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Memorization vs. Using music folders

Looked around a little for a previous post about this, but I haven't been able to find a debate/comparison on this issue.
How do we feel about memorization vs. using folders during performance?
Now, most music is naturally memorized through the rehearsal process, but what if a piece is added only a few weeks before a concert (let's not debate the "choral morals" of introducing music too late) and is a selection that the choir can definitely learn effectively and sing well, but maybe not memorize fully? Or, a very intricate/long piece is being performed along side other memorized pieces and the choir would definitely feel better about perfoming the intricate/long selection with music.
Just some fodder for a healthy discussion on memorization vs. using folders during performance.
on September 20, 2012 11:17am
Corey:  There's no pat answer because it depends on your goals.  I've been involved in too many situations in which memorization was so obviously an absolute requirement that I can't possibly argue against it for any reason.  This has included entertainment, musical theater, opera, and many other situations.  An actor does not carry a script around with him on stage, because part of an actor's job is to become his character, and that can't happen when you're obviously just reading your lines.
But if your goal is to cover the largest variety of literature in a given time span--semester, half semester, or academic year--then it makes more sense to learn one program, perform it once, then put it away and start on the next program, and the extra time required for memorization would work against your goal.  Of course in that situation you have to admit and accept that your singers simply will never have the music as completely internalized as they would if you worked to get them "off book."  The problem is that everything is a balance between goals, time, and money, and too many choral conductors have actually never experienced any other approach to programming.
For a tour, however, or an extended run of concerts, or anything similar (including the operation of any ensemble that operates as a repertoire ensemble with a background of pieces that can be pulled up at any time for a specific audience), I would consider memorization such an obviously necessary step as not even to question it, and you simply build the time into your schedule to accomodate it, especially when there will eventually be stage movement, blocking, or any level of choreography.  That's especially true if it happens to be an ensemble that does NOT have someone in front waving his hands at them at all times.  They have to have the music completely learned, completely understood, and completely internalized.  That's exactly how Chanticleer approached it when my son was a member, and it was simply understood as part of the job.
You also ask about an exceptional case, and I would simply point out that it WOULD be an exceptional case to add a new number at the last minute, and has to be decided on an individual basis.  Would a new piece justify carrying music on stage in musical theater or opera?  Not likely!  In entertainment?  Makes it look amateurish.  And all of that needs to go into the decision.
In other words, "it depends!"
All the best,
Applauded by an audience of 1
on September 20, 2012 2:22pm
John makes some great points, as usual. Here are my two cents:
My opinion is that this is a practical consideration first.  If your group can make the best art with scores in hand, then use them.  If not, don't.  
In my experience, choirs sing more musically and are much more responsive when they're not looking at scores.  I would prefer to have my choir sing everything from memory.  However, if you're performing a major, multi-movement work, memorization just isn't practical.  Better to be sure your students know which movement is next.  It's a compromize; if your students (and you) are terrified over memorization, they just won't sing as well.  I have been in lots of situations in which, even with months of notice, I'm still putting together a whole lot of music in a short time. 
I heard a college choir on tour a few years ago sing a Bach motet (Furchte dich nicht, I think).  My impression was they could handle it musically (it started out fine), but parts of it were a mess. The rest of the memorized program was excellent.  I think they should have just swallowed their pride, pulled out the scores, and sung it well, instead of presenting an "almost there" performance from memory.
I know of a conductor who makes memorization an outside assignment and pulls random quartets out of the choir from time to time to test memorization.  This is a university choir director, and presumably a group of music majors or very advanced non-majors.  I can't do that because some of my students, while respectable singers, would have no hope of learning thier parts accurately on their own.  I assume the latter situation is more common than the former.  As a high school student and as an undergrad, choirs I was in sung everything that wasn't an oratorio from memory.  I don't believe I have ever sung a concert as a choir member from memory since (not including opera).
I suppose an argument could be made that my approach is sort of lazy.  "TRY to present a memorized program, but if you can't do it, oh well."  "Students tend to acheive what you expect of them."  I can see that side too, but I'm not saying, "aim low so that mediocrity seems like success."  Sometimes we inadvertently set the bar too high, things get added to our performance schedules that we can't control, etc., and memorization is not better than good art (with the exceptions John mentioned like opera in which it's only good art if it's memorized).
