Basic skills for singers: Helping your choir to Memorize music
Wow! I had no idea I'd be opening such a can of worms when I made my
original post! (For those not on Choraltalk, there have been some very
heated discussions on the virtues of memorizing versus using scores in
I am limiting this compilation only to responses which address my original
question - how to help choirs memorize works for performance, especially
works written in foreign languages. Thanks to all who made suggestions!
"Alas for those who never sing, but die with all their music in them."
-- Oliver Wendell Holmes
What do I do with my singers? I make it an assignment. I give them a 'due
date' to have it memorized by and then make them take a quiz. Depending on
time I'll either have the choir sing the song together and its sink or swim
for everyone, or I'll have them write down the words to the text. In other
words, I make my students do the memorizing on their own time and then hold
them accountable for it.
Bay Port High School
If you must memorize, then my diagnosis of your problem is that your
singers probably do not know what the foreign texts mean in their own
language. And I mean that they need to know word for word literal
translations, not some hackneyed poetic version that sounds good in
English. Memorizing strings of syllables is a worthless exercise. If
the students/singers know exactly what they are saying, then they should
have less trouble remembering the words.
With my middle-school groups, I've had good success with the following:
I write a verse on the board, and we sing through it. Then I erase a few
words, and we sing the verse again. We'll do this until a couple words are
remaining on the board, and by then it has turned into sort of a memory
New Brighton Middle School
I've never really run into this issue with my choirs, but I remember as a
high school singer being tested on the text of a piece we were having
difficulty memorizing. The test was an order test. The phrases were
provided for us all scrambled and we had to place the phrases in the correct
order. I'm not sure the test was all that successful, but I do know I
learned the text through my studying for the test. I did horribly on the
actual exam, though.
I have my students HAND-Write (or print) the text out. Not on
computer, not on typewriter - handwritten. There's something about how the
neural pathways get used that enables the memorization process.
Unitarian Universalist Church
58 Lowell Street
Nashua, NH 03064-2299
My first instinct would be to have either the students required to write out
or type up the text, or for you to do it for them, (of course the first way
is better!) and have them study it away from the music.
Small chunks are always less daunting. Force them off the music in short
Sing a little with the music, then put the music down, etc.
It's so good when choirs perform from memory--or any musician for that
matter. I was in Havana not long ago, and they can't afford sheet music, so
everything they do is from memory, in many languages.
Christ Episcopal Church
105 Cottage Pl.
Ridgewood, NJ 07450
We do a lot of foreign language (Hebrew, Latin, French, German), right
now, we are preparing Carmina Burana for our fourth performance in 10
years. The few student who are repeating the work still have that
I have never made an issue of memorization but the pieces always seem to
get memorized. But negotiating languages is just a part of being a singer.
I have yet to meet a singer from anyplace who has not learned at least one
of the venerable 24 Italian Song (or its sucessor, 26 Italian Songs). I
tell my singers that it is a right of passage and that at this very
minute, there probably is a Chinese or Russian singer learning Per la
gloria da dorarvi. I have learned never to assume that any or my singers
are not going to need to do all the things needed of a singer. I have had
too many students announce to me in December of their senior year that
they must be a voice major.
The most important thing is the music; memorized or not. After several
forays with languages holding music, your singers should gain confidence.
The expectation should be that the quality of music is paramount and that
language is part of that music.
If memorization is a must, playing demo recordings (first only listening
while reading, then singing while reading and listening) can help the ear,
but I know from experience it takes a lot more time to memorize a program in
six different non-Romance languages than any high school choir is given. Why
cut out the exposure when understanding world cultures is so critical these
Judith Cook Tucker, Publisher
World Music Press
Intercultural Understanding through Music
PO Box 2565, Danbury CT 06813-2565
Small, small chunks...especially with foreign languages. After the notes
and the language is learned try starting from the end...do just the very
phrase until it's committed to memory then do the phrase before that until
it's committed then put them together. I've found that, this way, not only
memorization facilitated but also the flow of the music is cemented, as it
were. Two general rules I follow...the harder the music or the language
is...the slower I go the first couple times...the smaller chunks I take; and
learn everything correctly the first time...it's unbelievable how hard it is
unlearn and correct something that's been learned incorrectly.
