I got a recent Facebook query from a (long-ago) former student* who was wondering how I memorize things. (Followers here know that I recently wrote about how I've now memorized 200+ poems and literary passages.) Here's what she asked; wondered if you could give some hints on what helps words and phrases stick in your memory, assuming there's more to it for you than just reading the passage 800 times.
I told her I'd get back to her (I was in the middle of some things--including getting our tax materials ready for our accountant--an annual joy). But not much time passed before another former student (from a different era)--a young man who's taught drama and participated in many productions himself--offered his ideas. And here they are;
I'll jump in (as a former Drama student, and former Drama teacher).
Different people learn different so different techniques work better for each. And, the best thing is multiple techniques (even at the same time). I've had success with handwriting poems or dialogue from a play (or song lyrics for a choral concert) over and over again. This was a movement oriented activity (kinesthetic), and it helped me learn partially through motor memory. I'm also visual so seeing the words on the page would help. And I would highlight or use all caps for certain words or phrases, to help them stick.
If you were more auditory, you could listen to a recording of it over and over.
Other techniques: yes, reading it over and over and over again. You start to learn the whole thing at once, gradually, and slowly, but it can be done.
Another good memorization technique: learn first line. Close eyes. Say it. Learn second line, say it. Close eyes. Say first and second together, , and keep building from there.
Or write the first word of each line and work from that as a cheat sheet. Until you can move to just looking at the first letter of the first word of each line.
And so my advice to former student #1: What he said.
But I'll add a bit about my own history with this issue. Like #1, I learned a lot of things in church as a kid without even trying--23rd Psalm, Lord's Prayer, etc. (All in the KJV, for which I am very grateful--I love those lines.)
And when I began requiring my students to memorize poems and passages, I went along and memorized them, too, and soon I discovered the method that seemed best for me. (See below.) But I would tell the students, too, that, as #2 says above, different strokes for different folks. Figure out what works best for you--and do it. And, I should add, there are people for whom memorization is very hard--no matter what the technique. This has nothing to do with intelligence--just with the type of memory you have, the sort of things your brain will allow you to retain!
Okay ... what I do ...
- I print out the poem/passage on a piece of paper and carry it around with me.
- As #2 suggested, I start with the first line, move to the second (repeating the first each time), on down through the whole piece. I had another former student, a wonderful pianist, who told me that this was how she memorized musical pieces--measure by measure, repeating the first as she learned the second, repeating the first and second while she learned the third. Then, by the time she got to the final measure, she had the whole thing in her memory and in her fingers.
- When I'm doing my coffee-shop reading, I keep the poem beside me, and every twenty pages (OCD, I know)--exactly twenty pages--I review and advance to the next part of it. Slowly, slowly, it all comes together.
- Just recently, for example, I memorized Longfellow's "A Psalm of Life," a fairly long fellow of a poem--nine quatrains. It took me a week or so to get it to the point that I could recite it quickly and smoothly, to avoid the long pauses while my memory sought the key words I needed.
- While I'm learning some pieces, I look for mnemonic devices to help me with certain combinations of words--especially in pieces with diction from another era.
- For example, in "Psalm of Life" is this line: Sailing o’er life’s solemn main. I was having trouble remembering solemn, so I recognized that -s is the prominent consonant in this piece (sailing ... life's solemn). So, I remembered that solemn starts with an -s, just as the first word in the line does.
- Finally--if you want to retain what you've learned, you need to rehearse it regularly. I've written here before about how I divide up my 200+ poems during the week--how I divide my "rehearsal time." The old adage applies: Use it or lose it.
- Once the thing is in my head, I make a little 3x5 card and paste the poem on it and put it with its siblings in a pile in my backpack. Even continual practice does not guarantee accuracy ("things fall apart," as Yeats said), so, every now and then, I check to make sure I've "got it." Sometimes I don't. At which time I "rage, rage against the dying of the light." And fix the problem.
*I've not mentioned the names of my former students since I've not asked them if that's all right. But ... they can comment and reveal their identities, if they choose.