My new choir director, the incomparable Kelly Galbraith, demands that we memorize all the music and text for each concert. The last time I undertook this degree of memory work was probably my third-year Cognitive Psychology exam, and I found myself having to rediscover which methods worked best for me.
As a kid I had weekly Bible memory-verses to learn for Sunday School. Then came the monologue for Talent Week, a category for which I won a ribbon several years running (“Alexander And the Terrible, Horrible, No-good, Very Bad Day” was my pièce de resistance). In highschool I memorized a passage from The Great Gatsby just so I could recite it at the perfect moment. I imagined myself on a date, I think, browsing together in a used bookstore. He’d pick up a worn paperback, and I’d sigh, “Ah yes, Fitzgerald,”and then the mellifluous phrases would roll off my tongue. I never actually got out all that much, in highschool.
Do children still commit anything to memory? Left to their own devices mine stick to stuff like Eminem or literal-video Assassin’s Creed lyrics, the names and attacks of seventeen thousand Pokemon. I want to assign them something decorously classical, get them to stand before their grandparents and offer up a well-prepared and diverting performance. Perhaps “Jabberwocky”?
I mean, whatever happened to minstrelsy? Apparently minstrels would not actually memorize their thousand-verse ballads entirely but would ad-lib stuff around repeating keywords and refrains. But even amateurs were better memorizers than us, back then. No one would ever dream of coming to dinner without a good story or song to share.
Once I knew the choir music, I had to hand-write the words–phonetically if the Latin was too fancy–on cue cards. I drilled myself on the subway and anytime I had to wait for anything. The most productive practice seemed to occur when I was walking outdoors. Something about oxygen flowing to my brain, I guess, or the rhythm of my steps. What I (re)discovered was the joy of mastery: of finally having it, of knowing it cold, of being able to trot it out on command.
Now that I think about it, my 7-yr-old has worked just as hard, and is crowing just as loud, over the blasphemous Christmas carols he’s been learning from friends at school (“Joy to the world, Barney is dead. We shot him in the head…”).