Monday, March 14, 2022

Is it important for singers to memorise the songs they perform?

I’m often asked how to get singers “off book” for their next concert.


The assumption is that it’s best for a singer not to have lyrics or sheet music in their hands when performing. But is this necessarily a bad thing?

The other day I came across a blog post by Murray McLachlan concerning pianists and whether they should memorise music: To memorise or not to memorise? That is the question…

He pointed out that, it wasn’t until around 1837 that Clara Schumann performed a notated composition by Beethoven from memory. Prior to that, the expectation was that composed music was always played from a score.

Of course, the world of music is not just Western Classical music, and singers are very different from pianists.

However, it’s worth noting that many solo musicians and singers are nowadays expected to perform from memory rather than from scores. It wasn’t always that way.

the case against performing from memory

Many singers (and other musicians) become very stressed at the thought of having to memorise a piece of music. Especially for high-profile concerts with several complex pieces.

This anxiety will obviously affect a singer’s performance. Also, it is hard for a choir leader to insist that singers don’t have a piece of paper in their hand for concerts. Especially in non-auditioned and community choirs. And even if that rule is enforced, there will always be singers who find a way round it (writing lyrics on their hands, pinning music to the back of the singer in front).

Singers may have amazing memories and think they know a song inside out, but if it’s compulsory to perform from memory, there is always going to be a doubt that you might forget or go wrong.

Most people join choirs because it’s fun, relaxing and rewarding. If singers have to memorise new songs every season, the whole experience can become very stressful.

the advantages of singing from memory

The biggest advantage for singers (and other groups of musicians) performing from memory is that they can focus on the conductor, the audience and the other singers around them. They won’t have their heads buried in a score or lyric sheet.

It also looks much better for an audience. It’s not much fun watching rows of people with their heads in large folders. The audience want to see the whites of your eyes and feel that they’re being communicated with. They might also think that the singers don’t really know the song if they’re having to use music.

Most traditional songs from non-Western cultures are rooted in the body and often have a dance associated with them. Imagine how hard it is to achieve this with sheet music in hand!

If a song is memorised, it will stay with the singer for life (probably). It becomes part of them. The singer will feel a certain security and the song will be polished and focused because it is embedded within.

different kinds of singer leads to a hybrid approach

No two singers are alike. Some love the freedom gained from having memorised a song. Others find it very difficult to learn and remember and will feel anxious without sheet music.

The best approach would be to let singers decide what is best for them. The trouble is, when a choir performs, we expect a certain amount of unity of expression. It can seem odd if some singers have music folders whilst others don’t.

Probably the best approach is to work in rehearsal to memorise and really embed songs. But also to train your singers to be able to work from sheet music, yet be present, pay attention to the conductor, not bury heads in scores, and to listen outwards to the other singers.

Then when a concert comes, allow all singers to have music or lyrics in front of them. The singers will feel confident of all the songs, and the vast majority won’t need to look at their scores at all. But it does give some security to those who may become anxious at having to memorise songs for performance.

question your assumptions and do what is best for your singers

Being “off book” for a concert is not necessarily the be-all and end-all. It might be time to reflect on why it’s necessary and what stress you might be placing on your singers.

Do you, as a singer, find it easy to remember songs for concerts? Do you, as a choir leader, insist that your singers perform from memory?

There are obviously many different solutions to this issue. I’d love to hear what your experience is.

Chris Rowbury


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