Should Choruses Memorize Their Music?

Memorizing music can be daunting, but choruses that require it report that their singers connect better with the conductor, with the music, and ultimately with the audience. The memorization techniques that worked for them can help ease the process.

Ten years ago, Jan Pedersen Schiff announced to the 60 members of her women’s chorus, Wings of Song, that they would henceforth be required to memorize their music.

Schiff had a clear reason for her decision—one that every choral conductor can relate to. “I needed to have the singers watching me,” she says, “so that I could be free to interpret the music through my conducting gestures.” She wanted to give her singers immediate feedback on their mouth position for certain vowel shapes for better tone production, as well as posture and breath support.

All good reasons, but for the singers it was a shock. Nancy Fickbohm went home after the announcement and stewed for days. “I can’t memorize all this music!” she recalls thinking. “I can learn it, sure.  I can look up, a lot of the time.  But go without the music in my hand?  No way.” She considered quitting—several of her fellow choristers actually did quit—but she knew she would be miserable without singing. 

So Fickbohm and her fellow choristers jumped in feet first. “There was some definite fear going into this the first time,” Schiff recalls, “but that all vanished after the first performance. Audience feedback was powerful for the singers.  They realized how much more they were appreciated because their heads were up and faces more expressive.”

A Better Connection

In March 2013, Chorus America posted a question about memorizing music on its Facebook page. The responses suggest that for some types of choruses, memorizing is a necessary part of the way they perform. Barbershop choirs memorize “because presentation is part of the Barbershop style,” says Janet E. Kidd, who conducts two barbershop choruses. “Memorizing leaves us free to work on the really magical stuff that makes singing together so exciting.”

Choirs that incorporate music with movement and choreography always memorize. “Holding music would simply be an impediment,” says Gary Holt, artistic director of the San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus, which often uses "choralography" with its “pop-like” concerts. Houston Choral Showcase, a community show choir, requires memorization with pieces that include choreography, says executive director Belinda Rossiter. A number of children’s choirs that regularly incorporate movement in their concerts also memorize.

Some of these choirs like the benefits of memorizing so much that they have expanded the practice. “Even when we don’t move, we have found that we engage better with the audience when we don’t have our heads in music folders,” a singer with Houston Choral Showcase said.

Choirs that do not regularly require memorization also have discovered its benefits. “Our director needs our faces,” a singer with Vienna Choral Society, a non-auditioned group in Virginia, reported. “There’s so much that goes on unspoken between her and us. We work very hard to memorize as much as possible. And then we show her our faces and have a whole conversation that the audience doesn't know about, but we sound better for them as a result.”

Holt said that he tries to impress on his singers the many ways in which holding music can hinder effective artistic communication with an audience. “The men now know that memorization is today an institutional characteristic of the chorus,” he says. “There is almost never any discussion of whether we'll memorize—only a discussion of why we memorize.” 

Can You Memorize Missa Solemnis?

But what about the really big pieces with millions of notes? Is it practical or even possible to memorize Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis or the Brahm’s Requiem?

Schiff concedes that for some major works, holding the music may be an important factor in singers’ confidence. “And If it’s a major work, the conductor’s attention is not only on the chorus, so knowing when to expect an entrance without a cue can be a good thing.”

William Metcalfe, conductor of Oriana Singers of Vermont, believes that holding the music helps singers understand “how the vocal parts of those pieces interact with the instrumental accompaniment.”

“I have always felt that choirs, especially ‘amateur’ choirs with a good deal of musical sophistication, learn music differently when they have all the parts of the score in front of them,” he says.

Yet holding the music is not the same as burying one’s head in it. And holding the music need not be an excuse to not memorize. “We just completed a performance of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms with several other guest choruses,” Schiff says, “and I did allow my singers to hold their music, as others would be. Many have gotten used to memorizing now, so that quite a few hardly ever looked down.”

Holt says he allows his singers to hold the music for multi-movement extended works. But where the text has a strong message component or the singers are called upon to tell stories that are deeply moving or personal in nature, "I ask for memorization from my chorus,” he says. “Not having that physical and distracting barrier between them allows the singers and audience members to intensify their visual connection. And although it may be counter-intuitive to some, the singers' performance is more confident for having mastered and committed to memory that which was on paper.”

