What is your method for practicing reading a Torah portion and thus memorizing the associated vowelizations and intonations? I'm looking for ideas for maximizing your effectiveness at performing a correct reading when actually confronted with a Torah scroll and for minimizing the total practice time necessary.
My method has changed with time. I don't think that my current method is inherently better, it is just better now for my changed mind. I used to break up an aliya into roughly 1/4 column length segments and practice the whole segment with vowelizations and intonation marks, and then go ahead and try it on the Torah-like printed side. I would go back and forth over that segment until I was comfortable with it (but not necessarily perfect) and then move on to the next segment. When all segments were done, I would go back and try to perfect the aliya as whole.
Today, I just tackle one pasuk at time, perfect it, and then learn the next. Each time I perfect a new pasuk, I rehearse from the top of aliya again. If the Aliya is longer than average or has a convenient breaking point, I will divide it and not return to the top of the aliya, but the top of the segment, as I go through the process.
For example, I just read two aliyas today in Parshat Mikeitz, the 3rd and 4th, that I previously did not know. With the third, I always went back to the top at the end of each newly learned pasuk. With the forth, I broke it up into two portions. When I got to he point of "VaYar Yaakov", then from there forward I only went back to that pasuk as I learned the remaining verses.
I reached a degree of minimal proficiency° for these two aliyot on one Shabbat Afternoon. For me, that's what works today. There was a time I was more efficient, (and using my older method) but after going back to studying new Torah portions after not having taken on anything new for several years, I found that I just couldn't learn like I used to, both in pace and in method. Through experimentation, I know this is what works best for me at this time. - It may not do anything for anybody else.
Advantages I find to this method now: (1) Taking it a pasuk at a time allows me to quickly commit to memory that one segment. (2) Rehearsing from top as I go along keeps me from forgetting the first pasuk by the time I get to the last.
It has a side-effect: (3) When asked to lein I will more readily take on two short aliyot instead of one long aliya for efficiency reasons.
° Degree of proficiency: The first time through, I may know it on Torah side for that short while and while reading it slowly, and also while correcting myself but without looking back at the vowelizations and intonation marks -- making for a very choppy reading. If I put down the tikun and don't look at it again until the next day then something has been lost... and I need to relearn parts. Then there's the pressure element. I have found that just because I can read it perfectly at home, doesn't mean I won't botch it when I get up to do it in public. It takes me a great deal of rehearsing to be able to go up to the Torah and do it well. By the time I am satisfied with my degree of proficiency I will be able to visualize most of the words with the intonation in my head as I read it. I will also have a bunch of cues that come to mind just by seeing the first couple words of the pasuk (i.e. okay.. here's the one where the first occurrence is "et" and the second occurrence is "ait" or "Paroh and "Pharoh", etc.)
[EDIT BY AARON 12-20-2009] After some more thought (and some sleep) I decided to see if I can formulate and expand what I related above:
Learn it in chunks that you can readily commit to memory. Only you can determine the right chunk size for you. Reading the entire aliya through over and over again will not get most people far (unless it's a very short aliya)
After you learn a new chunk rehearse from the beginning again. The reinforcement helps retention and it also will allow you to see what you've learned as one flow, and not thinking of it at the end as multiple sub-sections that might introduce unwanted pauses as you read the entire aliya.
To echo what Shalom said, read it out loud. Some people may be more auditory, some more visual, but I take advantage of both. Practice out loud in the same tone, same pace, and about the same volume that you will use at the shulchan. Even if you don't get the sense of an internal recording - it will still build your confidence so that when you get up to the shulchan, you're not doing anything different than you did in your practice readings.
Understand what you are reading. Knowing the meaning will help you know more naturally where the pauses in the pasuk are. The pauses break the pasuk into even smaller chunks, and it makes learning what falls in between the pause points even easier. Also, it's hard to explain, but sometimes the intonations just seem to fit with the meaning of the words.
Like any other learning, it's best if you're not cramming. If you know it decently, a week before you have to read it, you can spend the rest of the week just reading it over once on the side with vowelizations/intonations and 2 times on the Torah side a night until Shabbat morning. You'll be amazed at how much more comfortable you are with it. You'll find the spots where you might be having difficulty work themselves out over the course of the week. Also, with each night, you'll find yourself making minor perfections that you might have glossed over the first time, (stuff they wouldn't have corrected you on) like all the Paroh and Pharohs. Added bonus, The jitters are gone - and that's a biggie so making one mistake where the gabbai corrects you doesn't you throw you off your game.
(I also do the hand motion thing Shalom mentioned, I don't know if it's a learning aid, or just a left over habit from watching my bar mitzvah teacher as he was trying to get me to understand the nuances of the intonations.)
It is entirely possible that my method is only suitable for myself, but I am happy to share, and if anyone else finds it useful, post about it.
P.S> I never understood Ba'alei Kriya, who are picking up the Chumash between aliyot. At times, when I have not had enough time to practice, I have tried that, and it just doesn't help me. Either I know it cold before I get to shul, or I just don't know it like I should and a last minute scan while hearing the gabbai make a Mishberach isn't going to help one iota. From what I have seen, this holds true for many but not all others... and you know you're likely in for a long leining if they holding the chumash.. particularly if they are holding up the start of the next aliya so they can finish their scan.
