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Can we memorize?

A recent ChoralBlog entry featured a fictional letter from a choir singer encouraging their director to require memorization of their repertoire, providing perfectly valid reasons about expression, ensemble, and so on.
 
Revealingly, though, the letter was signed "Your student". School choirs which rehearse daily have a much easier time with memorization, a process which requires frequent repetition. How practical is memorization in an adult community choir, which probably only rehearses once a week? You might not even get to every piece on the program every rehearsal, meaning some pieces would go two weeks without being sung. Sure, if choir members are dedicated they can work with MIDI files or whatever at home, but my singers at least don't have that level of dedication. Barbershop-type groups seems to make it happen. What are your thoughts?
 
(I've sometimes asked my group to memorize a piece or two for a concert, then made sure we hit those pieces at every rehearsal, but it's kind of a pain, and come with an opportunity cost of less rehearsal time on everything else.)
Replies (16): Threaded | Chronological
on August 7, 2013 8:17am
There are a number of things barbershop choruses do, which allows them to require their members to memorise the songs, compared to other choirs:
 
1. Each member of the chorus gets their own copy of the sheet music to take home - I've been in choirs where the CD/MD expects you to memorise during the rehearsal, and wonders why they've forgotten by the following week.
2. Each member of the chorus has access to teach tracks - usually this will have each part provided as an individual track on the CD to sing along with. Note, providing piano tracks isn't helpful if the main time people want to sing-along in the car (when they don't have sheet music to look at).
3. Not so much in the top choruses, but the lower-level choruses will provide each section with the opportunity to sing/learn their music during a rehearsal (or provide a separate rehearsal for sections), allowing people to realise their mistakes.
4. Ensure visitors to the chorus who are thinking of joining, know that the requirement is to memorise the music for performances - knowing you have to do something specific from the start is an important part of the process.
5. Provide a diary (hard copy or on a website) telling the chorus what they will be working on the following week - so they can practice at home the 'right' music - there's nothing so galling as turning up to a rehearsal having practised a song and worked on memorising it, and then find for whatever reason you don't do the song that night. 
 
I'm sure that there are other helpful tips, but when all is said and done, the MD/CD has to EXPECT the chorus to practice at home - and make sure the chorus knows they are disappointed if they haven't.
 
on August 7, 2013 9:05am
Hi Allen,
 
School choirs--whether high school or college--memorize because their choirs are made up of  students, it's their job to memorize or do whatever is required by their director. We out here in the community don't have that luxury simply because our folks are adults, who do other things---such as make a living.
 
That being said, we did a concert of choruses and solos from operettas in June and it was partically memorized......and yes, it was lovely. I have a singer who has a degree in voice from IU and she keeps nagging me for complete memorization...ain't gonna happen. Sorry Christie!
 
Part of not wanting to memorize everything is because of our ensemble's structure---about 12 weeks of rehearsal, with rehearsals once a week. then a concert and then a break, then......repeat twice a calender year.  Our concert repertoire is fairly challenging and my singers having busy lives.  Most of our music is actually memorized, whether they realize or not. I ask them occassionally to memorize a tricky page turn or an especially poignant bit of text which would be marred with a page turn....but not usually.  If we want to do the type of repertoire we do, memorization would be difficult.
 
Donna's comments are interesting to me.  I already do many of things she suggests to encourage memorization, but in my case, I consider it being respectful of my singers time. My singers have their music at least a month before our rehearsals start. I include a music CD with the music...they can use it however they want and singing along in the car is encouraged!  I send out a choir Thursday email every Thursday--before our Tuesday rehearsal--of exactly what we will be working on Tuesday with the understanding we may or may not get everything accomplished or we may go on, depending on how it goes.
 
My choir is a highly auditioned chamber choir, so we are not typical of a community chorus.  All the same, every once in a while, I think about requiring more memorization.
 
This fall, we are singing music from the Galant and a work edited by ChoralNet's own Tom Tropp....gonna be a BLAST!
 
Take care, Allen......miss you!
 
Marie
on September 1, 2013 9:04am
Marie,
 
I direct a community chorus in Music City called the Nashville Singers. We're a 501c3 nonprofit.
 
