Memorization for Singers

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When my children were in school there was something very suspicious among educators about “rote learning” and “memorization” as teaching techniques.

Who wanted a child to be a robot and just repeat back what they were told by the teacher?

Certainly, it didn’t make any sense to teach a child to read fast at an early age before they could comprehend what they were reading.

And by all means, you did not want your child to emerge from school with only information and no creativity.

That’s what the trends in education and the arguments against rote learning and memorization were when I was raising my children.  As a musician from childhood, I was suspicious about that trend.  It seemed extreme, with the pendulum moving too far in one direction. 

I remember the hours I spent memorizing piano pieces and the patience and focus and discipline it took, which have been critically important in my life.

In addition, as an actress-singer, memorizing a song or script was invigorating.  The focus and energy made me feel alive, and my thinking felt sharper.  Having to repeat lines and lyrics night after night on stage for months was an exercise in being in the moment, serious concentration and being in touch with my thoughts and feelings in real time.

These opinions are only anecdotal for me, but I know I’m not alone.  

I have researched so many points about the brain and music.  This article titled IN PRAISE OF MEMORIZATION:  10 PROVEN BRAIN BENEFITS was an easy read.  I hope you will skim through the list of reasons why memorization should not be tossed into the garbage bin of bad teaching pedagogies and that we can swing the pendulum to a more centered place.    

ROTE LEARNING-READING

I’m sharing some personal experiences with my children, not to boast about them, but because they are my first-hand experience.  They were real kids and they all had their moments growing up, as we all did. 

When my oldest child was ready to enter kindergarten, I began researching how to teach my children to read.  I had heard about how the schools weren’t doing such a good job of it any more.  So I enrolled him in a private kindergarten in a suburb of Chicago where we lived.

Within three months, that five year old came home and began reading an article from the front page of the newspaper.  I asked him what he had just read and what it meant.  He was close.  But he was FIVE!  I wondered what the harm would be if he got a jump start, and I felt certain that his comprehension would catch up with him later.

I investigated this magical method of teaching a child to read so well.  It was called PHONICS, and it was totally by rote repetition and memorization.  I decided to learn how to teach it, and I did – all five of my children were reading a newspaper article within three months.  I also taught an immigrant boy from Russia who was going into the first grade but couldn’t read a word of English.  Within three months, he too was reading. His mother told me it put him at the “front of the class” in confidence.

Although anecdotal, all six of those children, five of mine, have done well and made it through college and career success.  They all had a head start to learning because they could read, and memorize.

I also noticed that children that studied music were generally better students.  I come from a family of doctors, who also are musicians.  One of them had a contract with Capital Records out of high school.  All the fears about being a robot, not comprehending, or lacking creativity did not prove reality.

Because my children read early, they had more confidence.  They could concentrate for longer periods of time.  

By the fourth grade my daughter was reading literature from a 10th and 11th grade reading list and she had read all the Harry Potter books and other popular adult series books several times over.  We had to hide books from her so she would get her work done!

ROTE LEARNING, REPETITION AND MATH

Then I became concerned about math.  I had read that the United States was doing poorly and even at the bottom of the ranking in relation to other countries, especially Japan and Korea.  The fear was that these countries would overpower the United States in technology.

I met a Chinese woman and another parent in our school district in Dallas, who shared their experience with a Japanese math program called Kumon.  My oldest son was prepping for the college entrance exams, and he needed a few extra points in math.  The Kumon instructor evaluated him at the second grade level. So we enrolled him. 

Within weeks, he had mastered the computational skills that had not been drilled and repeated enough to compute the more difficult math word problems he would need to answer on that timed college entrance exam.  He raised his ACT score enough to get accepted to a very competitive university.

I was not surprised to learn that the Kumon system was totally rote, repetition and memorization.  It was “time against accuracy,” something my children’s schools had all but abandoned. While they did 25 word problems a day, Kumon required 100 purely computational problems a day.  They insisted that the word problems would come later after the four computations – addition, subtraction, multiplication and division – were mastered.

I have watched videos of five year olds doing calculus with that system, and they seem to enjoy it.  My two year old daughter started taking Kumon, and she loved it.  I had no doubt the creative would enter at an appropriate moment, and it did.  She became an accomplished concert pianist and performed four times in Abravanel Concert Hall and on stage at Planet Hollywood with the Miss America Organization.

All the discipline, the memorization and the hours of practice and concentration have paid off in creative and business environments.   This has been true for all of my children in their respective fields.

Musical theatre is the perfect blend of memorization and the creative.  I am a believer in rote learning, repetition and memorization.  In my classes, one of the strategies I use is to say the words, and the students repeat the words.  I sing the tone or the pitch and the students repeat the tone or pitch.  Ideally they go home and practice until the songs are memorized.

As soon as the memorization is taken care of, then the real creativity can blossom.  I’ve prepared a short video that walks you through the steps of memorization that I’ve used and taught over the years.  It works!  I hope it’s a benefit to you as well.  — Cherilyn Bacon, Director, The Youth Ambassadors Musical Theatre-Media Music Training program, Los Angeles.  

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