Tips and Tools for Memorizing

Conductors and singers from around 20 choruses offered these ideas for easing the process of memorization.

In Rehearsal

Start early to get “off book.” “Six weeks or so into rehearsal, I ask that they put their music down and watch me,” Schiff says.  “I will mouth the words, especially at phrase entrances that might be contrapuntal.  Usually, when they get the first word, the rest of the sentence begins filling in automatically.  As a teacher of voice, I am not only giving them the words, but the shape of those words in my mouth.  I am not singing – just mouthing.”

Assign one or two songs per week to be memorized. That prevents having to cram in everything close to show time.

Speak the lyrics first—then sing! One choral conductor has her choral students get into mini circles and speak the lyrics with voice inflection and in rhythm over and over. “We sing it once, then speak in rhythm, then sing it twice with the sheet music. Then on the third practice during our session, we hide the sheet music and do the best we can! It seems to work wonderfully!”

Two to three weeks before the performance, run the entire concert in “lightning round." Holt of the San Diego Gay Men's Chorus learned this fun technique as a young theatre student at the Interlochen Center for the Arts:
“After we've run through the piece at ‘performance quality,’ for one time only we run each song as fast as is humanly possible.  We take out dynamics, fermatas, grand pauses, etc.  The only requirement is great diction and articulation.  In addition to being a fun exercise for the singers and accompanist, it helps achieve the objectives of requiring the singers to command the text in phrases, or even full sentences. It also gives them a different perspective on ‘beginning/middle/end’ because everything seems so much closer together. After running each piece in 'Lightning Round' we all have a good laugh, and a 60-second affirmation that what we just did was a great memorization aid.”

At Home

Listen often to voice part CDs. Schiff creates the CDs for her singers. “The benefit to myself as the conductor is that I thoroughly know their voice parts and all potential problem spots.” She encourages her singers to listen while driving when they do not have the music in front of them. “After a short while, their part becomes memorized,” she says.

Singers with Houston Choral Showcase use demo recordings, recordings of the accompaniment without the voices, or recordings where the chorus’ own pianists or singers play or sing a single part over the demo recording.

Kidd’s Barbershop Choruses “use top of the line learning sound files which we buy or commission from professionals who do this sort of thing. I never ever have to teach notes - even to people who don't read music. Notes, lyrics, and interpretation can be learned as chorus members walk, drive, or work. And perhaps best of all, they learn the pitches and chords dead in tune.”

Jay Banta, member of an 8-singer Capella jazz ensemble, listens to MP3 recordings of his part using a software program called Sweet Midi Player. “With this program each part can be isolated and tempo controlled. You are able to hear only your own part at first; then as you learn, you can make the other parts louder and eventually sing your part without using the midi-player.”

Rehearsal CDs and downloads of many of the more popular works in the choral repertoire are available at SingleParts, Cyberbass, ChoraLine and NotePerfect.

Write out – or type outthe lyrics. The words are often harder to learn than the notes, many choristers agree. Rossiter says typing out the words helps her note “patterns of repetitions or differences” in the musical line.

In the weeks before the Ridgefield Chorale in New Jersey staged their performance of show tunes, the following tips were sent to singers: “Pull out a song every day and write it out. Then carry the written song with you and read it throughout the day. Each time, say it out loud using the piece of paper less and less as the day goes on. You can also read the song into a voice memo on your phone and make it a point to listen to it at least four times in the morning and four times in the afternoon. Then listen one more time before bed and another time when you wake up.”

Memorize from the end of the piece to the beginning. That is, learn the last two lines cold, then the last four lines, and on through to the beginning of the piece. This should help singers become comfortable with the entire piece, rather than being stronger at the beginning.

Don’t practice mistakes. “Don’t just sing through a piece from beginning to end,” a singer with Houston Choral Showcase says, “but stop at every error and fix it before moving on.”

Related Links

Gary Holt shares more thoughts on memorizing here

4 Techniques for Memorizing Lyrics

Read more about Wings of Song's transition in Why My Chorus Sings from Memory.


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