Score or No Score? Teaching Songs By Ear
Photograph is of the Bristol Gasworks Choir by James Barke
The first time I learned songs in unaccompanied harmony by ear was at a “Sweet Soul Sisters” Bristol workshop in the early 1990s. I remember feeling my musical brain being challenged in a new and exciting way – trying to remember intervals by feel rather than counting the lines on a stave, noticing how the five parts of the song fitted together and letting the notes slowly seep into my brain – without the help of a musical score. And I was moved to tears by the sensation of singing in harmony with a large group of people. Two members of the Sweet Soul Sisters (Dee Jarlett and Ali Orbaum) later started the now legendary Gasworks Choir teaching large numbers of people in this same way, by ear.
This was my model when I started leading choirs in 2005 and it has been hugely successful; people who love to sing but don’t necessarily read music were delighted to be singing in harmony together. I teach the parts by rote and have learned how to make it accessible for everyone, music readers and non-readers alike, by breaking down the songs into smallish chunks, teaching each part and building the harmonies until everyone is confidently singing their strand of a four part song. There is lots of laughter along the way, mistakes don’t matter – they show the bits I haven’t taught thoroughly enough.
Good music readers find this way of learning frustratingly slow at first but many of them are excited (as I was) to develop new brain pathways and to find themselves relying on their ears more than their eyes.
The result of teaching a song by ear is that everyone is looking up, listening to each other and feeling the unique, visceral, uplifting sensation of singing in harmony together. The songs stay in their memories too so that months later we can revisit a song and, after a bit of coaxing, people can remember their parts amazingly well.
I once sang Handel’s Messiah at the Royal Festival Hall conducted by the wonderful Charles Farncombe with the last section (Worthy is the Lamb and the Amen) sung from memory. Our faces remained up for the whole ending as we sang the transformative music with a new awareness of the voices around us. It was amazing and uplifting for us and the audience alike.
I have sung in lots of choirs and groups using the musical score and there is no doubt you can learn much more complicated pieces this way with a simultaneous grasp of the notes, rhythms and dynamics. But everyone’s eyes are glued to the score and many singers, in order to avoid making an embarrassing mistake, are only concentrating on their line and not paying attention to the other harmony parts. The joy of singing with freedom, moving with the music and really feeling part of an unstoppable force is often missing.
The song arrangement has to lend itself to learning from memory though. I’ve learned this from arranging and teaching songs over the years. Each part has to have “hooks” to hang on to. It is easiest to memorise a line with an interesting pattern and words – even simple repeating words help with learning the notes. I also try to make sure that the individual melodies move through the whole voice range.
Of course you can’t learn tricky music with lots of variation (i.e. most classical music) by ear. It would take forever. I still love singing challenging music from a score in lots of different settings. But learning and teaching by ear is definitely my favourite and still often moves me to tears.
Wendy Sergeant July 2020
Wendy is one of our talented team of arrangers at ChoirCommunity. Browse her collection here.