BACKGROUND: Our choir is made up of adult men. We started with four and have grown to 17 singers. Sixteen are active at the present time. Our mission is to enrich lives through singing and the support of music education. We have a governing board of six (members of the chorus) and an advisory board of 20 (non-member) men and women.  Our budget has grown from $2400 in 2009 to over $20,000 in 2012. In the last three years, we've given away $5,000 in music education grants and college scholarships, impacting 160 kids at seven area schools and 60 other program participants. We're all volunteers.
 
THE REPERTOIRE: Just 10% of our songs have instrumental accompaniment. The rest are performed acappella. We maintain an active repertoire of 25-30 very challenging 4-7 part vocal arrangements.
 
THE AUDITION: Our audition is very challenging. Only about 60% who audition earn a place in our groiup.  Good singing attracts good singers.
 
THE EXPECTATIONS: We formed in November of 2008 and made our first public appearance in June of 2009. In our very first concert in November of 2010, my guys memorized 21 songs, rehearsing just 2-3 times per month. In almost five years, they've memorized 49 songs and perform them at a high level.  We're also in the midst of recording a Christmas CD. The last one was releaseed in 2010. Sheet music is only permitted on the risers within the first four weeks of a song being introduced. Since we formed in 2008, the members pay $240 per year in dues and buy their own costuming. Dues are increasing to $300 per year in 2014. Our expectations are posted on our website for prospective members to review before attending a rehearsal.
 
TOOLS: The chorus provides part-predominant learning media for all songs to expedite the learning process.  The members know which songs will be rehearsed four days before every rehearsal.
 
REHEARSAL MANAGEMENT: We have 39 rehearsals per year and 140 minutes of actual rehearsal time per night. Each of the 16 songs we will be presenting on our annual concert in November will get an average of 21 minutes of rehearsal time per month in the 11 months leading up to the concert.
 
LEADING BY EXAMPLE: Memorization is simply a matter of establishing and maintaining expectations, and leading by example. Our directors, rarely if ever will have a piece of music in front of them at rehearsal, even in the first few weeks of introduction. Everything (the notes, words, dynamics, breath and visiual plan) is memorized before stepping in front of the chorus.
 
NON-MUSICAL EXPECTATIONS: In addition to passing the audition, all members sign a contract agreeing to the (non-singing, non-musical) expectations of the organization, which includes taking on some administsative responsibility for running the organization. New members are exempt from non-singing duties for their (probationary period) first 90 days. This could be a task as simple as making the coffee, taking attendance, serving on a committee or task force, or serving on the board of directors. They all do SOMETHING.
 
BENEFITS OF MEMORIZATION: In terms of benefits, memorization allows for a tighter, more cohesive connection between the singer and the director.  Having the songs memorized also allows the singer the opportunity to make sure his visual presentation (facial expressions, body language) complements the message of the song. This in turn allows for a better connection between the singer and the audience. I remind my guys they are actors that happen to sing very well.
 
Do they always meet these expectations? No, but a vast majority of the time they do, and we're a better, more artistic ensemble because of these expectations. Expect more and you WILL get more.
 
I hope this perspective is helpful.

TODD WILSON
Executive Director
Director of Music
Nashville Singers, Inc.
615-852-SING (7464) office
615-669-TODD (8633) cell
615-523-TODD (8633) fax
Website: www.nashvillesingers.org
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Please support our mission to enrich lives though singing and the support of music education.
on August 7, 2013 9:58am
I sing in a big symphony chorus, and we have many concerts to prepare for in a year, so memorising all the music wouldn't be an option (most members also having full time jobs). However, certain repertoire keeps re-appearing, and these days we ALWAYS sing Beethoven 9 and Mahler 2 from memory!  In the past we've been required to learn longer pieces such as Haydn's Creation and Janacek's Glagolitic Mass from memory (the latter quite difficult, because of the strange language!). 
I also conduct a small chamber choir, and occasionally ask them to sing pieces from memory.  It certainly improves their listening and watching skills!  But as we get through quite a lot of music, (and none of us are as young as we used to be!) I feel it would be unreasonable to impose memory learning for most of the time.  Having said that, I am greatly impressed by many choirs - usually of younger members - who perform whole programmes from memory!
 
