All those words! Accounting for singers’ memory


  • Joel Katz Glenn Gould School of the Royal Conservatory of Music


Classical singers face a formidable challenge. Not only must they fulfill the complex musical demands of the score and its associated technical difficulties, but (uniquely among performing musicians) they must also remember words. In a major operatic role or full length recital, this can mean thousands and thousands of words, which must be expressed in an affecting, characterful manner, according to a set rhythm that does not allow for hesitation. Singers are able to step in and replace ailing colleagues on short notice, even in a part they have not recently sung. To accomplish all of this, they must have verbatim recall of words and music over long periods of time. In this graduate forum, I propose an experiment investigating the optimum distribution of study events for the long range retention of sung verbal materials. Whereas distributed practice effects are well documented in the psychological literature, there have been few studies to date of distributed practice in musical performance, and none on the effect of distributed practice on singer’s learning and memory over long intervals. An experimental design is proposed that compares the effects of ’massed’ and ‘spaced’ learning on memory for a song after a six week period. As a further condition, lyric text without music is compared to a folk
song setting to see if the constraints offered by melody can enhance the retrieval of words. Finally, current cognitive theories of singers’ memory are examined and evaluated for relevance to singers’ actual performance practice.

Author Biography

Joel Katz, Glenn Gould School of the Royal Conservatory of Music

Joel Katz teaches at the Glenn Gould School of the Royal Conservatory of Music, where he is an instructor in applied voice, music history, vocal literature, vocal pedagogy and opera. Joel is one of the few Canadian artists to have received a Canada Council Arts B Award, an Ontario Arts Council Chalmers Grant, and most recently, a three-year fellowship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to support his research into singers’ memory. Chairman of the Voice Department at the GGS from 2005-2009, and director of the Royal Conservatory School Opera program from 2000-2010, Mr. Katz is currently pursuing a PhD in Musicology at York University, with a particular interest in singers’ memory processes. A recent graduate of the MA program in Psychology for Musicians at the University of Sheffield (2014), and a prizewinner at the Munich international Voice Competition, Joel has taught artists performing at the Bayreuth Festival, the Metropolitan Opera, the Staatsoper in Berlin, La Scala and the Wiener Staatsoper. Mr. Katz was a member of the COC Ensemble and principal singer with the Canadian Opera Company, and has sung with the Edmonton Opera, Calgary Opera, Opera Theater of St. Louis, Chattanooga Opera, the Pfalztheater Kaiserslautern, the Landestheater Hof and the Aspen Festival. As an oratorio soloist, he has been heard at the Schaffhausen Festival, the Ludwigsburger Festspiele and with the St. Louis Symphony, the Toronto Symphony, the Mendelssohn Choir, the Edmonton Symphony, Calgary Symphony, Quebec Symphony and Symphony Nova Scotia, among others. Joel is an avid gardener and the proud owner of two impossible cats.