This might be obvious, but important to mention: when practicing, use the same names of G-d ("Ad-nai" and not "Hashem", etc.) as in the real reading. It's a legitimate use of the Name.
Some people are auditory learners, some people visual. Occasionally I try to visualize the (absent) cantillation marks onto the scroll I'm reading.
As with any learning experience, the more you involve yourself into it, the more likely it is to stick. When practicing, I read out loud, and occasionally add in hand motions too. (Note: those watching you do this might think you're crazy. Sorry.)
I've seen readers who, in between Aliyot, instead of looking at a printed Chumash, keep the Torah scroll open and read it with their eyes, while hearing the pronunciation in their heads. If you've already practiced a few times, this makes a great last-minute prep to prevent some of those I-knew-it-but-my-mind-blanked errors. Of course, you have to fend off overzealous Gabbaim (and/or Olim) who keep trying to cover the scroll. (Covering the scroll is a way of respecting it while not in use. But practicing with the scroll should be as legitimate a use as any.)
There was a neuroscience paper published a few years ago studying the mental capabilities of several London cab drivers, who have to have the whole city memorized. It would be really neat if someone did something like that with expert Torah readers.
First, if you don't yet understand how the main trope "sentences" work, it'll help if you learn those. If you're memorizing tropes one at a time (mercha... tifchah... etnachta... tevir...), you're doing a lot more work than if you recognize the first three as an etnachta clause sans munach. This is the difference between learning to read text a letter at a time (because you don't comprehend) and reading a word at a time (because you have some vocabulary).
That said, here is what I was taught, which works for me. For calibration, I lein about every six weeks, one aliyah (not the entire parsha), and fit the practice time into a fairly full schedule.
Read the entire passage through once or twice. This is just to get you familiar with the text and the trope patterns being used. I usually lein it once through at this stage (obviously working from the right side of the tikkun, with the tropes and nikkud).
Lein the first verse only. Practice it a few times until you think you can do it from the left side of the tikkun.
Lein it from the left side. If you make a mistake, iterate on steps 2-3 until you have it.
Lein the first and second verses as in steps 2 and 3.
Add the third verse. Continue in this vein until done (see note below).
You will practice the early verses much more than the later ones. You may think this is a bug, but I consider it to be a feature. When you get up to lein, you're going to know the opening verses really well. When I make a mistake early on I can have trouble recovering; a bad start can make the whole aliyah rough. But you won't have that bad start because you know this part really well.
Note: for a longer aliyah, I break the text into logical chunks (such as at the breaks in the text). I'll do what I've described above for the first chunk, then set that aside and work on the second chunk. But, every now and then when I'm practicing from the left side, I go back to the beginning instead of just starting at the current chunk. There comes a point where you don't need to keep drilling the opening verses while you're working on later ones, but don't lose track of the whole.
I recommend doing the initial learning (following the steps above) in one session, which may take you a couple/few hours (for one aliyah). Then revisit it every day (or as close to that as you can manage); on those days, start by leining from the left side, note where you had problems or felt uncertain, and then do more-focused practice. If you're not sure if you noticed all your mistakes, lein it from the right side to refresh your memory. Always end a practice session by leining the entire passage from the left side.
I just wanted to add some other comments that relate to the learning of Torah reading but are not at all related the methodology points of my earlier answer.
If you have not read your Bar Mitzvah parsha in 26 years and are thinking it would be nice to read it for your "3rd Bar Mitzvah"... DON'T! Unless you have the time to give for adequate preparation to relearn it well. It's a Tircha D'tzibur, don't do it.
If your Bar Mitzvah boy isn't up to the task, be honest with yourself. There's more pride to be had in having read a portion of it well than seeing the looks on your friends and family faces if somewhere around the fourth aliya it starts to break down and he needs to re-read every other word. It's a Tircha D'tzibur, don't do it.
While in my mind, I give every (experienced) Ba'al Kriya the latitude to read at the pace they feel most comfortable, be it fast or slow - when it comes to some Bar Mitzvah boys, there's seems to be an unnatural slowness imposed upon them that is just wrong. DON'T do it. If your child was performing at a recital on piano a piece of Mozart, you wouldn't ratchet down the metronome just because they entire family is there to hear him. Torah reading has a rhythm to it own, that's there regardless of whether the overall pace is slow or fast. When telling a child to slow down, just for the sake of slowing down, to the point where they sound very mechanical, because it will put a smile on Bubbie's face is wrong and detracts from the beauty of the Torah reading. Let the child find their comfort zone of reading and go with it. (This should not be confused with a child who is looking to rush through it because they are lacking confidence.) The deliberately extra-slow Bar Mitzvah boy reading is a Tircha D'tzibur, don't do it.
@MonicaCellio's answer is great; I would just like to add my personal experience.
Now that I've been laining for a while, my process has changed, but back when I was learning everything for the first time, I would break the laining into chunks. I used half-column chunks, but you can do whatever size works for you. There is no better substitute than simple repetition. Like listening to a song until it gets stuck in your head. It would sometimes take dozens of times repeating the laining (always on the right-hand side!) until I would be able to do it flawlessly on the "Torah side". After every few times, check yourself on the left side and see how many times you get stuck and have to look over. Repeat.
