Saturday, August 22, 2009

A score is not music

Doing another visit to a choir premiering a commission I wrote for them- I just feel more and more that the key to a great performance is memorizing the darned music!

At the last few clinicians gigs I have done or visits to choirs about to premiere a commission I have written for them I simply get to the point where I just tell them.. put down your scores and just sing! The INSTANT they do this they are watching their conductor better(most of these choirs I have visited recently really do love their directors), hearing other parts better, hearing vowels better and thus tuning better, matching rhythms better,you name it. EVERYTHING is better without the score distracting from the actual music. And we all need to constantly remind ourselves and each other that a score is not music, right?

So the next point of my rant is that everyone should be doing their concerts from memory- everyone. Or at least, do some of the concert pieces from memory, and this should even include community choirs, who often give their aging brains as an excuse for not even attempting to memorize anything. From what I have read lately, working the brain harder by memorizing music would be very beneficial for the health of those "aging brains".

Memorized pieces will always come off better with an audience for so many reasons, and really do force the weaker singers to do their work. They can no longer hide behind the score and fake things. The message is sent that 1) we are serious about our work 2) let's let our audiences notice this as well when they see us singing from memory. A choir memorizing music will always be capable of far better performances and hopefully be more inspiring to listen to and watch.

I recall a choir at the recent ACDA convention in Oklahoma City. Most choirs sing from memory at important events like this and are very prepared with their performances. In addition, they only have time allotted to sing about a half-program anyway. Yet, there was a community choir from the Southeast who read from their scores for their entire performances, and were pretty much buried in their scores. Their results were atrocious and they did not belong at the convention. It was pathetic to see how under-prepared this choir was, but the bottom line blame has to go to their director- he allowed it to happen. If these singers had been made to memorize their music, there would have been no way that they could have slid through in such an underprepared way- I am certain of this.

And besides, isn't it a joy to hear people singing beautifully, and isn't it glorious to see the shining faces of an entire choir opened up to their director and the audience as they do so- without their faces buried in a score? I rest my case.


  1. Your post brings to mind something an extremely gifted conductor/composer once challenged his choir with: "Excellence or Excuses. Choose one."

  2. Absolutely! The choir I sing with, New Dublin Voices, are heading to Helsinki in a few weeks to take part in a competition so we're all in memorise mode at the moment. Rehearsals start back on Tuesday after the summer I'd better get back to it!

  3. Yes, I'm with you too, for all the reasons you state. However, I do think we need to keep all these reasons in mind and not just fall into learning by rote. Memorizing for the sake of it has no great virtue in itself, whereas memorizing as a means to connect more deeply with the music and to open to the audience is a very valuable goal. Memorizing is the means to the artistic ends, not the end itself.

  4. Bravo, Paul! AND....what is best for the choir also goes for the director. So much more communication can happen between a director and the choir when both have the score internalized, get away from the written page, and truly experience the music together.

  5. OK folks, I agree fully. What techniques work best to promote memorization by those of us with "aging brains?"

  6. Hey Paul!

    I agree completely, and would invite those directors who allow their singers to hold the music to consider their reasoning; why don't they have the singers memorize?

    Unless we're talking a major work, I'll bet the reasons are more aligned with low expectations and lack of confidence. "My singers are too ___________ and therefore won't be able to memorize." In my experience, I've heard answers ranging from "old" to "immature" to "rushed." With everything in between.

    I would also propose that there's a simple solution for this -- high expectations and an attitude of "I know you can do it."

    In practical terms, that means telling singers to memorize by a certain date, then NOT LETTING THEM HOLD THE MUSIC from that day onward. Other ways to aide in the memorization process include the following:

    1) Sing a phrase. Take ten seconds to look at the phrase and sing it silently to yourself. Put the music down and sing that phrase. Bingo! Singers learn that memorizing is very doable. Now keep moving through the song, never looking at the measures that are already memorized.

    2) Assign memorization dates page by page, or section by section. Bite-sized chunks make it less daunting.

    3) Focus on more than the technical; imagining that bluebird soaring over the mountain lake, drawing the song with the whole body (thanks Tim Caldwell for that), telling the singer next to you about this (imaginary) moment when you saw the bluebird, creating a story which will support the singing of The Bluebird.... All of that will create neural networks and make it MUCH EASIER AND FASTER to memorize.

    All my best,


  7. I have a question, Mr. Carey. How often do these choirs who memorize their music, have rehearsals. Do they rehearse together multiple times a month, or are they expected to learn these new pieces, words and music on their own?

  8. Certainly memorization has benefits, but it is not the "be all". I have always fought a learning disability and as a student of opera, I struggled to learn the score. It took so much joy out the experience wondering which phrase may not come to my brain "rightly and in time" that I always felt truly panicked and directors hated me because I had glitches until dress week! Oratorio and choral music came so very naturally, my sight-reading is a strong gift and having the score for reference gave me peace and brought back the joy and that is where I have made my career and calling. I do some memorization for my choral conducting because as a conductor I feel it important to maintain eye contact with my choir but I am sympathetic for those who truly struggle. Memorization is yet another discipline that should be practiced regularly like sight-singing and vocal exercises but should not be another gimmick that will exclude certain singers.

  9. John,

    Thanks for giving us a window into your struggles. I'm sure no director reading this wants to exclude singers from enjoying the choral experience.

    That said, I think there are ways to memorize that make for more (and quicker) success, and I would encourage directors to use them. (I've posted above about some of them, but there are lots more -- all of which increase the brain's access points to the information.)

    And while I would never want to exclude a singer from participating because they simply COULD NOT memorize, I believe there are benefits to struggling and winning.

    I'm also wondering if singers who struggle to memorize shifted their mindset -- seeing the struggle as an opportunity for growth rather than a frustratingly negative experience -- if that would help.

    I can certainly imagine (if I interpolate similar life experiences onto this scenario) that the DIRECTOR'S attitude can greatly help. If the director is positive, patient, kind, helpful -- and not frustrated, judgmental, insensitive, and critical -- that the singer's experience might be very different.

    However, all that said, IF a singer has a learning challenge that absolutely precludes their ability to memorize, then I think something could be worked out so they could hold the music. If the director wanted to help them save face (if that were an issue), the director could ask for several other volunteers to hold their music as well -- perhaps folks spread throughout the choir. They could even just hold the folder with ONE piece of music, so it's as light as possible.

    Another option (Philip Copeland, what do you think?) would be to project the music on the wall (or a screen) behind the audience. (Think opera supertitles, but with the score AND text.)

    All my best,

    Tom Carter

  10. Ooh, I like this discussion a whole lot. And the fact that Tom Carter is in on this is super awesome and makes me want to fire off a quick reply. My first thought was not that "all choirs should memorize because it is so much better" but, rather, the expectations that we have as audience members.

    And, in the interest of this argument I'm going to make a devil's advocate-style, sweeping generalization that is in direct contrast to what Tom is saying: choir concerts are not theatrical events.

    They are musical performances in the same tradition as an instrumental concert. Why is it that we expect choirs to hold our focus with anything other than the music? Would we take issue with an orchestra who doesn't look us in the eye when they're performing a Prokofiev symphony? Probably not but, frankly, if an orchestra could do that I would probably pay top dollar.

    That being said, this is no excuse for a crappy performance.

    There. $0.02 deposited.


    p.s. Your blog is awesome, Paul. Keep up the great work!