An instance that comes to my mind is when I was recruited (somewhat last minute) to tour Hungary and attend the Bela Bartok International Choral Competition in Debrecen. I was planning on touring with the choir as a junior chaperone, but around a month before we left, I was given the opportunity to sing with the choir as well. Slight panic gripped me, but if there's anything I have learned while being in choir is that I work extremely well under pressure. I enjoy pushing my mind to its musical extreme. However, my panic stemmed from the fact I didn't know a majority of the music. Most of it was fine, we rehearsed lots of the new songs which were required test pieces for the competition. Yet, I discovered that there was a set of songs which we never rehearsed because the choir had been performing them throughout the year and the songs no longer required practice. These were the songs I did not know. We were also competing with them memorized.
Overall, we only practiced the songs about 2-3 times (including the performance) which is deadly for me since my technique for memorizing songs is to practice them in choir rehearsal. Since I was not given this time, I had to develop my own strategy to learn the piece in a small fraction of time and coach myself on Icelandic pronunciations. I managed well enough for most of them, but there is one song, to this day, that I still do not have memorized: Hjaoningarima. This was a moment where I wished I was a soprano and not a mezzo since the sopranos mostly do a sibilant percussion throughout the piece.
However, I pulled off a very strategic and analytical fake-out strategy for performing it.
- Survey the overall structure structure of the piece. I looked for patterns and anything that would make my job easier. For this piece in particular, from listening to the recording I noticed that the song was going by so quickly that you couldn't even hear the differences in text for each line. Instead of memorizing the words, I memorized which sounds I should focus on in each section since the song melodies occurred in predictable cycles. I remember sibilance was integral for one line so I remembered to make lots of [s] sounds to bring out my line
- The song is so fast that it wouldn't matter if some words weren't correct, as long as I maintained the percussive integrity of the piece, it would all be fine
- The song is composed of 10-12 lines of Icelandic. There was no way I could learn all of it in 1 week on top of all the other music I had to have learned. You just have to choose what is most important and my focus was required elsewhere
- As long as you start strong and end strong, most of the middle sections can be coasted through
- Watch the conductor! And be extremely receptive to the vocal energy and breath intakes of choristers around you. All your senses must be focused on the momentum of singers around you so you can respond to their musicality accordingly. Especially the middle section where the whole choir sings "Hej!" chords
- There was one section where my section had to begin the melodic cycle so I memorized this one line so that I could come in strong at a vital, showcase-moment for my section
- Visibly, I had to look extremely intense and focused throughout the whole song. When you commit yourself visually to the piece, the audience will never know that you have insecurities about the song. Looking afraid is one of the worst things to do when you don't know something.
- Taking on a challenge like this is mostly a mental challenge. I knew I was able to carry off a convincing and dedicated performance of the piece and I knew it didn't have to be 100%. Everybody else knew it at the 100% level so my ability to sing it at a 95% was acceptable.
Thus, one of the most important things, when you realize that there is no way you can memorize or learn a song to it's intended level, is to be scientifically analytical in your approach. You must deduce what is the best way to input the least amount of time to achieve the maximum musical output. This goes for any challenge, not just learning choral music. The most important thing is to sing with purpose and nobody will question whether or not you know the music.
To close, I have attached the an audio clip of the song, Hjaoningarima, which I struggled to learn at hyper-speed. It is sung by Choir Lyran, an excellent women's choir from Helsinki.