on August 7, 2013 9:58am
I sing in a big symphony chorus, and we have many concerts to prepare for in a year, so memorising all the music wouldn't be an option (most members also having full time jobs). However, certain repertoire keeps re-appearing, and these days we ALWAYS sing Beethoven 9 and Mahler 2 from memory!  In the past we've been required to learn longer pieces such as Haydn's Creation and Janacek's Glagolitic Mass from memory (the latter quite difficult, because of the strange language!). 
I also conduct a small chamber choir, and occasionally ask them to sing pieces from memory.  It certainly improves their listening and watching skills!  But as we get through quite a lot of music, (and none of us are as young as we used to be!) I feel it would be unreasonable to impose memory learning for most of the time.  Having said that, I am greatly impressed by many choirs - usually of younger members - who perform whole programmes from memory!
 
on August 7, 2013 11:21am
Because of recent difficulties with my vision, I am forcing myself to memorize as much as possible, since I can only see the music if I hold the score quite close to my eyes, which is something that doesn't work too well during concerts.  When I was younger, I didn't have much difficulty memorizing any piece we sang in concert, and I nearly always sang from memory, even with a score in front of me, which is what I recommend.  If I want to sing a note perfect concert, (as well as with good expression, phrasing, etc., and correct text, which is my greatest problem with unfamiliar foreign language texts) I do rely on being able to catch a glimpse of the score.
 
Even when there isn't much time to learn an entire piece by memory, such as was my experience with the Tallis Scholars Summer School, which is only one week long and with quite a few pieces to learn, it was hugely helpful to me to learn the trickier parts by memory.  I think singing by memory is a great goal, but a lot of the value lies also in the steps toward having a piece completely memorized.  Even if total memory of a piece cannot be achieved, there is much to be glad for in the amount that can be learned well on the way toward that goal.
 
My church choir does sing a few pieces from memory, or nearly.  They are permitted to have the music, but I ask them to look away from their scores and try to sing the piece by heart.  Even if they cannot be completely successful, I notice the difference in the quality of their singing those particular pieces when they aren't tied to the score, and I believe they notice that, as well.
 
Nan Beth Walton
on August 7, 2013 11:35am
The Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus perform with music in hand, or on the stand.  Whether it is a barbershop ensemble, symphony chorus or volunteer choir, outstanding performances are heard either way, memorized or reading from the score.  An outstanding concert is not more outstanding if performed from memory.  Do what works for your situation.  That’s my “incorrect” opinion.
on August 7, 2013 11:35am
The Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus perform with music in hand, or on the stand.  Whether it is a barbershop ensemble, symphony chorus or volunteer choir, outstanding performances are heard either way, memorized or reading from the score.  An outstanding concert is not more outstanding if performed from memory.  Do what works for your situation.  That’s my “incorrect” opinion.
on August 8, 2013 3:33pm
fwiw, I am a skilled musician, excellent sight reader, who despises memorization.  I don't want most works in my memory!!!
on August 8, 2013 5:03pm
There's probably an inverse relation between the skill level of the singers and tendency to memorize. Excellent sight readers perform the music well on only a few rehearsals, and the additional time required to memorize seems disproportionate to them. For non-readers, almost the only way to learn the music is to memorize it. 
 
Language is another consideration. It's very difficult to memorize music in a foreign language. Still, opera choruses do it all the time (although their rehearsal schedules are often heavy and they only sing part of the show).
on August 8, 2013 9:27pm
You're right about non-readers, Allen - but very often they're the ones who I find are most buried in their copies!
on August 9, 2013 3:00am
One thing to point out, which is a major diffference between barbershop and some (admittedly not all) choirs - we don't learn a song, generally, for just one concert. In most cases, songs stay in our repertoire for years on end and will be sung multiple times in the year (although we try not to repeat a full concert to audiences who may overlap). So the outcome from memorising a song isn't a one-off, which probably helps from a "Why should we do this?" point of view.
on August 9, 2013 4:21am
Donna Whitehouse has created a clever new word for this discussion - memoriSing.  It is either a spelling error or intended.  I have a smile on my face with the suspicion she has created a new word for choral musicians who sing from memory.
on August 9, 2013 4:38am
Hi Micheael, I would like to take the credit but memoriSe is the correct English spelling... well, at least in England! :-)
on August 9, 2013 6:32am
Great to hear from you Donna.  I suggest choral musicians create a new word - memoriSing - with the cap S for those trying to zing from memory.  I also notice your English spelling of my name Michael is Micheael.  Back to the topic at hand - may all choirs szing in tune whether the music is in hand or memoriSZed.
on August 9, 2013 6:44am
We all need a bit of zing!
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