I used to dread memorizing songs. Then I realized that I was already doing this—for fun. Listening to pop music on the radio or the recording of “Hamilton” in the car, memorizing was a blast, a way to get to know a piece and a character better, and to take the notes with me when the piece ended. It was only when I sat down with a score and had to learn a piece for a purpose that it became a chore. It was all in the mentality.
To avoid thinking of memorizing as a difficult issue, start out by selecting music that you like and want to listen to repeatedly. This repeated listening will make a huge difference in your ability to take the music with you after the recording ends.
For vocal music, learning music written in a language you already know is going to be easier than translating a piece composed in a strange language. Memorizing a song from the musical “Hamilton,” for instance, is much easier than picking an Italian aria from Mozart’s “Le nozze di Figaro” [“The Marriage of Figaro”], if you’re a native English speaker, and your knowledge of Italian is more limited. (If you grew up learning Italian, however, or are immersing yourself in it at a young age, then you’ve got an edge on someone else struggling to pick out the individual words of “Deh vieni non tardar” later in life.)
To learn Angelica’s toast in “Hamilton,” for example, I recommend listening to the soundtrack and singing along with it, rewinding for any words you miss, and getting a copy of the score. It’s also a decent idea to buy or borrow a copy of “Hamilton: The Revolution,” a book written about creating the musical that has the text of each of the songs. Then, of course, you also need to sing through the piece on your own to make sure you know it, and work to make it your own.
If you have a visual memory, you can also sit down with a score and stare at it, learning it phrase by phrase, as you hear it in your head. Study a phrase; hear it; cover it up with your hand; sing it through in your head. Go on to the next phrase and repeat.
Write down what you know about the character, including her likes and dislikes. In the case of Angelica, write about her emotions about Alexander Hamilton’s marriage to her sister, and the reasons why she introduces Eliza to Hamilton, rather than dating him herself. Rewrite the song in your own words to make it your own.
Part of researching a character is differentiating between her portrayal on the stage and her personal history in real life. What are the differences between the ways that Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote Angelica for the stage and the ways she acted in real life? She was already married in reality when she met Hamilton, but for dramatic effect, Miranda created a love triangle between her, her sister and Hamilton. Her toast, “Satisfied,” is about a dilemma created for the stage. This type of personal character history is what singers need to research to create an accurate portrayal. Knowing this background is what will give you a leg up in an audition, not to mention making it easier for you to memorize a song.
A song is part of a larger character arc. Learning about the entire arc, including where the character is mentally and emotionally at the beginning and ending of a larger work, will help you learn about the intention behind a song and the purpose of a piece. This will help you portray a character’s actions better, too. Out of authenticity can come hand or arm movements that help an audience understand your character better, movements that will add to a character, instead of seeming extraneous and detracting from your portrayal.
One of the dangers of learning a song by listening to one recording of it is that, that’s the only way you can picture it sung. It becomes harder to make the piece your own this way. At this point, there’s more than one recording of the songs from Hamilton. Although it can be fun to listen to one recording over and over, it will help your interpretation of a piece to sample different ones.
Learning the words to a song is always easier when you know what you’re saying. If you’re singing in a language other than English, get a good dictionary, or become familiar with Google translate or IPA Source, and write down the word-for-word translation underneath the text in a score.
Think about the motivations behind a song. In an opera like Marriage of Figaro, think about the overall character arc and where the piece falls within the opera. What is the character thinking about and feeling when they’re singing? How does each phrase advance the song? Where is a character emotionally before and after they sing a piece?
I often find that singing or playing a piece on the piano helps me think through a problem. Is this true for you, too? Characters may be the same way: as they sing about an issue, the music helps them move from point A to point B. Find ways to connect with them, and you’ll find that memorizing their words will be that much easier. Great composers like Miranda and Mozart have given you material worth performing. It’s your job to bring their phrases off the page and onto the stage. Go forth and memorize.