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On Memorizing Plainchant

June 26, 2008

Question: How do singers memorize plainchant?

Answer: Generally, they try to avoid it.

Lacking melodies, rhythms or any of the typical "pointers" that musicians use to commit songs to memory, plainchant is one of the trickiest musical forms to learn off by heart.

This issue has been on my mind a lot lately as I embark upon the process of memorizing Hildegard von Bingen's Ordo Virtutum, the oldest known musical drama of its kind in the western world, in preparation for a series of performances of the work with my early music ensemble, San Francisco Renaissance Voices, in August.

Telling the story of the devil's and virtues' battle to possess the soul, Ordo was written in the middle of the 12th century by the visionary German abbess, scientist, poet, musician and mystic.

As I start to delve ever more deeply into Hildegard's music, patterns are slowly emerging. But I'm progressing at a snail's pace. Learning this piece, which balances meandering, loose-limbed phrases that possess the improvisational quality of jazz solos with precise Germanized Latin diction, is harder than committing the Periodic Table to memory.

I'll be writing an article about the process of memorizing difficult musical works for the Los Angeles Times down the line. For now, here is a list of the techniques I've been using so far to try to commit Ordo to memory.

1. Writing in all the translations of the words under the notes throughout the score.

2. Nailing down pronunciations.

3. Learning the notes by singing through the score while looking at it.

4. Making a recording of myself singing all the different sections.

5. Playing back the recording over and over again whenever I drive somewhere or feel like walking around with headphones on.

6. Dissecting each phrase and repeating it over and over again.

7. Singing as much of a phrase as I can back without looking at the music.

8. Going over corners where I constantly get stuck.

9. Looking for patterns within an individual section to help jog my memory e.g. a repeated word or musical motif.

10. Repetition, repetition, repetition until I get to the point where I can sing a chunk off by heart while undertaking a completely different task like mowing the lawn or taking out the trash.

11. And lastly, my favorite way of testing my powers of memorization: singing as much as I can remember of Ordo quietly to myself as I jog around the lake.

I'm interviewing some vocalists and instrumentaliists about their memorization processes for my LA Times story. If you have anything you'd like to add to the mix, please feel free to chip in.

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