2011 at 9:06 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing, Julia. You will be blessing so many!

  • 2. Kevin  |  July 6, 2011 at 11:54 am

    This series is going to be a tremendous help to me! I’m a public speaker, and have always relied on my notes…but have yearned to cut that apron string! Can’t wait for part 2!

  • 3. Stephanie  |  February 2, 2012 at 9:06 pm

    Hi! I’m glad I found your blog! I will be singing some solos at our branch church. What music do you suggest that come with a background track? Thanks!

    • 4. juliawade  |  February 28, 2012 at 5:45 am

      Hi Stephanie,

      Watchfiremusic.com offers a number of accompaniment tracks along with sheet music. Here are some composers to check out: Peter B. Allen, Tara Buzash, Simon Clark, Robert Collister, John Gilmore, Ruth Lambert, Susan Lindquist, Kevin McCarter, Rebecca Minor, Deborah Offenhauser, and Steve Schalchlin. Just click on http://watchfiremusic.com and then go to the composer pull-down menu on the top nav bar. Or search each composer by name.

      Thanks so much for your interest, and I am happy to help steer your toward some terrific composers. Enjoy getting to know the digital sheet music on watchfiremusic.com.

      Also, we offer a wonderful resource for finding solos for Christian Science church services. It’s called Solo Thoughts. Click this link to check it out: http://watchfiremusic.com/solo_thoughts.php?coid=19 The Solo Thoughts page is very complete in telling you all about it.

      Enjoy and best wishes!


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Inspiratus by Julia Wade


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