My background is as a pianist. I am now a choral conductor. I was always
taught that memory is muscle building. Hopefully your feeder teachers have
had the kids sing for memory. But for your case: start them singing a
piece with a limited text, particularly the foreign languages. Then add more
text as you go along. Above all, give them plenty of time to memorize. I
usually figure if my kids don't know a piece for memory a week prior to the
concert, they will not sing it. I have also forced kids into learning and
memory as one process. (From the piano background.) They can do it if you
train them. Limit the amount you teach and spot grade at the end of each
period. Before I came, the kids sang everything with music. I got rid of
that, but I had to give them time to learn and memorize. For me, it means
that they don't learn the most difficult of pieces and I have definitely not
sacrificed quality. (Most colleagues are amazed at the quality and quantity
of literature that we cover.) Good luck to you building the memory muscle.
Director of Upper School Vocal Music and Theory Instructor
Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School
101 N. Warson Rd.
St. Louis, MO 63124
(314)995-7450 ext. 7281
We are an adult master chorale and we have the same problems sometimes.
Since I am, like you, very good at both memorizing and languages, I often
get frustrated with them. However, I have found that the best thing to do
is to make a tape with you, or someone, pronouncing each syllable in the
rythm of its notes (or with the line played by piano) and giving them each
a copy of the tape to work with. Somehow, just learning it by rote like
that seems to get it in their ear better. The other thing I have done is to
write in the words phonetically on the music nad have them learn it that
way. Hope this helps.
Alexa- I teach my choir members the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet).
This way, they learn the phonetic sound of the vowels and consonants in
words they cannot understand. Much easier because symbols (and sounds)
remain the same regardless of the language.
Clearly your students are capable of memorizing such texts, but perhaps just
can't be bothered, or don't know how. I'm sure most of them have no trouble
at all memorizing a rap lyric or some lines of gibberish. Sometimes
treating the foreign language as a challenge in learning gibberish or
nonsense syllables may work.
For several years running, I prepared totally memorized and staged
productions of medieval drama at St. John Cathedral in Milwaukee. Each
production ended with a procession in which the complete solemn chant "Te
Deum" was sung -- memorized -- by a cast of about 40 singers (mostly
amateurs) ranging in age from 8 to mid-60s. So I suspect there are still a
couple of hundred individuals in the Milwaukee area that could still sing
the magnificent 7-plus minute chant from memory, complete with organum!
Tapes were provided with the text alone, broken into short phrases, and then
with each phrase sung. Additionally, there was some time devoted early on
to pairs or small groups of singers going off to check each other's
memorization and pronunciation. A cutoff time was also announced early on,
when the scores would no longer be used.
I know that one additional crutch that developed, unexpectedly, was that
since much of the music in the complete drama had ritualized movement or
processions associated with it, if the procession changed in any significant
way and the singers weren't at certain locations that had become associated
with particular portions of the text, the memorization would falter -- at
least momentarily. Perhaps that would indicated tying some additional
physicality with the process of memorization.
Charles Q. Sullivan
I'm chiming in on this one because I haven't noticed really specific mention
of learning styles and how that might affect the specific skill of
memorization, which I believe is a skill separate from the internalization
music. I have struggled with the skill of memorization for many years, and
only in my recent years have I made what I consider to be significant
progress on the subject. I have been a music teacher for nearly 37 years,
and have had a chance to work with thousands of students both on the
internalization of music and memorization.
It has been my experience, and also a result of some study, that those who
are most "aurally" oriented are the quickest to memorize. Those who are
visually oriented are the least quick to succeed at that skill. However, I
have noticed that those who are more visually oriented are much more likely
to pay close attention to the details found on the musical page (including
correct notes and rhythms, dynamics, expressive markings) and those who are
he most aurally oriented often leave out some of those details altogether.
have had students who can hear something once and memorize it, almost
completely correctly. However, whatever they missed in that first
memorization seems to require an eternity to correct. And I find that the
more visually oriented students have an easier time making a permanent
correction that will remain with them.
