This week on American Idol several would-be idols were instantly disqualified because they forgot their lyrics. This is an embarrassment any of us who sing solos can relate to. If we’ve sung much at all, we’ve “made up the words” at some point!

However, truly learning a song means more than just memorizing some words. In fact, I have recognized 3 levels of learning a song or a recitation. As leaders in our churches, we would do well to never settle for lower than Level 3. And I’ve found it helpful and eye-opening to explain these levels to soloists and special music groups in my church, challenging them to strive for the top as well.

The 3 levels of learning a song are:

1) Familiarization – At this entry level, one is adequately familiar with the melody and words so that he/she can stand and sing it to others. However, that person must stare at or at least glance often at the words to the song. He/she is basically enslaved to the “cheat-sheet” or the video screen and has no freedom to personalize the song or make eye-contact with the congregation. Unfortunately, many songs are sung in our churches by people who are only at this level. In my opinion, no one should be allowed to sing – or allow themselves to sing – in a worship service if they are merely familiar with a song. They are not ready to present that song or recitation yet.

2) Memorization – At this level, one has fully committed to memory the words and the melody. He/she does not need to rely on words written down in front of him/her. However, that soloist still must concentrate to be sure he/she doesn’t forget the words. He/she lacks confidence to relax and enjoy the song. The soloist may have also memorized where to breath and when to include expressive hand and body motions. All the more, that person is often preoccupied with concern and even fear in making sure he/she remembers all the words, techniques and important expressions he/she has rehearsed.

3) Internalization – Internalizing a song is the pinnacle of learning it. The song has been practiced many times beyond the point of simply memorizing. The singer begins to “own” the song as his/her own. The story and emotions of the lyrics become that singer’s story and emotions. He/she no longer has to concentrate on the words. They come naturally without even having to think about what the next line or phrase is. The singer knows the song so well and has practiced it so many times that every breath, every dynamic is second-nature. At this level, the singer can enjoy the song and focus his/her attention on the Lord and on those in the congregation. This level also allows for more spontenaity, changing an inflection or word out of intent rather than memory failure!

The purpose of standing and delivering a song is to offer praise to our Lord and communicate a message to those listening and watching us. We should not settle for anything less that level 3 quality and excellence in our music. God gave only His best; we should do no less… (And for the record, I also believe the primary worship leader in a service should internalize the praise choruses he/she is leading.)

(c) 2007 by Dwayne Moore