Sunday, December 04, 2011

How to stop singers using word sheets in concerts

“In our choir we’re not allowed to use words in concerts.”

nose in a book

Great idea. In principle. But how do you achieve it?

no words or else ... what?

I’ve heard lots of singers say they’re not allowed to use word sheets or sheet music when they perform.

But I’ve never been able to achieve this with my choirs. Maybe I’m a softy, but I wonder what kind of threats or sanctions other choir leaders use.

“No words or else ...

  • you can’t sing in the concert”
  • I’ll throw you out of the choir”
  • they’ll be taken away from you and publicly burned”
  • everyone will point at you and shout ‘Look!’”
  • you’ll be the only one using them and you’ll look like an idiot”
  • your hands will be cut off”

Seriously though, how do we ensure that people don’t use word sheets in performance?

We can drill the songs in rehearsal; hand out words well in advance (giving singers plenty of time to learn them); constantly remind choir members that a concert is coming up and they need to be ‘off the page’.

But what do you do when the concert arrives and someone says that – no matter how hard they try – they just can’t remember the words to verse three, or a singer has been off sick for a while and hasn’t had time to learn all the songs, or one person is really struggling with the foreign words, or someone is simply too scared and under confident not to have the security of a lyric sheet?

What do you do?

If you insist that absolutely no words can be used, you might find singers:

  • miming or mumbling some verses;
  • sticking lyrics on the back of the singer;
  • writing lyrics on their cuffs;
  • buying black market ‘lyric books’ which are small and unobtrusive;
  • using an MP3 player to feed them lyrics as they sing;
  • totally relying on the singers around them and not taking any responsibility;
  • needing the choir leader to be always mouthing the words.

I’ve experienced all of these!

the laid-back approach

My principle has always been:

“It would be ideal to perform without words. Please try, but don’t let it stop your enjoyment or singing ability. If you must have words, keep them small, discrete, don’t drop them, and make sure you don’t get your nose stuck in them.”

But as soon as people know they have a fall-back position, it takes the pressure off them to learn the words. They no longer have a strong motivation. How can you enforce the rule?

I am all in favour of relaxed, enjoyable, enabling, inclusive choirs, so I will never say anything like “If you don’t know the words, you can’t be in the concert.”

In any case, people will lie, perform any way, and you’ll end up with a bunch of insecure, mumbling singers!

what do you do?

I’d love to hear what you do, both singers and choir leaders. Do you perform if you don’t know all the words? Does your choir leader insist you don’t use words or sheet music? How is that policed? If you are a choir leader, how do you deal with people who haven’t learnt songs properly?

Please leave a comment and give us some brilliant and useful ideas we can all use!


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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