In my own life, and I think because I am such a visually oriented person (a
bit odd for a musician, but helpful for a keyboardist...I sight-read quite
well), I had to be dragged kicking and screaming into memorizing piano
pieces. By the time I can play something on the piano by heart, I can play
it in any key, make improvisations on it, and could probably create the
correct notation in a flash, with all the details. I can memorize single
melodic lines fairly quickly, but I do it by recreating the music in my head
in a visual way. I am jealous of those, including my students, whose aural
skill is so great that they can quickly memorize, as they are of my ability
If I had to say which of two of my students had achieved a better job of
internalizing the music, one who had memorized or one who had not, I would
probably less frequently come out on the side of the one who had been able
memorize the piece quickly. Those are usually the students who don't show
the improvement on that piece when it has been memorized. For me to teach
them more about music, I usually have to go to a new piece, and we have to
work with it on the chalkboard, and through analysis before they ever try to
play it, because once they start to play it, they don't get much farther
it. The students who have a new and improved experience with the piece each
time they play it are often the ones who are continuing to use the score,
are making their own notes. They may eventually come to the point of
memorizing it, and once they do, yes, they really own it. But I would say
that they may have internalized the piece quite well before they were able
get away from the score.
Now, I do work on the skill of memorization at every chance, both personally
and with my students. I conduct from memory, thought the score is often
hanging around somewhere, and I do keep orchestral scores in front of me so
can make certain I don't miss cues for specific instruments or choral
sections. I try to sing and play group concerts from memory, so that I can
have my eyes on the director at all times. What I do find frustrating about
that is that if I have memorized something, and then we go back and add
dynamic or expression changes (or worst of all for me, altering the length
cutoffs), I tend to make mistakes regarding those new additions because I
have memorized it one way and I find it hard to memorize those changes,
especially since I am no longer looking at the score.
I help my students work on the skill of memorizing by working with short
segments of music, getting them to understand it, to observe patterns, to
analyze the harmonies, and to internalize the rhythms. We do this every
week, without fail. Their skill in memorization is growing and they know
to teach themselves how to memorize on their own. But I just can't agree
that memorization and internalization of the music are the same specific
skill. I think internalization of the music can assist in the skill of
memorizing, absolutely, and especially with getting things into long term
memory. I do not agree that memorization assists in the skill of
internalizing the music.
Nan Beth Walton
Faith Lutheran Church
Emerald City Arts Academy
As per the request of a few people who responded to my question on how to help choirs to
memorize repertoire, I've decided to post them all here. Thank you so much to everyone who
gave their two cents, it was interesting and exciting to learn about so many different (and similar)
In my experience the principal issue regarding memorization of music is the age of the singers.
The older the median age of a chorus, the more difficult the task. That said, there are a couple
of general guidelines that have worked well for me:
1) Divide the work(s) into coherent, manageable sections (determining factors being length of
program and number of rehearsals).
2) Distribute a clearly defined, reasonable schedule of expectations, and stick to it. My personal
preference is to work from the end of a piece first so the chorus is always moving into familiar
material, but it is critical to make the schedule of expectations clear from the first rehearsal.
3) If a foreign language is involved consider having a rehearsal tape/cd made with a musical
native-speaker demonstrating the text in rhythm. In my experience foreign language pieces are
harder to memorize than are familiar language pieces.
4) If you insist on having music memorized let the chorus sing, sing and sing some more during
rehearsals. The more you talk/explain the less the chorus will commit to memory.
I've had good luck having the singers hand-write the text in long-hand.
When they can write it without any hesitation, they are ready to sing it by
memory. Try it, it really does help!
My choir knows that I may ask them to put their scores down & sing from
memory at any time in a rehearsal, whether they've completely learned the
piece or not. In practice, I don't make it too hard for them - I will choose
a piece that they know reasonalby well, and will let them sing it once thru
with their scores first, letting them know that the second time will be
without scores. This way, they get to experience that they know the music
better than they thought and that singing from memory isn't as difficult as
they though. Singing from memory in rehearsal in this way also gives them
the experience of singing in a different way - they can watch my beat more
carefully, listen to one another better, etc - it almost always sounds and
feels better, even if they have made a few mistakes. And that's the other
important part of doing it this way - I always give them permission to make
as many mistakes as they need to make - and when they do make mistakes we
laugh about it together.
Listening to a recording helps.
It's all in the rehearsals! The teacher should involve all singers in the
"process" of learning all parts. I've never had a problem with memorization
because I expect all students to be engaged at all times. I expect other voice
parts to be aware of what is going on in all of the other parts as well. Then, I
test each piece in quartets, trios, etc.
1. Get them to do it in small chunks. "For next week, please get pages 7
and 8 memorized".
