World Choir Games Flanders 2023

How to deal with song lyrics 2: leaving the written word behind

  • [this is a version of a post which first appeared on my blog From the Front of the Choir]


    Last week in Part 1 of How to deal with song lyrics, I looked at the pros and cons of using written words as opposed to learning entirely by ear.




    This week I want to look at how you get beyond the written word if you’ve been learning from a sheet of paper. And finally, in Part 3 I will look at foreign lyrics and going beyond the first verse.


    becoming trapped by associations

    Just as a piece of paper in the hand can become a security blanket, so can big lyrics on the wall.


    At a recent singing weekend, we sang a fairly short song many times during each day, but always with the lyric sheet on the wall. Even though people really knew the words (it had sunk into their subconscious by then), when we came to revive the song at the end of the weekend, somebody grabbed the lyrics and put them up on the wall!


    Partly this is a form of security because people don’t believe that they’ve truly learnt the words. But it’s also something to do with how you learn the song in the first place and the associations you make.


    If you learn a song facing the window with the basses to your left, then you sometimes struggle if you try to sing it later with your back to the window and the basses on your right. See also Can you remember a song while standing on one leg?


    When first learning the song you also encoded where you were standing, what you were doing, who was with you, etc. Part of this was the action of looking at the words on the wall. You have embodied this experience, so need to recreate it when you sing the song later. Even if you know the words perfectly well, part of you needs the lyrics up on the wall for it to feel familiar.


    For these reasons, I believe that it’s important to change things around as much as possible when learning a song. You then remove the learning of the song from any specifics such as where you’re standing in the room. You end up singing the song in so many different contexts, that it becomes properly embedded in your memory independently of how you learnt it.


    when to take the lyrics down?

    So when can we take the lyrics down? How early can we take the prop of words away without disrupting the learning experience? Given the choice, singers will want to leave the lyrics up there forever as security!


    I’ve tried various ways of doing this. One obvious way is after you’ve been learning a new song for a while, then run it through one last time with the lyrics up, then try it without. If it’s a disaster, then repeat the process.


    Another way is to keep singing the song, but each time round, cover up one line of the lyrics, starting at the top.


    Recent research on learning has shown that the best way to learn something is to recap it just at the moment of forgetting. When you first learn something you will forget it after a few minutes. But after a few recaps it will stay with you for an hour or so. Then a day or longer. Then a week. And finally it will end up in long term memory.


    The secret then is to judge when that “moment of forgetting” is coming up. Then you  might reveal the lyrics for a short time before removing them again. Try to help the singers try hard when the lyrics aren’t there as I’m sure they will have remembered more than they think!


    how to stop singers using lyrics in performance?

    Some people will always find it difficult to commit lyrics to memory – foreign or English. Of course, it is much, much better if singers aren’t referring to lyric sheets in concerts, but how do we police this?


    One option (probably used in professional choirs) is to say that if a singer hasn’t learnt the words, then they don’t sing in a concert. This seems a bit draconian for a community choir though!


    Apart from impressing upon the choir the importance of learning the lyrics, how does one insist? What sanctions can one use?


    This is a problem that I’ve not found a solution to. Again, any useful suggestions gratefully received!


    repeat after me …

    One side effect of repetition and the fact that time moves forward, is that the early lines of a song get sung far more than the later lines. This also applies to the first verse compared with subsequent verses.


    As we slowly build up a song one line at a time, we keep going back to the beginning and adding new bits one line at a time. That means that we sing the first line more than the second line, which we sing more than the third line, etc.


    The danger is that the first part of the song gets rehearsed loads, whereas the ending is always under-rehearsed. This imbalance doesn’t go until the entire song has been sung many, many times.


    One way round this, and – I believe – a good way of really learning a song, is to work backwards once the whole song has been taught.


    Divide the song up into sensible musical/ lyrical phrases, then start by just singing the last phrase. Then add the phrase before this, so you sing the penultimate phrase, followed by the final phrase. Keep this process up until you’re back at the start of the song.


    This is an excellent way of really getting to grips with how each phrase joins with the next, it also allows for more attention to be paid to the end of the song, and finally, it forces people to really concentrate as we look at the new song in an entirely different way.


    Next week in part 3 (the final part) I'll be looking at songs with foreign lyrics and how to get beyond the first verse.


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