Singing without Score

Singing without score; the bad dream of many a choral singer.

Like many others, I love score. I spend much of my spare time searching through it, arranging it and putting it into black concert folders. It is also very satisfying to feel an improvement in sight reading during periods of heavy rehearsal and practice. However, my passion for music was not begun with score and this, I believe, is the case for many.

During my younger years music was part of daily life for my mum and me. We listened to various artists and genres constantly; Irish music, Mozart, Erik Satie, Madness, The Scissor Sisters and a variety of artists on the radio. We sang all the time. Never had I seen my nursery and school peers happier than when we were singing a silly song to break the day up. Music seemed to appeal to a deeper instinct.

As I grew older I learnt to use score in my clarinet lessons, but still the majority of music I engaged in was improvised and interpreted. I played the recorder and keyboard without score and, like so many of us, sang without score. I believe that I have had an advantage in being able to understand both the world of score and the world without. When I reached my teenage years I began piano and singing lessons which involved sight reading and written music theory. I found that many things I had learnt from experimenting with my own harmonies and improvisations done in the shower, whilst playing or even just going out for a walk, had names and were important elements of music. However, being able to have worked such things out before being given technical labels and symbolism, seemed to give me a deeper understanding of what these labels meant.

When I came to University and joined the Choir, I was grateful that I had some background in music theory as it gave me the opportunity to develop the sight reading that we seemed to rely on so heavily. After a period of refreshing my memory, I was able to sight read at the appropriate level. However others I met had never encountered score before joining this choir.

As expected, these members began learning the pieces by ear. This appeared to be a much more difficult skill to master. When learning by ear, you have no written notation to fall back on. You must know what is coming next and learn your harmony thoroughly. Something about this spoke to me. I knew what it was like to learn purely by ear and I soon realised that I missed it. I missed having the line freshly imprinted in my head and having freedom from the pieces of score in front of us.

As it was, two interesting parallels occurred. Those who could not read score began to follow the notes up and down meaning that they could work out the basics of score reading. On the other hand, many of us who had been learning from score learnt the music by heart from repetition, and did not need any score as time went on. For the first group of people learning by ear helped them to interpret the score and for the second group of people learning from the score helped them to break away from it and insert their harmonies by ear. And really, is there anything wrong with either of these approaches?

Simultaneously, as mentioned in my post ‘The Art of Falling into Conducting’, the A Cappella choir was beginning to grow. The original conductor chose never to use score. We began by learning both words and notes by ear then later on having individual sheets of lyrics and making our own notes on them. Some members preferred this method, others found it a challenge. Interestingly, the ones that found it the biggest challenge were the ones who had had the most traditional choral training and experience. This made me wonder if by overdoing the teaching of notation and use of score, something natural and instinctive had been pushed into the background. I became very reflective about this point. As a child I had asked my parents if I could be in the Cathedral choir. I couldn’t of course; it was an all-male choir. It made me wonder how different my musical experience would have been if I had joined a choral SATB (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass) choir as a child. Would I have had those years of musical freedom, notation free compositions, improvisation on my recorder and my mum’s tin whistles, and unstructured passionate singing?
That is not to say that it is impossible to sing passionately from score, quite the opposite seems to be true, however there can be something quite restrictive about having to stick with what has been written.

It made me wonder if an ideal music education as a child would contain a combination of different styles. In this hypothetical education music theory would be taught but the chance for children to work separately from score and work out some musical phenomenon for themselves would also be present. I would never want to give up the skills I had learnt from written music theory however I would hate to think that for some children written music theory takes over from allowing the children to work out some principles of music theory for themselves. There also seem to be many singers who feel that either learning with score is the only way to learn music or that learning without score is the only way. There are precious few who feel that both practices are beneficial.

As A Cappella stands at present, we have learnt only one song from score and that score was taken away after the first rehearsal using it so that the singers could learn the piece by heart. We never perform holding any paper or folders. So far this has worked very well. Even after our fourth rehearsal of this term with mostly new members we managed to sing two songs at our student union jam night without lyrics in front of us. As far as I can tell, this allows the singers to engage fully in what they are singing and in listening to other members of the group. We appear to have promoted a close team spirit in this way.

Last year in Choir, an enthusiastic member of both groups requested that we learnt one song in choir in this way. We said we’d think about it, then after a little while the perfect opportunity presented itself. We decided we would learn a piece by a local composer but discovered that every piece of score used must be paid for. So we bought score for the other musical director and me, the chair, the pianist and no one else. We got mixed reactions to this idea. We experienced a few people get into a state of panic and someone telling us that it would be impossible to learn the piece in this way as well as enthusiasm from a number of people. Last rehearsal we split the men and the women and learnt the first phrase in sectionals before putting it together as a choir. After asking a couple of members to put away their IPads and stop trying to search for the score online, we began. I have to say, everyone learnt it extremely well and we were told by many members that they had really enjoyed the rehearsal. So we are one phrase down in teaching a choir who have never learnt a piece without score to sing from ear and from memory. Perhaps it is the idea of not having the score to fall back on that scares people. Since the rehearsal I have agreed to put the lyrics on our Choir group so long as no one uses them in rehearsals, I also allowed one of the men to record our practice. This method of recording rehearsals is another practice that we engage in in A Cappella and appears to benefit the members very much.

So in conclusion, I suppose that this post is an introduction to my experiments in trying to inspire singers to try different ways of learning and arranging pieces. This is an experiment that I hope to continue during my school practice. It’s a bit of a brain stretcher at times for myself just as much as the members, but as my boyfriends’ mother would say “it is probably good for us”.

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