Our first and most important goal in singing a song in public, whether it be a solo, duet, trio, quartet, or choir number, is to get the message across in such a way that the listeners will be impressed primarily with the message of the song. The critical listener may automatically notice the technique of the singer, and he cannot help being conscious of the individual or individuals singing, but the message of the song should be paramount in his mind. This is doubly true in religious singing.
With this ideal in mind, what could be more important than the question of memorizing the message of our songs? Paul Breisach, one of America's symphony conductors who came from Europe, said: "You must be the song as you sing it." These conductors must have the best in the vocal soloists who work with them, so his observation is worth serious consideration. But how can we actually be a song or live a song if it has not become part of us?
The first step in making a song part of us is to have the message so definitely and deeply engraved in our minds that it seems as if we were singing our own message to the audience. Here, I believe, is where altogether too many singers fall down in their public work. Little or no effort is made to memorize songs, and yet those who have tried it frequently agree that it is surprising how simply a song can be memorized, and how much more of a joy singing becomes as an accomplishment if the message of a song is committed to memory.
Naturally some find it harder to memorize than do others. The mere fact that we have made perhaps one or two attempts and have been caught in public forgetting the words, does not mean that we should give up and decide that we are not capable of memorizing. We need to try again and again until we have convinced ourselves that it can be done; and if we persist, we will eventually be surprised how quickly and easily we can do it and how naturally the message of a song becomes a part of us. Almost anything in life becomes simple once we learn how. Often matters we consider exceedingly difficult become extremely simple when we actually get down to business and outline a system, or break the problem down into various parts and look at them separately.
Let us consider some simple methods whereby we might memorize a song. We might do it the old way by simply committing it to memory by rote, going over it again and again until by sheer force of repetition we have memorized the number. Such a method of memorizing, though it actually works if we stay at it long enough, does not bring the best results. We can memorize a song and do it so mechanically that even though its words may be in our memory, its message still is not a part of us, because we have not taken time to analyze it, to study and weigh it.
To know your song, you must know more than just the words. Words are only things, but given time and thought, words convey a message. Not until this message becomes so indelibly impressed on your mind that the words are only a secondary and necessary vehicle to convey the thought do you really know your song. How feeble, then, must be our efforts when altogether too frequently we do not even know the words, and we have to stand before the people with our eyes glued on the page. This is singing from a book. Let us learn to sing from the heart!
One of the first men with whom I seriously studied singing some years ago in London, Ontario, Canada, was Keith MacDonald. As a young man he had sung in some of the choruses of the Metropolitan Opera Association in New York. He told me that when they were assigned the task of learning a new opera, they would often spend as much as two weeks studying the lyrics alone. After they had committed the words to memory completely and studied the background and history of the opera, becoming as well acquainted with it as possible, they would then begin to study the music. Perhaps in this the world is setting an excellent example for those of us who are interested in sacred music.
Let us consider another method whereby we might memorize songs. This may at first seem like a more involved task, but once you try it, you will find it is actually the better way and consequently the easier way. Once you have mastered this simple method, you will really consume less time memorizing a song than by the old method of learning by rote. We will consider Elisha A. Hoffman's words in that lovely appeal song, "Is Your All on the Altar?"
"You have longed for sweet peace,
And for faith to increase,
And have earnestly, fervently prayed;
But you cannot have rest,
Or be perfectly blest
Until all on the altar is laid.
"Who can tell all the love
He will send from above,
And how happy our hearts will be made,
Of the fellowship sweet
We shall share at His feet,
When our all on the altar is laid?"
We will not consider the chorus, for most folks find it a simple matter to memorize the chorus just a little evidence that some things can be memorized easily.
But now let us take a good look at the first stanza. First of all let us try to catch the thought the author had in mind. It is a person-to-person conversation, a preacher talking to a sinner, or a Christian talking to one who has fallen by the way or who is losing faith. You will notice that the entire verse is an appeal to the heart, picturing what goes on in the heart of many a struggling sinner: the longing for "sweet peace" and for "faith to increase"; the praying "earnestly, fervently" in this direction; and the declaration that a person "cannot have rest," peace of mind, nor "be perfectly blessed" "until all on the altar is laid."
In just two sentences we have put the thought of the entire verse into our own words, or translated it into our own thoughts. Once we see the picture of the verse clearly and re-create the atmosphere of it, then it is a simple matter to go back over the actual words and fix in mind such phrases as "longed for sweet peace," "faith to increase," "earnestly, fervently prayed," "cannot have rest," "perfectly blest." If we go over these a few times and try to get the ideas in mind in proper sequence, we will find that in a few moments we have not only the actual words of the verse, but the thought as well as the message definitely fixed in mind.
Now let us look at the other stanza. There immediately is an entire change of scene. The author here tries to hold out a beautiful picture of hope and the happy experience that the Christian enjoys after he has laid his all upon the altar of sacrifice. The entire endeavor of this stanza is to picture to the listener the thought that the results of placing our all upon the altar will be far above anything that we can either imagine or expect. And so the message is "Who can tell all the love" that will be sent "from above," and who can imagine "how happy our hearts will be made"? Then there is the thought of "fellowship sweet" to be shared "at His feet, when our all on the altar is laid."
Notice that here in just these few paragraphs we have quickly and simply analyzed the individual thoughts of these two stanzas of poetry, reduced them to prose, and put them into our own language. As a result we have a complete picture of what the author had in mind, and we have an entirely different concept of the song from what we would have had if we had merely memorized it mechanically. Looking back quickly now at the foregoing stanzas, you will notice that by underlining certain key words as a simple mechanical aid, you can memorize stanzas easily.
Let us notice just one benefit that will accrue to the singer who has thus memorized his song, and which will show up distinctly when he sings this in public. If the singer has clearly in mind the two different thoughts in these two stanzas, when he comes to the second stanza he will automatically brighten up and sing it in a more cheerful and hopeful manner, as if he were trying to bring the good news of this stanza to his listeners. This will be almost automatic if the singer is in any way alert, and of course the entire song will be sung with more confidence.
ore confidence. Once the message of a song is clearly fixed in your mind through memorizing the words and analyzing the subject and the arrangement of the thoughts, you will be surprised to find yourself doing much more shading and interpreting than you have ever done before. Now you have made it your message. You are not merely repeating something some author wrote.
As another aid it might be well to add the rhyming words at the end of each line to the key words. Then again there are times when we can almost use the rhyming words alone as the key words, the mind automatically filling in the entire line.
I hope some of these suggestions will prove valuable. I believe they will. Adapt them, and evolve a method of your own. I am always looking for new and better ways, and I believe you are too. That's the reason I wrote this article!
Ben Glanzer was Associate Secretary of the Ministerial Association at General Conference when he wrote this