2. Have them sing from memory before they are confident, but give them
license to sing it wrong. "Find [starting place]. We're going
to sing the next three pages. Twenty seconds to check , and then close
your books. Sing it wrong if you can't sing it right, but don't stop
3. Let them help one another - half a minute to talk among themselves just
after one of those "blind flying" exercises. If you can identify the
alpha singers, use them to support the others.
4. Record them, and let them hear how much better they can sound when they
know a piece well enough to sing it from memory. They also communicate
with the audience much better if they are looking forward and not down at
I guess it all depends on how quickly your music program moves, what I have
experienced listening to choirs who memorize their music is a sense of
and hesitation at times.
I agree, lifting ones head and singing is extremely important. Younger
choirs seem to be able to handle memorizing better, not only because of
age, but because of other commitments.
If your program moves fast this will become a problem, you will focus more
on memorizing than you will feel. Of course larger works present their own
Memorizing has it merits, don't let it become a sacred cow.
Hi, I'm afraid I can't help you with this but memorization is going to be a
goal for me for next choir year. So I'd love it if you could compile your
This is a great question! Thank you for asking it!
Interesting question. Please post your responses if
Steer them to a good recording (if available), then to midis (ditto),
provide printed text, and a translation (if applicable), and talk to
them about the piece, so they can get a sense of how it all hangs
together. If it's a big piece (e.g. Brahms Requiem, Elijah), do it
one movement at a time, and then work on the transitions between
movements. Sectionals help esp. if there are movements for separate
parts. My two cents.
Hold a "memory check" event for a grade where students must sing part or all of a piece from
THEY will find a way to get it memorized so you won't have to.
For elementary children, memorization is a strength. After singing something a few times, they
will have it committed to memory. As you move into the older grades, memorization becomes
With any age, ask the singers to put the music down (or hold it but try not to look at it, if they
get panicky), to check themselves on what they already have memorized. Go straight through the
song, or a pre-designated portion, without stopping. Afterward, the singers check the music for
their own "iffy spots." Sing it again, and many of the weak places will resolve themselves.
Insecure places often occur where the music is almost the same as somewhere else in the song.
Go through the music finding the same/almost same sections. You can do a compare/contrast
with them to help clarify the trouble spots. Even stronger, ask the singers to describe to each
other how they are different, and how they will remember what to sing. This is done as private
conversations, not as a full group activity. The value is here is that each person is actively
responsible for finding a way to remember.
If the music is very slow or very fast, try changing it to moderato. Besides the novelty factor, it's
much easier to sing and memorize. After it is mastered, return to the "real" tempo. Don't leave it
You mean other than practicing and living with the music?
Sorry I could not resist.
I've been at this for 30-plus years....and I work with lots of second
and third language kids (we are an English language-based curriculum in
the American model) and it is my experience that some kids just
memorize quick and some don't. It is the way they are wired. I do
think the ability to look at the music (without the words) and the
words without the music and be able to hear in the "mind's ear", as it
were, the opposite means the piece is learned. If I have the text, and
can sing from it my part (and hear other parts) then the piece is
"learned" or internalized.
At the risk of sounding like a commercial for athletic shoes, the best
way to learn to memorize is to "just do it". Memorization should be
integrated with the learning process. With both adults and children, I
have them learn a section at a time. The adults get bigger "bites" and
the children get smaller ones. We use music a few times through, then
put it away, and once a section is learned, we no longer look at the
music. The more frequently one memorizes, the easier it becomes.
There are many schools of thought regarding memorizing text and music.
At some workshops I've been to, it's been suggested to separate the text
and the music while learning a piece. Other presenters have insisted
sthat the text and music be learned together as a unit, so be prepared to
get a lot of conflicting advice.
One thing that I have done that helps is to have the choir sing whatever
piece you are working on and when I hold up a sign or my arm or some type of
signal, the choir has to sing in their heads. Then when the signal goes
away they pick up right where they should as if there had been no silence.
This internalizes the music a bit. If the singer can sing it in their head
on their own w/out the rest of the choir helping them, they know their part.
I don't tell them that the piece is to be memorized.
At one point, after the piece has been rehearsed many
times, I ask the group to try it without the music.
If I get resistance, I just ask them to humor me.
Most times, they are able to get through it, and many
do quite well. The ones who have some difficulty are
"encouraged" by peer pressure (even in adults) to
catch up with the others.