Jeremy Fisher suggests ideas for song learning

Read on for our five easy steps on how to memorise your lines and lyrics – everytime!

Many performers have mixed feelings towards the business of memorising. Some see it as a necessary evil, some as a pathway to freedom of expression, some as a visceral connection with their material. Different people use different modes of learning to take in and understand what happens around them and to process information. If you are a teacher, an awareness of these is useful as matching modes with your student will help their understanding and your patience! Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) was originally devised to study and reproduce patterns of excellence, and has identified several different modes of learning, including visual, auditory and kinaesthetic.

Learning and memorising are different processes, and it is important to separate the two. It can be time-consuming to correct something that has been learned imperfectly, so the first task is to learn the music accurately. Take a little time to check every note, every rhythm and every word. This does not necessarily mean that you have to spend hours pouring over the score, merely to be aware of each note and rhythm as you read it. Singers have the added difficulty of dealing with words and storyline. Following the notes and words with a pencil or finger while singing seems to focus the attention and can help highlight tiny problem areas.

Learn a song in fifteen minutes

I have found that the following 5-step learning process is the most effective and fastest way to ensure accuracy. This process appears in more detail in the Conscious Learning chapter of the book Successful Singing Auditions, co-written with Gillyanne Kayes.

Step One
Read the words of your chosen song as a script or conversation to connect with the story.

Step Two
Speak the words in the written rhythm. Make sure to elongate any syllables on long notes, holding them for the full amount. Notice where the diphthongs or vowel changes occur, and if any words now have different stresses. Look out for unusual sounds and places to breathe.

Step Three
Listen once to the melody, then siren through it (sing very quietly on ‘ng’). Slide gently between the notes for maximum effect and to teach the intervals to your vocal muscles.

Step Four
Miren the song. Mirening means mouthing the words at the front of the mouth while maintaining the ‘ng’ hum at the back. Make sure to form all the consonants that are made near the front of the mouth – l, m, f etc. Use the same size lip and jaw movements as if you were speaking – you do not need to exaggerate.

Step Five
Sing the words and melody together.

Learning music can be a whole-brain experience, and all of the tools listed below have worked with my singing students, singly or in combination.

  • Intellectual: using word links, alliteration and assonance, onomatopoeia, meaning, verbal and intellectual understanding, pitching and rhythm
  • Non-intellectual: finding shape, texture, feel, emotion, movement, direction, colour, imagery, melody shape and rhythmic impetus
  • Physical: hand shapes and gestures, drawing shapes in the air, and identifying ‘oddities’ such as accidentals in phrases, unexpected or awkward intervals, unusual movements in the music or words
  • Sensing: internal = muscle memory, pitch/feel awareness, emotional links; external = physical positioning onstage and movement of body/plotting the song/other characters.

Moving from assimilation to recall

Some singers find learning the music and text together the most efficient way of memorising. For some it is simply a case of repetition and more repetition until it “goes in”. One of my clients memorises in the bath as the relaxed atmosphere and flattering acoustic help her retain information. Comfortable as this may sound, what are the strategies when relearning something that has been learned incorrectly? I have worked with Hatstand Opera as a musical director and coach for several years, and the company’s opera singers use a different approach to memorising and correcting.

What type of learner are you?


Tenor Richard needs to hear me sing the phrase in the inaccurate version that he has just made, followed by the accurate version so that he can compare the sounds. Auditory clients can use the following techniques – hearing internally before you sing, being aware of other characters (real or imaginary) moving or speaking around you, onomatopoeia, mimicry, recording yourself singing the piece to help memory and save voice, using accompaniments to learn the harmonic structure, and listening for ‘where the sound fits’.


Soprano Toni needs to see the music and words at same time. When dealing with a problem phrase, explanation or demonstration does not work as she needs to see the written page “to get the whole pattern and where it goes – even though I’m not a great sightreader I know the shape and can see where it fits.” Those with a visually biased memory can use the following techniques visualising the shape of phrase, noting the page layout, turning the story/words into imagery as a detailed photograph or TV film sequence, using colours to express the emotions, drawing or pictures of the piece (visual kinaesthetic).


Mezzo Kirsty understands feel and emotion language and will work best when given the emotional temperature or dramatic purpose for a correction. When memorising music Kirsty paces the kitchen, as moving helps her to integrate the music and words. Several times in performance she “does not know what’s coming next” but has trusted her muscle memory enough to open her mouth and allow her muscles to take over, producing the correct words at the appropriate time. Kinaesthetic clients can use the following tools – write or type the words, feel the curves of the phrases, identifying and untangling the knots in memory. It is important with kinaesthetic clients to allow them to move. Any amount of movement will suffice, from slight shifting of weight to bouncing off the walls. Bodily movements, even if apparently unconnected, will help these clients to integrate voice, memory and understanding.

Changing language

Many of my singing clients consider themselves ‘primarily’ dancers, actors or instrumentalists. In my own case, piano playing is my most established form of musical physicality (I’ve been performing for more than 30 years). Translating instructions into the language familiar to the client can often increase the speed and depth of understanding. As a pianist I often use my hands to add ‘fingering’ to the singing phrases – moving my fingers, even microscopically by my side, can help me retain difficult vocal intervals and phrase patterns. Violin phrasing, oboe articulation and dance positions have all had their place in my coaching sessions.

Using recordings

Commercially available recordings are useful for discovering new repertoire or identifying stylistic nuances. I encourage my clients to listen once for an overview of the piece – the shape and emotion, orchestration and temperature, the general tessitura. However I discourage listening for performance tips from another singer, as each singer’s instrument is different and their style may be personal or even dated.

Record your own version using the music – you hear your own voice and nuances, and you can be confident that the singing is musically accurate. If you are unsure of your musical ability it is best to ask a pianist experienced in your repertoire to record your song for you. I tend to record at least two different versions for my singing clients, the melody at a slower pace with simple chordal accompaniment, and the full accompaniment only at the appropriate speed. There is nothing wrong with working at ‘thinking speed’, a quarter to a half slower than normal. I also encourage my clients to record their sessions.

Getting help

Many singers find memorising easier with outside help combining intellectual and emotional responses – using a coach to reflect, enhance, and question can help clarify original decisions and provides a sounding board for discussion and input. It is a simple matter to focus on an ‘accuracy run’, with the coach acting as another pair of ears to highlight any corners that have escaped you. A speed run can be an exhilarating way of discovering how well you know a piece. Many singers find having a coaching session acts as a deadline, an impetus to memorise.

Learning music is about understanding the printed page. Memorising is about owning the piece, taking it into your body and psyche, and expressing your self through that particular composer’s language, discovering the concepts that lie behind the notes. Memorising takes performance to another level as ‘getting it accurate’ becomes ‘bringing it to life’.

© 2006 Jeremy Fisher

Jeremy Fisher is a performance coach, writer, director of Vocal Process and author of the free ebook
86 things you never hear a singer say

This article first appeared in the Music Teacher Magazine and appears by kind permission of Rhinegold Publishing Ltd