Beyond Memorization

This is the third “installment” to my blog and I want to thank all of you who have taken the time to read it thus far.  Let me also offer a special thanks to those of you who have contributed comments.  I have found your observations to be both insightful and stimulating and have discovered myself spending even more time considering the topics because of your input.  In fact, my subject for this week grows directly out of one of those comments, and I would encourage all of you to use this blog in a similar way.  If you wish to “comment” on a “comment” instead of something I’ve said, then please do so.  I imagine this blog can only be made richer and more useful with a growing number of readers willing to participate by sharing their thoughts.


Now, to my “thought” for the day.  I found Olga Espinola’s remarks about memorization to be illuminating.  As the only member of MOS functioning without “visual” sight, I believe she is in a unique position to discuss the topic of memorization.  As you may have noticed, Olga sings every concert without the aid of a printed score.  Yet, every time I look at her at the end of the first row of sopranos she appears to be totally involved in the experience of making music.  Her blog comment mentions what happens when one moves beyond mere memorization and muscle memory to the point of truly “feeling” a piece of music.  She states, “You’re no longer focused on the notes, breathing and breaking at just the right places, counting beats…because that’s all a part of you now.  Instead, you can rejoice in the sharing, the dialogue among the voices and instruments, that intangible energy generated by all the participants…I guess freedom and elation might come closest to describing what it is like for me.”


What I find especially meaningful about Olga’s observation is that it really goes beyond the subject of memorization.  Obviously, much of what she says might be more easily accomplished when music has been memorized, but it seems to me that it could also be experienced while singing with the benefit of a score.  The most important thing is to be free to make music “beyond” the printed page (whether that page is in one’s hand or in one’s mind).  When we possess that freedom we also have the opportunity to communicate with each other (performers, conductor, audience) in such a way that something miraculous and magical may occur.  What do you think?

Showing 6 comments
  • Allan Kennedy

    I am convinced that when we are able to memorize a piece of music we are then free to really listen. With our heads buried in a score, we often lose focus on how we are blending as an ensemble. The pieces that we have memorized have demonstrated how important and how wonderful we sound when focusing on more than ourselves.

  • Tim Henderson

    The aesthetic feeling we get from the music has nothing to do with memorization but everything to do with the beauty of the piece. The complicated rhythms, the intricate chords and the tone of the lyrics all come together in rehearsal/performance and touch our hearts. Last night we sang “In the Bleak Mid-Winter” with a marriage of beautiful text and melody that bring wonderful images to us when “performed beyond the music”. I think we all strive for this and is a fundamental reason why we show up every Monday night!

  • Jan Fanslow

    I am moved to tears simply reading this “The most important thing is to be free to make music “beyond” the printed page (whether that page is in one’s hand or in one’s mind). When we possess that freedom we also have the opportunity to communicate with each other (performers, conductor, and audience) in such a way that something miraculous and magical may occur”. That is exactly what happens for me! The performance allows me to put myself in your place and I am transformed. Thank you.

  • Olga Espinola

    I heartily agree that, when the head is buried in the score as opposed to watching the conductor (or as I do, actively listen), the experience is far less satisfying. When the focus is on the page instead of interpreting the composer’s intent, something is definitely lost. The printed page, I believe, should be used as a guide, a reminder occasionally referred to perhaps during a performance.

    You might wonder how I can possibly “listen” since it is all visual, isn’t it? For me, what I mean is that I listen to the ensemble as a whole. There is a sectional breath that happens (or should ), and this occurs all throughout a piece. There is even movement that occurs on the part of instrumentalists, and movement that can be heard when the conductor is moving arms or torso in various ways. Sounds mysterious, I know. But it is possible. Of course, it is only possible because I am not focused on the page. It is not because I cannot see and therefore have some extra sense.By “listening” to the ensemble, I mean listening to how my section’s line fits into the piece as a whole. this means I need to understand what other lines are doing and when – and not just vocal lines. To understand when to come in, when to get out of the way of another line … these are all things gained by getting past the notes you must learn, the rhythms you must internalize, the dynamics you must eventually add to your internalization of the work.

    All sounds very mechanical and not very musical. What makes it so poignant, at least for me, is again that magic that occurs when all in the room, performers and audience alike, share in the beauty of it all.

  • Shirley Frantz

    I enjoyed reading Michael’s blog on memorization. Music is just a lotof notes and words on paper until it is brought to life with dynamicsand feeling. Feeling the music and being a part of conveying those
    feelings to the audience are the primary reasons I enjoy participating in the Michael O’Neal Summer Singers.

  • Cookie Preuss

    Choral music and the Maestro, Michael O’Neal, have brought much meaning into my life .
    Singing with both PrimeTime singers and Summer Singers have challenged me and brought me much self-satisfaction .
    Michael’s love of teaching is so evident in his patience, humor, and elementary presentation to those of us who come on board with no formal training.
    I love watching and listening to his professionals, the MOS group and am and always will be a strong supporter of that group.
    One of my proudest moments was participating in the Durafle Requiem – 2008. The only Latin I had ever seen was a doctor’s prescription but I was determined and I did learn the Latin and I was able to perform with so much self satisfaction.
    Thank you Maestro!

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