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How To “Teach” Memorizing Music Without Even Trying

This article is a follow-up to Don’t Make Them Memorize.

How To “Teach” Memorizing Music Without Even Trying

How we teach and run daily rehearsals greatly impacts our students’ ability to be responsive to our conducting, sing freely, and be communicative. Our approach can even foster the ability for our students to naturally memorize their music; we do not need to require them to memorize or even give part tests. If we are effectively teaching the skill of embodiment, the very essence of our musical selections will become ingrained each and every day.

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Memorization can and should occur on it’s own; It does not need to be required in order for it to occur.

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Where we begin

There are countless approaches that can get the students to embody the music. Let’s begin with the most extreme approach and one that I advocate using as part of our curriculum from time to time: teaching by rote.

Teaching by rote means students do not have sheet music in front of them. This is not spoon-feeding, where they have sheet music in front of them and we are telling them what the music says. Rote learning implies they are listening intently to us and responding musically, intellectually, and viscerally; they are learning, singing, and connecting without any visual barriers.

We’ve all seen a great gospel choir perform, ones who learns by rote. They have eliminated the sheet music barrier from the start as all nuances are taught through vocal inflection and modeling, allowing every individual to be responsive to a conductor, sing freely, and connect deeply to the music.

The greatest strength of teaching by rote is the immediate embodiment of music. We frequently describe a performance by a rote-learned gospel choir as full of joy or excitement; what we are really observing is embodiment. They are passionate because they are connected. Who isn’t passionate about the things they are connected to?

Sheet music can easily become a barrier between the conductor and choir, as well as between the choir and the composer. A rote-learning choir has an automatic connection between the choir director and the choir. The singing is transmitted from one live body to another, and is therefore full of life.

While rote learning is the most extreme way to embody music, this desired behavior can also be accomplished with sheet music in hand and without any spoon-feeding from the teacher.

Professional Broadway Actors use their scripts during auditions

Professional actors don’t have their lines memorized for an audition or a callback. Well, they may have their lines memorized, but it is common etiquette for them to be holding their script in hand as they perform their scene at the audition; this doesn’t stop them from embodying their roles from the onset.

Professional actors enter an audition with their character understood and have embodied the essence of their lines prior to giving their audition. During their audition/callback, they are looking at their sides for the exact words, but are still able to react and emotionally respond to the reader in the room.

When practicing for the audition or callback, a professional actor may attempt to be off-book for the purpose of further embodiment. This is where they try to perfect their lines, but in the end, it is more than likely that their audition etiquette will require them to have their script in front of them.

Understanding the Big Picture

If we choose to allow embodiment to be a key component of our teaching, our students will be able to embody their music with or without sheet music; they will begin the embodiment process from the very moment we introduce a piece of music.

Regardless of the many approaches to teaching choral music, we should almost always begin by focusing on the big picture; students need to gain a sense (or an essence) of a piece of music before being bogged down with details. It’s like showing them the cover of a 1000 piece puzzle before starting to put the pieces together. Imagine trying to put together a puzzle of that size without any understanding of what the end result is supposed to look like.

The major difference between the big picture of a piece of music and a box cover to a puzzle is that music offers no concrete photo; music is fluid, dynamic, and interpretative. This is why I usually do not advocate for playing a recording of a piece prior to learning, even though it is a quick way to give students a big picture. A recording will direct students to imitate and take away their own creativity.

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Big picture means mind, body, and soul understanding

When our completely self understands the big picture, memorization is no longer a great task. In essence, our whole being is internalizing and deeply engraining the music, which is what we can call embodiment. If students embody the music, memorizing will be a naturally occurring result, should that be our teaching goal. The deeper and more viscerally they understand what they are singing, the more our choir members will become the art.

The final article in this series, available next week, will describe 12 ways we can facilitate the natural embodiment and memorization our music within our class rehearsal.

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