Whether you’re working with a choir, praise team, group or even if you’re a solo act, chances are you’re experiencing (or have at some time or other) trouble remembering the lyrics and keys to new songs. This is an especially common issue in Gospel music ministries where sheet music is almost never used. Often it can really take a while to get both the lyrics and the harmony locked in and memorized. Even once it seems like you finally have it down at rehearsal, many groups find that they have forgotten much of it by Sunday morning.
One thing choir directors and Music Ministers do to help keep the rehearsal moving along and assist with the learning process is to pass out lyric sheets. Ironically though, lyric sheets do much more to cause the problem than they do to fix it. I’d say the single most effective thing you can do to cut learning time and improve retention is to STOP using lyric sheets at your rehearsals.
Lyric sheets are a “mental crutch” of sorts because they cripple your ability to memorize the lyrics and melodies that are being sung to you. Think for a minute about the way we learned things as a child. Consider the alphabet, for example. Most of us already knew the alphabet way before we got to kindergarten. For a child It’s 26 random letters in no particular order. And most of us never saw it in print until we got to kindergarten. Wouldn’t matter anyway, because we couldn’t read!
So how did we learn the alphabet, some of us before we could even talk? That little song, of course. Our parents sang that little song over and over to us. To our brains, the letters and the melody they were sang over became one inseparable thing. We are only able to recite the alphabet now without music because we learned that song first. If you don’t think so, try saying them backwards right now. You’ll be able to do it but you’ll have to put much more thought into it than going forward. Why? There’s no backward alphabet song, lol!
If you were blessed enough to be a kid during the School-House Rock era you can think of all kinds of things you know today because of those songs they sang to us every Saturday morning. But here’s the amazing thing; you still know those songs decades later! Go ahead, sing “We The People”. How about “Conjunction Junction”? Go ahead, I’ll wait. 🙂
The unique thing about learning songs in particular is that process I mentioned earler where your brain actually uses the melody to memorize the lyrics, and vice-versa. Place a lyric sheet in front of you and the process is interrupted. First of all your brain will not make the effort to memorize lyrics as long as you have them in front of you.
That beautiful process our brain does without lyrics- that marrying of words and melody into one inseparable thing- gets “separated” by lyric sheets. When you’re looking at the words as they’re being sung to you your brain focuses less on the melody so you tend to have a harder time memorizing your part. But you also have a harder time memorizing the lyrics because they’re right in front of you. So your brain just reads instead of memorizing.
Then the instructor goes back over your part again, only now you can’t remember the words without looking at the lyrics. They have a way of switching your brain off. In fact chances are you’ve found yourself looking at a lyric sheet and not even really focusing on the words in front if you. Or tried to follow along on a lyric sheet while you listened to the song and actually having trouble keeping up. Or looked at a lyric sheet when you already had the words memorized, just because it’s in front of you. So lyric sheets actually do much more to slow down the song learning process than they do to speed it along.
Left to do its work as God designed it, our brain uses the melody to teach us the words and the words to remember the melody. So when you get up Sunday morning to sing a new song, nervous because you think you’ve forgotten the words, it all comes flooding back as soon as you hear the band start the intro. Then the director mouths just the first 2 or 3 words and there it is. the whole song, words and parts, ready to burst forth.
To be sure, there are certain situations when having lyric sheets is practical. Mass rehearsals where you must cover a large number of songs, for instance. If you have 10 songs to rehearse it makes sense to have the lyrics just to keep things moving. Even then though, you should be strongly encouraging the group to use them as little as possible and move away from them completely once you’ve gone over all the material enough that everyone should be familiar.
So whether you’re the person responsible for teaching new material or just a member of the choir or group, using lyric sheets as little as possible is the fastest way to dramatically speed up the song learning process and improve retention. Try it at the next rehearsal and let me know how it goes!