Two additional tips:
- Always practice the night before you lain in public. Do not leave any portion, even if just an aliyah, to memorize on the same day. I find that practicing a portion and then sleeping works wonders. The brain does something during sleep that I can't really explain, but it seems to connect dots, find patterns, and etch things in your memory. Review it the next morning after you wake up, and it should be clearer in your mind.
- The first word of every verse is important (or, in some cases, the first words after each half-verse). It sets the stage for the patter of ta'amim that follow. Many times (in my case, most times) just remembering the correct trop for the first word allows me to lain the entire verse correctly. That said, I often try to memorize the sequence of first-word-trops (e.g. "pashta-mercha-pashta-kadma v'azla-tvir") for the section I'm working on, and it helps if (and in surprisingly many cases, this is true) the sequence is in some way memorable (like if there are several verses that are all revii or if there is a steady increase in the level of dramatics, like merca -> t'vir -> pashta -> mahpach -> kadma -> kadma-v'azla -> t'lisha -> etc.).
- Say first passuk three times in the "Chumash side"
Say it once in the "Torah side"
2a. If you have it, proceed to step 3
2b. If not, repeat steps 1 and 2 until you have it
Learn the next passuk, using steps 1 and 2
- Once you've learned five pessukim like that, read them all in the Torah side, once
4a. Fix any problems with those five pessukim
- At the end of an aliyah, read the whole aliyah twice on the Torah side.
- At the end of a whole parsha, read the whole thing as many times as you can; at least 2-3
- The day of leining -- read the whole thing at least once in a chumash, because even though you own this parsha already (hopefully), it's impossible to catch any mistakes by yourself when the only thing you're using is the tikkun's Torah side.
"Chumash side" is the side with the nekudos. "Torah side" is the side without.
I would suggest drawing up a road map for learning the layning committing to a certain amount of time each day.
For example...if you can learn 30 minutes a day each day until the shabbos of your layning and at that rate it would take you 4 weeks then lay out a schedule of 30 minute days each day.
I have found that when I learn layning the most important thing is to practice every day so that the stuff that I have already know doesn't escape.
I originally used what i call the "brute force" method, because i don't "chunk" it at all. What i do is:
- Read the whole aliyah a few times on the chumash side of the tikkun.
- Start looking on the Torah side; check back to the chumash side often. (repeat a couple times)
- Try reading the whole thing only on the Torah side, but don't cover the chumash yet, in case i need a hint. (repeat a couple times)
- Cover the chumash side (i find a folded piece of paper is perfect) and read the entire aliya from the Torah side. (repeat a couple times)
- For best results, get someone to listen to you and correct any mistakes.
- Go over it again on each side.
When i say "repeat a couple times", it means "as much as needed, until you feel confident".
This is pretty much what i did for my bar mitzvah, and what i do every week learning the mincha leining.
Nowadays, i find i need to start chunking after 15 psukim or so. But even when i do chunk, it's usually to groups of ~10. I find less than 5 to feel too short, and i can't get into the flow of the leining like that. It's also harder when you're tired: the amount i can commit to memory at once drops drastically after 10PM.
When i chunk i'll learn the first 10 to about 80-90%, then the next 10 80-90%, and every so often i'll practice the whole thing together, so that the first chunk improves, and i keep it fluid. Once the whole thing is done i'll keep going over it till it's all at 100%. Sometimes if i'm particularly stuck on a specific pasuk i will do just it a few times over and over, but that's a last resort.
I've known the trop and the associated patterns for years already (i first learned at age 6, just because), and have read over the whole parsha each week for a few years, so i'm familiar with a lot of the words, and once i have the beginning of the sentence fragment's trop, the rest is easy.
I also agree with Double AA's comment that knowledge of Hebrew grammar is critical. Now that i better understand the rules of dagesh and shva and how the trop can change other words, i find it much easier.
I wonder why nobody told me this before: whatever I learn today, I have to repeat tomorrow and the third day! If I don't do so, I will forget it, no matter how good I knew on the first day.
First I tried to go through the whole parsha, piece by piece, and after a long time, I came back to the beginning, and started everything all over. This is extremely inefficient!
Now, instead, I made an experiment: I was recording statistics about how long it takes me to practice one short part (1/3 or 1/4 amud) to perfection. Usually, first repetition takes 13 minutes, second 9 minutes, third 4.5 minutes.
These average values comes from my Excel file which I practiced one parsha (Shoftim) through 3.5 weeks, putting in about 20 minutes, 4-5 times a week.
I also tried to go back and see how much I forgot in the course of this month. I practiced a part from the beginning of the parsha and B"H it took me almost same amount of time to refresh as the fastest (3rd) repetition.
What comes out from this is that now in less than an hour I can refresh the whole parsha! My goal is to know every part as good as the Monday-Thursday readings. It takes about 2-4 weeks to prepare one parsha to that level, based on how much time I can invest. The outcome (I hope): perfect reading in 2-4 years.