10 Step Program for Getting Off the Ink
02 Thursday Jun 2011
[A revised version of an earlier article. -J.A.]
Memorization is the difference between performing a solo with the mind and ears totally focused on the flow and expressive qualities of music versus the eyes and fingers being consumed with a note to note response or other technicalities of notation. The mental connection made with the fine detail of musical phrases and listening is far more discriminating than the visual or sight response to notation. – Edward Lisk
I have seen some astounding live horn performances in my day, by Arkady Shilkloper, Douglas Hill, Peter Damm, John Clark, Frank Lloyd, to name just a few. But if I were forced at gunpoint to select the single most electrifying performance I’ve ever experienced, it would have to be the time I heard Frøydis Ree Wekre perform Buyanovsky’s España for solo horn at the IHS workshop in Avignon in 1982. The stage was outdoors (in Provence, as in Camelot, it rains only at 3 a.m., and briefly). The night air was warm and dry. A quilt of laser starshine was our ceiling. Heaven must be almost this nice. Frøydis commanded the stage alone, in a long colorful dress. As she stepped up to play, she had that patented look of hers: assertive, focused, relaxed, glad to be here. [NB: since that time, España has become a much more regular feature of the repertoire, still thrilling, but a more familiar story. Back then it was all new, like electricity to Franklin, flight to Orville and Wilbur, the moon to Neil Armstrong.] What a performance! She just stood there and let fly, and sparks crackled out of that horn. We were stunned, stupefied, speechless at first; then we screamed and stamped for more, more, more. It was a certifiable synapse sizzler. Among my personal pantheon of superlative horn performance experiences, this is the 29,002 ft. summit, done with the off-the-chart, over-the-fence supernatural brio and panache that Frøydis has always had in abundance.
Did you notice what was missing in that description of a great performance? A music stand and paper with ink on it. Frøydis has never been particularly partial to the idea of chaining her eye to a page. The kind of knowing exemplified by Frøydis’s performance is way beyond the eye-paper stage. She doesn’t merely visit the music (music: I’m talking about what you hear, not the piece of paper we often refer to as ‘the music’ in English. German does it better: die Noten for inked paper, die Musik for what you hear, the real thing) – she lives inside it, knows it chapter and verse. The back of her own hand holds more mysteries for her than any piece she performs. It has been ground into her DNA, her soul, through long and careful practice.
What a marvelous thing to know a piece of music this well. It has to be simply the best, most gratifying way to know any piece.
It also terrifies me completely. The idea of standing up there without the paper in front of me has always frightened me witless. I have avoided it at all costs for as long as I can remember.
Having that piece of paper there with you is like a warm bath. It is home, mother, a Kevlar vest, a fuzzy blanket. Why give that up? What’s the point of doing without? If you get it right playing by heart, who really notices or cares? But if you have a memory slip or get distracted or a bug lands on your nose or… anything! – you find yourself instantly relocated up that renowned disadvantageous aqueous environment without any appropriate means of locomotion (as we in academia phrase it). After all, when you play in an orchestra or a band, you never play without the music – I mean the notes – in front of you. Right? You play an etude, you don’t memorize it, do you? So what’s the point of taking such a big chance in the most dangerous position of all – a solo recital?
The point is that to know the music – the music! – at the highest level, both expressively and technically, you need to be able to do it beyond having to read the sequence of connect-the-dots. This is in-your-sleep knowing. It is also a chance to avoid the common error of considering the printed note as the important thing, rather than as a symbol (and a crude one at that) that only points the way to what is really important. As the Zen saying goes, we may use a finger to point at the moon, but don’t mistake the finger for the moon.
I have always considered horn to be a very user-unfriendly instrument for memorization. Folks who play instruments like piano, guitar, cello, etc. can see exactly what they are doing, and what’s more, it is not only easier to perform pieces memorized on these instruments, it is often the only possible way . The horn is different. We only have a few different valve combinations that we use to create all those different tones; that plus some mysterious and invisible combinations of air and pucker. We can’t look soulfully at our instrument like the pianist or guitarist. We can’t see it at all when we play; playing by heart we have to stare off into space, or worse (for us), directly at the audience. Reading the ink on paper is easy, efficacious, and the only way we do it from the beginning. The only way. And that stand also makes a great hiding place when you’re out there alone on the stage.
And yet. Think of Frøydis. Think of how brave, how artistic, how…heroic it looks to be standing there, facing hazard and death alone, without a net. Think how good it must feel to know a piece that well. There must be some way we paper-junkies can cut the cord, get weaned, go through ink withdrawal, win a small corner of the prize of independence from the page without serious damage. There are some pieces (Mozart, Strauss) that I could (almost) deliver if the horn part were locked in a trunk, but I still find it frightening to contemplate standing up there without my paper security blanket. How to get to the promised land?
