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2003-2004



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Memorizing Gibberish

by Tom Reed, Chorus

Sometimes just when you think you have an opera totally memorized they throw you a curve ball. That's what just happened to the SF Opera Chorus. We were all set to go with Tchaikovsky's opera Eugene Onegin. We thought we had all the Russian completely memorized, when word came that we would be adding some unfamiliar music that normally is cut from the opera. So there we were with all this new Russian text to memorize, and hardly any time to do it.

Usually memorization is a slow, tedious process involving hours and hours of mindless repetition. We sit there for five hours each day in the chorus room overloading our short-term memories with text in foreign languages. But short-term memories don't last. To be remembered permanently, the brain has to transfer all that gibberish to long-term memory. The transfer normally takes place in bits and pieces at night during sleep, but learning a season's repertoire is a slow and inefficient process that can take months. That's the reason for all those rehearsals. The system is labor intensive, but it works unless they throw a bunch of new music at you at the last minute. Then what do you do? How do you memorize foreign text in a hurry?

The trick, I've found, is to completely bypass short-term memory and put the new text you're trying to memorize directly into long-term memory. How do you do that? It's so easy! Here's the trick: Select a memory from the past the more vivid the memory, the better. Then simply insert the new text into the old memory. For example, you never forget your first ride on a rollercoaster. So just insert the new text into that first rollercoaster ride, and you'll never forget it. You can use any memory from the past, so long as it is vivid.

To remember our new Russian text, I selected the Loma Prieta earthquake. I'll never forget it! At five minutes after five o'clock on the afternoon of October 17, 1989, I was driving westward through Golden Gate Park near the Conservatory of Flowers, when suddenly the car began to shake violently left and right as if someone had grabbed the steering wheel. The first thing that went through my mind was, "Kto on ta kov?? Oozhyel Onegin?? Da tochna! Fsyo tot zhyel on? Il oosmirilsya, il korchit choodaka typer kak pryeshdye? Skazhitye, skazhitye chyem on vasvratilsya? Chyem on pryedstavitsa paka on? Chyem ninye yavitsa? Myelmotam? Patriotam? Garoldam? Il khanzhoi? Il Maskai shchyegalnyot inoi? Il prosta boodyet dobri mali? Smatritye!! Smatritye!!"