Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Tuning Slide 3.21- Beyond Mediocre (2)

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

You have to, take a deep breath
and allow the music to flow through you.

Revel in it, allow yourself to awe.
When you play allow the music to
break your heart with its beauty.

― Kelly White

What else is there about practicing (this month's theme) that can help us rise above being simply mediocre? How about memorization built on sight-reading which itself is built on listening and rhythm?

If there is a secret - and easy - way to memorize, I haven’t found it. In fact I have seldom memorized a song all the way through. The only exceptions might be When the Saints Go Marching In and several songs I learned by ear. As I write that I also know that I have just given one of the not-so-secret ideas about memory work. Some of memory work goes back to what we talked about last week, listening. I have a hunch that memorization is more than just rote recall of something. Like I have said, you have to know the language. Sure, anyone can recite something in a different language without knowing what it means. But it will be lifeless compared to knowing the real feelings behind it.

The other thing that I have found that helps is having a better feel for the rhythm and style. This starts with the basics we always talk about- scales, chromatics, arpeggios, and the like. As we get to know the feel of these basics they become natural. We don’t have to think about them with Self One and will give appropriate control to Self Two. Then, when that run comes up in a performance piece or rehearsal, it just happens. Listening and rhythm then lead to what I have found to be the next pre-memorization step- sight-reading.

Sight reading
Expertise with sight-reading belongs
at the top of your list of priorities.
–The Musician’s Way, p. 99

This was one of my greatest weaknesses for years. Way back in high school I was a mediocre sight reader- at best. Even though I was first chair I had difficulty with sight reading. Part of that may be my somewhat ADD personality, but I didn’t know how to move beyond that. I would then take the music home and woodshed it and be able to play it like a first-chair should play it the next rehearsal. (We had an excellent second-chair who could sight read and was right there to support me and the section. Something every section needs!) Without going into the many decades since then, It was not until the last five or six years that I learned you can actually practice sight-reading.

Enter Getchell’s Second Book of Practical Studies for Cornet and Trumpet. They are amazing- and fun to play! They are based, among other things, on rhythm and time. The more I worked on that, the better my sight reading got. I then learned how to deal with a new piece of music and the “steps” of sight-reading. These include the obvious mental checklist of key signature, time signature, key changes, repeats, dynamics. But they also include a quick look at what appear to be difficult passages- and then humming or singing them. All this can be done in a relatively short time. The more time, the better. By the time the conductor raises the baton to start, I found I am no longer truly reading it for the first time. It is almost not sight-reading.

But here is where a paradox shows up for me. The more I get into the printed notes on the page, the less I am able to do it from memory. I have tried for years to memorize the closing section of Stars and Stripes Forever. Trumpets always stand to play it and I can’t read the music. Put the music in front of me and I can play it flawlessly. Take the music away and I easily get lost. Last year I worked on it using a lot of the new ideas and techniques I have been gathering for the last three years and I had it almost complete. In the end it became a melding together of all that I know about playing that came from listening enough to know the song including the rhythm and progressions (from sight-reading practice).

How then do I move on to greater ability to memorize? On the Your Music Lessons website I found this: (

The steps to memorizing can be broken down as follows:
• Put information into short term memory.
• Repeat the information in your short term memory multiple times.
• Sleep. [Important to moving information from short- to long-term memory.]
• Repeat steps 1 through 3.
• Do the whole process again after some time has passed.

(I like the sleep idea!) How then do I put these steps into practice? From The Musician's Way website here are The Four Stages of Memorization

Stage 1: Perception

Deep perception makes for solid memory. When we grasp the inner workings of a composition as well as how we want to shape each phrase, those rich connections lead to steadfast recall.
  • What’s the structure, how does it flow, what are the emotions? This is the start of getting information into the short-term memory.
Stage 2: Ingraining
Ingraining is the means whereby we lay down enduring memory tracks. But beware: ingraining necessarily involves repetition, yet only mindful repetitions will do.
  • This takes us back to all the elements of mindful practice. Just practicing doesn’t do it; practicing with images and goals will do a great deal. We need to make the music part of us, ingrained in us.
Stage 3: Maintenance
Even if we ingrain deeply, unless we maintain our memory, the mental connections we form will gradually disintegrate. Here are strategies that keep memories strong.
  • Here we do things like record ourselves and listen or do mental reviews of what we have memorized. It keeps it alive.
Stage 4: Recall
  • This is performance. Be relaxed and mindful, feel the emotions and trust in your preparation. With some of the music I have been working on this means getting myself out to a jazz jam or volunteering for the improvised solo in a gig.
This is exactly what I have been trying to do with some of the jazz work I have been developing. I have seen that as I work on playing by ear it allows the music to be more than just short-term since I cannot rely on visual memory alone. That in itself is a big piece of memorizing for me.

With all that here are some final thoughts on memory and music from Your Music Lessons:

“Muscle memory” is not even memory, it’s purely habit. Habits are formed in the most primitive parts of our brains. Studies have shown that people with no ability to form new memories, because of accidents or disease, are still able to form new habits. This shows that habits are not technically memories. When musicians depend on “muscle memory” what they really are doing is repeating patterns mindlessly.

This type of “memory” is also very prone to memory slips because the music is actually not in the musicians memory at all, and any small break from the habit (like a mistake or someone in the audience coughing) can cause the habit to break down.

Real music comes from our actively engaged minds. If the musician cannot sit down and write out an entire piece of music from memory, the piece is not memorized. Never try to acquire “finger memory”. It will come naturally because of constant repetitions. You should always seek an intellectual understanding and memory of the music first.

So, memorization, connected with playing/transcribing by ear, will be one of my goals over the next six-months. I’ll see if this old dog can still learn these new tricks.

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