Hope this is helpful,
on September 21, 2012 6:54am
A very wise man once told me: "Only the very best singers in the world can sing with music."  By this, he meant solo singers as well as choral singers.  The reason is that if these "best singers" use music at all, it is only as a reference.  It is a resource that is used, at a glance, to quickly get one's bearings and remind the singer of the carefully practiced vocal technique, musical interpretation, diction considerations, body and facial posture, and text understanding which has already been practiced and internalized.  It is not for the purpose of "reading" notes, articulation markings or words.  These should already be memorized unless the singer has such facility at reading music that several measure's worth of basic information can be "read" at a glance--the majority of the singer's mental energy being directed at all of the musical considerations listed above.  
So, I would approach the question not with regard to "long intricate" pieces versus shorter, "simpler" music (which may actually be more demanding--with respect to interpretation, for example), but rather as a question of technique.  Are the singers using the score to "read" the music?  Or are they talented enough to only glance at the music occasionally--giving themselves quick reminders of all the multi-layered musical elements that have been discussed in rehearsal (and certainly not dweliing the basics--notes, rhythms, words).
Here's a way to think of it.  Can you imagine going to see Shakespeare performed by an average theater company where the actors are all holding their scripts and often readinng off of them because the play was to "long" or "difficult" to memorize?  You wouldn't want to sit through such a thing.  However, if one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of the day were to stand on stage and recite a monologue with the text in hand, you probably would enjoy it because it would be so obvious that the actor wasn't merely reading the words, but rather using the printed page as a reference, allowing him/her to focus all of his/her energy on the deep understanding and thorough interpretation of the text which their long training and career experience has given them.  
I think it is fun to challenge choral singers in this way.  It makes them realize that they can go so much deeper into their art:  that notes, rhythms and words are only a foundation, but a performance is a cathedral.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on September 22, 2012 6:10pm
In rehearsals of the Robert Shaw Chorale, first-time rehearsals of a musical selection started with sight-singing the entire selection. The second time through the music, Shaw would indicate how the music needed to be phrased and at times, various phrases would be sung on the neutral syllable /loo/ before the words would be sung. The singers would make notes in their scores, and the various sung phrases would be repeated no more than once or twice. Then before the third time through the muskc, Shaw would say something like, "Close the music and sing it." You can imagine how first-time RSC members would react--inner gasps? But they would always be waaay surprised at how much they recalled. [I learned this from discussiions with a long-time member of the RSC.]
Is there evidence from memory research to back up Shaw's RSC music-learning process? There is, and it's fascinationg.
We human beings have two memory systems in us, each with different but overlapping neurochemical circuitry.  In the published neuropsychobiological literature, each system is referred to with two different labels. 
The declarative memory system and the explicit memory system are two different terms that refer to the same memory phenomena.  This system is activated by experiences that occur within conscious awareness so that language can be used to represent it and talk about it (thus, it's declarative).  The memory and learning that are formed and consolidated can include experiences in which sensory, motor, cognitive, and emotional processing can be, and usually are involved, and these types of experiences also include deliberate, effortful memorization of language/musical 'information.' 
The procedural memory system and the implicit memory system also are two different terms that refer to the same memory phenomena.  This system is almost always activated outside conscious awareness.  The memory and learning that are formed and consolidated also include experiences in which sensory, motor, cognitive, and emotional processing are involved, but...the main difference is that the learning happens without conscious awareness so that language cannot be employed to discuss it until the learning is brought into conscious awareness. Also, the relative unpleasantness of deliberate, effortful memorization of language and music will be reduced or eliminated.
So-called "mental rehearsal" of a physical coordination increases and improves memory formation and consolidation for that coordination. This research suggests that when actually singing a selection of music, all of the parts of the brain that plan, sequence, and activate the singing are functioning (also includes the auditory cortex). When "mentally" singing the music (no actual singing), the only motor parts of the brain that activate are the parts that plan and sequence the singing coordinations. Those parts of the brain, of course, enhance the learning and production of the music.
Finally, memory consolidation of recent learning experiences happens during sleep, even during naps.
So, WHAT MIGHT BE LEARNED from the RSC music-learning process and the memory research about learning a new piece of music in rehearsals? What about:
(1) Experience the whole piece of music first, from beginning to end (sight-singing or listening to a recording of it and then begin rehearsing it).
(2) Examine collaboratively what the words and music are expressing about human beings or the 'human condition' in order to create emotional memory 'tags' (celebration, remembrance, emotional reactions to a situation or an event, etc.). The singers need to be looking closely at the words and music.
