A Quick Guide to Memorising Music


what-brass-players-want-memorising-musicOn Monday this week (5th August 2013), something quite amazing happened.  We had an all-female ten-piece performance take place at Cadogen Hall, London as part of the Proms Chamber Music festival.  This was prior to Tine Thing Helseth performing as a soloist in the evening Proms from the Royal Albert Hall.

The evening was presented by Petroc Trelawny and Tine gave insightful introductions to the performances of the music they played.

The concert, which was just under an hour in length, was performed from memory (with the exception of the world premiere of Blaze by Diana Burrell and The Threepenny Opera – Suite by Weill).  The group stood (except for the tuba player) and there was also some very effective choreography that really added that special something.  The programme consisted of:

Grieg: Holberg Suite – Praeludium
Grieg: Lyric Pieces – Grandmother’s Minuet, Op. 68 No. 2
Grieg: 19 Norwegian Folk Songs – Gjendine’s Lullaby, Op. 66 No. 19
Grieg: Lyric Pieces – March of the Dwarfs, Op. 54 No. 3
Diana Burrell: Blaze (BBC commission: world premiere)
Weill: The Threepenny Opera – suite
Piazzolla: Oblivion
Bizet: Carmen – Suite No. 2

Encore: Hoedown from Rodeo by Aaron Copland

The performances were crisp, clear and very well delivered.  Each individual performer was providing playing that was clearly delivered with a sense of passion, enjoyment and care.  It was clear that they knew the music that they were performing and that each musician was clearly locked into the group ethos of sound, timbre and interpretation.  More importantly, it was clear that they all knew how each other worked and a real sense of communication was evident.

There have been a number of brass ensembles that regularly give performances from memory, such as Empire Brass or Canadian Brass and it seems to me that the more I think about the reasons behind this, the more inclined I am to find real worth in this pursuit.

what-brass-players-want-memorising-music-2Performing from memory was something I generally considered only really necessary for soloists, but there are so many benefits to memorising ensemble music for the individual and the group as a whole. These include:

  • It forces each player into a position where they really know their own part.
  • It gives the opportunity to focus on ensemble, taking the eyes out of the score.
  • Provides less obstruction to the audience.
  • The process of memorising your own part must be inextricably linked to understanding where it fits into the ensemble as a whole.  This means that you have to get to know the score and to some extent how the music is put together.

So, there is definitely real worth in memorising the music and it seems to make sense.  But I guess the real question is how do you do it?

Memorising music is a skill that can be learned.  Here are a few simple steps that may help with this process:

  1. Practice, and learn the music.  If you haven’t learned to play the music there is not much of a chance of you memorising it. Think about the overall construction of the song.  Look to see if any sections are repeated.  Remember they could be moved into a different key or just have some form of variation added to them.
  2. Recognise phrases and think about how the music you are playing is divided up.  The majority of music falls into 4 or 8 bar phrases and knowing where your phrases fit into the overall piece can really help with memory.  Try and spot any scalic passages, arpeggios or chord structures as this will help you to remember the music.
  3. Start at the end and play through a phrase or two a number of times with the music in front of you.  (It is easier to start at the end of a piece as the mind naturally gravitates toward that which it knows.)
  4. Try and play a few more phrases, still with the music in front of you a number of times.  It can help to sing, or hum it through a couple of times as well.
  5. When you feel ready and comfortable with what you have just been playing, close your eyes and try to play the last phrase from memory.
  6. Check the score again carefully.  Did everything go as it should have?  Make sure you have taken notice of articulations, dynamics and any other important information.
  7. If this works well, try and play the last two phrases with your eyes closed.  (If this hasn’t worked, repeat steps three and four).
  8. Again, always check the score and make sure that everything has been memorised correctly.  There really is no point trying to learn the notes and then worrying about the other bits later – this will lead to confusion and create much more work!
  9. Then try to play the third and fourth and so on until you have learned a section or chunk of music, checking the score for any inaccuracies as you go along.
  10. Play the whole section from memory.
  11. Always aim to switch between playing with and without the music to ensure that you have not memorised a mistake or wrong note.
  12. At this point, repeat the process above with another section of your music.
  13. Put the two sections together.
  14. Try and play the two sections at least five or six times from memory before moving on.
  15. Repeat the steps until you have memorised the whole piece.

what-brass-players-want-memorising-music-3Above all, remain calm and be patient!  If you start to beat yourself up about forgetting a section or part of the piece, this will prevent you from developing the skill.  Forget about what everyone else is doing, or whether it seems that they have memorised it more quickly than you.  Allow yourself enough time as it will take as long as it needs to take for you.

It is ok to make mistakes and the slower you work on each step, initially, the more you will find that you have really learned the music as well as this valuable skill.

I hope you have found this useful, and good luck.  How have you worked on memorising music before, or have you found any difficulties?  Comment below using the comments box.

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