To Memorize or Not to Memorize. . .

To memorize or not to memorize, that is the question.  So, what is the answer?  In our recent Celebrate the Future concert, many of the MOS members were impressed by the fact that the two high school choirs sang their selections from memory.  I imagine that just about everyone would agree that a choir singing without music in its hands presents an attractive visual image.   When singers are looking up at the conductor, rather than down at music scores, there exists a better chance that there will be more consistent communication between the choir and conductor, as well as between the choir and audience.  Therefore, we may ask the question, “Why doesn’t every choir memorize?”   Reasons often given include:  insufficient rehearsal time, complexity of music, age of singers (sorry!).  Also, it is important to note that performing with music does not mean that the final result will necessarily be less musical than one obtained performing from memory.  In fact, most professional choirs (either in the USA or Europe) perform almost always with music, and the quality of their performances is consistently very high. 


Well, this brings us back to the original point – to memorize or not to memorize.  What are your thoughts on the subject?  Are there pros and cons to either approach not mentioned above?  I’m interested in hearing what you think.

Showing 5 comments
  • Tim Henderson

    Memory! Memory! Memory! Most of us have jobs and other commitments limiting our time to memorize several pieces for each concert. Yes, age does have something to do with it too as the results of many memory studies demonstrate a decline in recall (short term memory) declining steadily from the 50’s onward. If we were performing the same pieces over and over than memorization makes more sense. We have more time and the repetitive nature of the rehearsals and performance will help in the memorization process.

  • Olga Espinola

    I have perhaps a unique opinion, based on over 27 years of choral and solo experience, about memorization of music I perform. People often ask me how I “memorize” all the music – all those notes and all those words … I don’t! Memorization (learning by rote) is not useful. What is imperative (at least for me) is internalizing the work. On the surface, this looks like memorization. But it goes much deeper than that. Once you pass memorization by rote of notes and rhythms, dynamics and tempo markings, you can start to move toward muscle memory. And once muscle memory is in place, you can start to work on “feeling” the piece. Hence, reacting to whatever the conductor does during an actual performance is so much more rewarding. 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 dialog among the voices and instruments, that intangible energy generated by all the participants – musicians, singers, and audience alike. This is what can deliver an electrifying performance. And that is a feeling that cannot be expressed in words. I guess freedom and elation might come closest to describing what it is like for me.

  • Dan Pfeffer

    I think memorization would be great. I asked one of the high schoolers how they did it so well. He reminded me that they practice for 50 minutes daily, 5 days a week, for 2 months on just a couple of songs.I am sure if we did the same, even us old codgers could do it too!

  • Dennis Love

    My feeling is that there are some pieces we do that almost demand to be done from memory in order to maximize the connections between the chorus, director and audience. I think audiences would prefer to see our faces and expressions more on everything, but of course that isn’t practical given our rehearsal time and amount of music we perform. For me, however, when I perform from memory I believe I can follow Michael’s directing more closely and be in touch with the nuances of what he is trying to get from us in terms of precise rhythm, dynamics, emotion and even diction. Michael is the most precise director for whom I have ever sung, and he often conveys what he wants from the music more than what we can see from the composer or arranger on the written page. So an occasional piece done from memory is a “crowd pleaser” and well worth the effort in my view.

  • Sandy Burroughs

    It sounds like a great idea in theory, but I find that I depend on the ‘crutch’ of the music in front of my eyes just for security! It really does look great though without the black folders, but tell the ASOC that!! To comment on last week’s blog, I, too, have just one grandchild who is carrying on the music tradition. She is adopted though and Asian (they seem to have a real talent for string instruments). Tu Khoa (you met her at her baptism) is now nearly 9 and has been playing her little violins since she was 4. She gets better every time I hear her, so the future of music is still secure.

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