(3) After about the first three times rehearsing through a portion of a piece (or the whole piece if choir members are adept at sight-singing), then ask the singers to " an experiment, just to find out what happens.  Close your music and let's find out how far you can get without it.  Just for the fun of it." Most of the time, singers will be surprised at how much they remembered, so we can help them 'get off the book' ASAP by helping them learn the music.  For whatever it's worth, I've ceased and desisted using the words "memorize," "memorization," "sing from memory," etc. 
(4) When singing through a section of music or a whole piece, do this 'experiment:' "When I raise my hand, stop singing out loud but continue singing the music 'in your head." When I lower my hand, resume singing out loud (do this at phrase endings). Tell them about "mental rehearsal" and what happens in their brains.
(5) Suggest to the singers that they take their music home, and just before they go to sleep, they either sing through their part in one or two of the selections that were rehearsed that day, or mentally (silently) sing through the one or two selections.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on September 23, 2012 6:34am
Although I've never been a choir director, I would like to answer your questions as a (former) choir member, parent (I assume you are asking regarding your high school choir), audience member, and composer.
Choir member:  Eons ago I sang in both Jr. and Sr. High School a cappella choirs, then later in a very high-quality, large community choir; the firm expectation in each was that the music would always be quickly memorized--there were no excuses.  If one lacked the self discipline to memorize the music (mostly outside of formal rehearsal sessions), one was asked or required to leave the choir(s).  The unwavering expectation of memorization fully engages the singers in the entire process, and demands (and builds) a strong, fundamental allegiance to the entire group and its success.
Parent:  The skills learned in the efforts to memorize music--not just the notes, but everything else--can be used in all other subjects, as well.  School (as a whole) is much too easy, in my opinion, and far too many students lack self discipline of all kinds--mental, physical, emotional.  It should not matter when a piece of music is introduced; the students should be expected to work as many hours outside of class as needed in order to memorize it.  Again, this demands and builds self discipline.  If students are given a piece of music to memorize in a short period of time, or are given a longer-than-normal piece of music to memorize, well, that's the way life works, isn't it?  Life throws all sorts of unexpected things at us that we must deal with effectively in very short periods of time, or gives us bigger, longer, more complicated things that take much more time and effort to cope with.  So, welcome to life, young adults!  Memorization that results in an assured performance without the crutch of being able to look at the music also builds courage, the courage to sing and perform knowing that one has truly mastered the material and is unlikely to make an error.
Audience member:  When choir members of any age hold music folders in front of themselves during a concert--especially if their noses are buried in them, in fear of making a mistake, which precludes paying close attention to the director--I always feel a barrier between me and them, a kind of disengagement from the audience.  Folders can also partially block the sound.  When a choir performs music that has all been memorized, I feel much more of a connection, and appreciate very much that their attention is focused on the director who can then truly lead the choir in interpreting the music as fully as possible.  I also appreciate that the choir members have taken the time and effort needed to memorize the music.  This communicates to me that they care deeply about what they are doing, and are willing to spend the necessary time to be able to do it well.
Composer:  Again, memorization allows for a full and accurate interpretation of the music.  Memorization of the notes, at least, allows the choir members to fully engage with the director as she/he guides them to perform a piece of music in a manner that mirrors the composer's intentions as closely as possible.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on September 23, 2012 5:34pm
Thank you all for the wonderful responses!!!
on November 8, 2012 9:07am
Memorize it if you can. It always makes for better music making.
I heard a choir 'off book', after singing 6 years with sheet music and the performance the did memoized was over the moon. It was like a new choir. Everyone was so happy and impressed.
on November 9, 2012 4:27am
Hi Corey, I direct a small (30 voice) community choir in France. When I became their director 18 months ago, they were nearly all beginning singers and non-readers. For the first concert I encouraged memorization, and eventually we performed with folders only containing the texts and used as little as possible. This was their own suggestion and my compromise. For the second concert no one even asked for folders, but there was still some grumbling. Then an interesting thing happened. We sang in a concert with 4 other choirs; each choir presenting part of the programme. My singers listened carefully and immediately concluded they sang better than the others mostly because they had memorized the music. Suddenly memorizing had changed from a chore to something that made them special. This year there are no folders and no grumbling. Memorization has become part of our choir culture, and I hear older members advising new singers to get started early. Needless to say, from my point of view, it has helped them to make a great deal of progress and also improved their sight-reading. So my vote goes to memorizing!
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