Here is my own personal ten-step program for managing my paper addiction, steps that are relatively painless, certainly useful, and a bit of fun to boot.
1. Start small. Working on an etude? A solo? What’s the first thing you do? You pick out what a Brit might call the ‘sticky bits’ and work them out. Revise your former approach slightly but significantly by simply putting the book away as soon as possible. The bit you are working is short – a few notes, certainly no more than a measure – so it ‘memorizes’ very quickly. A couple times through and you are off the page. You may discover that you ‘hear’ what you are playing much better. Sight is a terrible bully over the other senses (to give your ears the best advantage, close your eyes or turn out the lights). Then follow up with your usual generous quantity of accurate repetitions. On to the next sticky bit. Connect the two, staying off the page as quickly and as much as possible. Continue. By the time you have worked out the whole piece in this way – surprise! – it will be part of you. Whether in improvisation or in learning a piece by heart, the important thing is to get the knowledge in the player, not leave it all on the page.
2. You want to win an orchestra job? Learn all the important excerpts by heart, stone cold. All of them. You do not want to be reading that Brahms B natural solo at the audition. Or anything else. Trust me on this. Also, if you get to be a whiz at playing by heart, you will also be in good shape if an audition with the Canadian Brass (or other groups that play concerts entirely by heart) comes up. Start with one short excerpt. Add new ones gradually, one at a time.
3. Start the day – every day – by playing some familiar tune by heart. Start with Happy Birthday – the opportunity will arise to use it sooner or later. When you’re fluent in all keys, go on to Twinkle Twinkle. And/or play it in minor. Continue forever.
4. Do as much of your technical work as possible from your head and ear alone. Anyone who has done a few years of horn undoubtedly has at least one warm-up routine by heart. Add to it any scale, arpeggio, pattern work with no or minimal written reference (the 3X5 card I take on vacation holds suggestions for more pattern work than I can possibly finish in a summer, for instance). If you know the principle of the pattern, you don’t need to see them all written out.
5. Perform by heart for children. They are both the best and the toughest audience. They don’t care if you miss notes and will cheer a spirited performance like frontline soldiers at a Bob Hope Christmas show, but they will eat you alive if you don’t deliver the music. And the best way to do that is with short pieces that you know by heart.
6. Start working up a repertoire of short encoresque pieces (does the word ‘prune’ ring a bell, Froydis lovers?) by heart and haul them out at every opportunity: family gatherings, horn seminars, supermarket openings, etc. Assemble an audience of pets, stuffed animals, relatives. Delight them with your sparkling repartee interspersed with little by-heart gems by Russian composers or the tune you wrote about a little octopus’s day at the circus.
7. Make up your own music. Improvisation is a great way to be paper-free. You could create your own music by writing it down on a piece of paper and then play it, of course, but better is to sidestep that horse-before-the-cart way characteristic of much formal pedagogy and write most of the piece in the air with your instrument first. Start simple. Add notes as you gain experience and confidence.
8. Take it a step at a time, but do it. The hectic world we call ‘modern living’ may not leave us the kind of time we need to learn every piece we want play by heart, but we can work on one thing at a time: one measure, one phrase, one page, one movement, one piece.
9. Use multiple ways of memorizing: 1. Aural: you should be able to hear the pitches in your mind and be able to sing the line; 2. Kinesthetic: enough accurate repetitions will program your muscle (chops, fingers) memory; 3. Visual: although you will not be looking at the paper, people have varying degrees of photographic memory – being able to see the printed notes in your mind’s eye 4. Intellectual: analyze the music – know the intervals, the underlying harmony, the key (of the piece or the moment), the form, the shape of the melody, and so on.
10. Earlier the better. Playing without the paper, like speaking Chinese, is difficult principally because we come to it late. If we had done it early and often, it would be natural and easy. We greybeards may always be recovering sheetaholics, but we can make it easier for those who come after us by introducing them at every opportunity to the joys of flying free. Make even your youngest students familiar with the tips above.
Postscript: not (too) long after writing the above, but with considerable preparation, I performed R. Strauss’s Concerto No. 1 for horn with a concert band, entirely from memory. The only scary part was waiting to go on stage. Once it started, I settled in to the comfort of the well-learned music. It felt, in fact, more secure than reading it from the printed part. It’s like driving to Pittsburgh at night. You can only see as far ahead as your headlights, but that’s all you need to see, and you can drive all the way to Pittsburgh that way. Memorizing forces you to conquer a deeper level of knowing. It certainly takes time to reach this level, but if you can take the time, it’s worth it. It’s a whole new feeling to get that deep and familiar with a piece. It’s nice. Since then I’ve done other pieces this way and have noticed another thing: it gets easier the more you do it. Wish I woulda started doing this very early on – but it’s never too late to start.