Remember in school when you would cram all night for an exam that you had the next day? (If you never did this, someone you know did it.) You studied the materials over and over through the night up until the break of day. You took your test in the morning and you passed it! Hooray!
How much of that material did you remember a week later? Probably very little. Here's the reason why. The folks who do brain research say that the evidence shows that rehearsing information over and over on only one occasion is good for getting the information into your short-term memory, but it won't transfer into your long-term memory. To remember it long-term, you have to rehearse it on different separate occasions. Spacing out the learning helps you learn better.
If you want to look at some of the scientific literature, here are a few links:
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spacing_effect – Wikipedia page on the Spacing Effect
- http://www.aft.org/newspubs/periodicals/ae/summer2002/willingham.cfm – Article from American Educator about allocating student study time
- http://www.memory-key.com/improving/strategies/advanced/most-effective-way-spacing-your-learning – A summary of a UC San Diego study
So what does that mean for us as choir directors? It means that your teaching of any song will be more effective if it's spread out over time than if it's done all together. Have you ever had the experience of learning a song in a rehearsal, feeling like you've learned it really well while the rehearsal is going on, and then barely being able to recall it the next day? I have. But if you practice it over a series of weeks, it will stay in your long-term memory much better. And you won't need as many repetitions!
For example, if you teach a particular part at three rehearsals, and at each rehearsal the choir goes over the part four times, that's a total of 12 repetitions. But the choir will remember what they learned BETTER from those 12 repetitions spread out over three rehearsals than they would if you had them do 20 repetitions all in one rehearsal! Check out the American Educator article above to read more about these findings.
This is a reminder of how important it is to get an early start on any music that you teach. Give yourself a few weeks at least before you plan to sing a new song and go over the song at several rehearsals. This is the way to get what you're really after, which is for the singers to make the song a part of them and remember it in the long-term.