Memorizing choir music: confidence & freedom
Recently I was talking with a friend about music memorization. He’s seemed to have mastered the skill; I’ve never been good at memorizing vocal music. I can remember back to my college choir days, having to memorize multiple songs for one of the regular vesper programs we participated in, and thinking, “I must be the weakest link here. I hope I don’t sing and unintended solo someplace!” I’m not sure how I ever survived that.
Then there was the time when I was singing in a trio for a church service at my first ministry. We got up the nerve to sing the selection by memory. But that was before lyric slides (those wonderful “cheat sheets”), and let’s just say it was so bad, that all three of us laughed our way through the final stanza. Collectively, we couldn’t remember any of the lyrics. What a hoot!
So, yeah. I shy away from memorization.
But I also recognize that singing by memory (when it’s actually done well) means there’s a level of confidence that’s been built up, especially when adequate preparation has gone into it. I also realize that this confidence will lead to greater freedom. Removing the focus from every syllable, interval, and the various expressions found on the printed page frees you up to focus on other important things. Namely, expressiveness.
And if there’s something your typical church choir can work on, it’s expressiveness. How many times have you listened to (watched) a choir singing about the splendors of God’s grace and the joys of His great works, only to see a group of people who appear to be stern, stoic, or seemingly apathetic. Chances are they’re actually articulate, detailed and focused… but that’s not how it comes across. There’s always room for improvement. And as much as I would like to “think” that we excel in this area, the truth is, we could all grow in this area.
So when I told my friend that it would be nice if we could do our music by memory, but that I didn’t see that happening anytime soon, he said, “Why not? Why not try it?” He said we should sing one song by memory. In fact, choose a song that we know well, and just do it by memory this time.
It sounded like a good idea, so I thought I’d give it a try.
I chose a very familiar song. One that we have already perfected in the past. Then I pitched the idea to the choir. It was met with mixed reviews—everything from “that’s a great idea!” to (mainly) “are you crazy?” One choir member asked me why, and it gave me an opportunity to explain all of the above. I even took time to empathize with those who feel they struggle with memorization, because, well… that’s me. Oh, and I assured them that the lyrics would be on the screens (but that no—sorry—the music notes would not be).
So we rehearsed it for several weeks with this in mind. As the date drew closer, we did things like look away from the music from time to time, then look away for the entire chorus, then eventually close our books for most of the song. At the last rehearsal, I knew we were going to be able to sing it from memory. Then came the Sunday. We did it by memory! And you know what? It worked. The choir was more expressive. It was very pleasing to hear people say the choir had very pleasant facial expressions that day!
Now that we’ve done it once, I have a strong desire to continue singing by memory. Not everything. But certainly the music we know well and sing on a regular basis. I can’t describe how amazing it felt to have the entire choir right with me 100% of the time, entirely undistracted. I wasn’t competing (with their music) for their attention, and every expressive gesture I used in directing was immediately responded to by the choir who was right with me. It was a masterful and heart-felt presentation. This is a whole new level.
Now admittedly, maybe not every note was hit perfectly. From time to time someone might have forgotten a note here or there. (Although, it is a song we know very well; I honestly didn’t hear any bad notes.) But if our musicality suffered any, the trade off was worth it: a choir that was much more expressive and more immediately responsive.
So if you lead a choir, and you’re hesitant to start memorizing music, but you want to (because you see the value in it), I encourage you to try it this way. It’s a subtle, gentle way to begin the process. And you’ll be amazed at what it leads to.
And if you’re a choir member who isn’t sure about memorizing music with your choir family, I’d encourage you to be open minded about it. You’ll be amazed at what you can do as a group!
James Koerts serves as the worship pastor of Mikado Baptist Church in Macon, Georgia. In addition to his full time responsibilities at the church, James is also a published composer and arranger.