How to Remember Words!

How to remember words is one of the most common practical problems that is mentioned to me in my workshops. So what gets in the way of us remembering, what is the best way to remember, and how can this help us in other ways? This video looks at all three of these aspects.

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Hello, I’m Hattie Voelcker from, and I’ve realised that a lot of my blogs recently, probably because I’m a philosopher by training, have become quite pensive!

So my next few blogs are going to be a bit more practical, and I asked myself the question, “What is the most common problem that performers bring to my workshops, the most common practical problem. There is an all out winner and that is – remembering words. How do we remember our words.

In this video, I want to look at three things. Firstly, the different ways of learning words; secondly, what gets in the way of us remembering those words; and thirdly, my advice for the best way to actually learn words. The best way not to forget your words.

I’m very lucky in that, in the past, I used to have the most amazing memory. I could sing a song once and remember most of it. I had no problem learning completely without thinking. It would just go in. I’m less young now, and I have other issues with my memory, and so these days I’m probably a little more sympathetic than I used to be to people who can’t remember their words. Those singers and performers who stand up and say, “I’m really struggling to remember the words of this song.” I totally get where they are coming from. So it is something that I have looked at quite carefully, and over my different workshops, I’ve heard lots of different ways of remembering words. From good old repetition, just keep repeating and repeating. To laying the words out on chairs and making a journey around the room, and all sorts of memory tricks. Including people who learn using a tum te tum te tum sort of rhythm to try and get the words in their heads.

Now there are two main problems with all the techniques that I’ve heard. Firstly, it’s all variations on the theme of learning by rote. Simply learning by repetition. There are advantages to learning by rote in different areas, and the most common advantage, the biggest advantage, is that the memory should be at the forefront of the brain and really easy to access. So good for things like times tables. I remember that 12 x 12 is 144. Easy, easy, easy, I can remember my times tables, I learnt them when I was very young, and I learnt them by rote.

But there are also two main disadvantages, there are lots of things that can make it harder to learn by rote. One, a lot of us are aware of, which is age. We simply aren’t as good as we used to be. Two, how much is going on in our heads? If our heads are filled with other things it can be much much harder to learn by rote; and three, stress, if we are stressed it can be harder to get that memory in, especially if we are trying really hard to get the memory in.

The second main disadvantage it is simply learning a pattern. To hark back to my old way of learning, when I was learning without thinking, I was doing exactly that. I was learning, without thinking. I was learning without meaning. So I could sing a beautiful Italian aria, in perfect Italian (I was a pretty good mimic) and not know what any of the words meant. Which didn’t help with the other aspects of performing. That meant that if I didn’t know what the meaning was, I couldn’t mean what I said.

So what is my advice for the best way of learning words, and not forgetting words? Well, there are reasons that we start to struggle to learn by rote, and I covered those earlier, so further methods of learning by rote aren’t going to solve the problem if you’ve got a problem with learning by rote! There may be better or worse ways of learning by rote but they are all essentially the same thing, learning the pattern.

Plus, often forgetting the words is the consequence of a self-fulfilling prophecy. As soon as you start to think that you might forget your words, then that’s what fills your head. This can be terribly scarring, because we’ve all had moments where we’ve forgotten words, and it’s horrible. The fear becomes a reality, and that can put a spanner in the works or learning words. We start to doubt our capacity, and as soon as we start to doubt our capacity, we engage our conscious mind, our executive function, to try and make sure we don’t, and to try and work out, and pull back, that word. That then overrides what we are doing. It takes over us and our performance, and it overrides our subconscious in its flow of remembering the words. So that’s why it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. As soon as we start to doubt our ability to remember the words, it gets in the way of us remembering the words.

So what’s my advice? Well, I’m afraid to say it’s exactly what singing teachers, répétiteurs, accompanists, and directors have been telling you for ever! Learn the meaning, the meaning comes first. So not only learn the meaning, but learn by meaning.

Every composer, and librettist, and writer has put the word there for a reason, they have put it against a note for a reason. They’ve made the note that length, that dynamic, with those notes and directions attached to it, for a reason. It comes in a certain sequence, for a reason, it’s repeated slightly differently, for a reason. Even if we with lesser composers than perhaps Mozart, or lesser librettists than da Ponte, even if we can’t see the meaning or we think it’s a crappy meaning, we can put our own meaning, that’s what our imagination is there for, and we can apply our own meaning.

If we learn the meaning then it’s so much more about telling the story, about communicating that meaning, and the next word in the sequence becomes not only obvious but necessary. It’s the only word that can be there because it’s the only word that will express that meaning. This way, not only are we more likely to know the next word, but our focus remains on the whole point of us being there. Which is to communicate to the audience, to engage the audience, and pull the audience in to what we are doing. If we start to use our executive function for trying to trawl through our memory to remember a word, one, we draw our attention to thinking and worrying about remembering that word, we pull it away from the subconscious. We also pull the subconscious away so it’s not doing its job and we give our audience a worse experience because we’re not focusing on what we’re meant to be focusing on, and we’re less likely to remembering it anyway.

Basically if we learn by rote, we are more likely to perform by rote, and when lose the ability to learn by rote we have nothing to fall back on. If we learn the meaning and learn by meaning, we will communicate the meaning.

So I hope you’ve enjoyed this vlog, there will be more practical ones coming up soon!