Why You Shouldn’t Memorize Music (or at least revisit the score when you do)

For both jazz and classical soloists it’s extremely common to perform with your music memorized. There are usually a few reasons given for memorizing, including that it frees you up from the distraction of the page, it allows you to focus more completely on the sound, and it simply looks better without a music stand in front of you. Here’s an interesting take on memorization from a classical guitarist, called An Argument Against Memorization.

To watch a soloist, or an ensemble, perform without the score, without any physical partitions, and with a steadfast memory of the work, is incredibly compelling.

No doubt about it.

However, the goal of memorization is one that too many of us rush into without consideration of the harm it might be doing.

The author, Simon Powis, offers some good points on ways where memorization actually inhibits our ability to perform music. For one, he notes that what frequently happens is the musician is memorizing music through a kinesthetic process (“muscle memory”) and that it becomes difficult, if not impossible for the musician to pick up in places other than at the beginning of that phrase, or even the entire piece.

But worse than that, memorizing a piece of music leads to practicing that music only without sheet music, and this can be inhibiting.

If we have hammered in our kinesthetic memory via thousands of mechanical repetitions (which does work eventually) we are making it very, very, VERY, difficult to change and evolve over time.

So, no matter how far we evolve as a musician, our stubborn muscle memory will maintain a fingering, articulation, and execution that is inferior and less than our current capabilities.

What a shame, and what a loss!

Powis points out that this can cause the musician to resort to the easiest fingering, rather than exploring other options. Something that works for you now might not sound the best down the road. Certain instruments have different sounds with different fingers or positions and only playing a piece from memory might lock you into something that won’t sound as good.

Less of a concern to jazz musicians, where the music is improvisational and meant to be changed every time, is loosing focus on what the composer originally intended.

A score is incredibly complex. When a student comes to me and says “I have it memorized now” what does this actually mean?

Following this statement I will often ask what the harmonic progression is in the second phrase? Or, what the dynamic markings are in the coda? The answer is always a blank look.

This is because the score contains more information than just where to put the fingers. It is a veritable treasure trove of information that reveals itself over time.

You need time to explore the score, and if you respect the music you will give it that due time.

And the final point that Powis makes is that our memories are fallible, and we can memorize a piece wrong. Or it can drift away from what is correct over time.

Those of us who play jazz or other improvisational styles of music might be less concerned with Powis’s points than classical soloists, but I think there is some food for thought even for jazz musicians. While I usually feel freed up as an improviser once I’ve got a tune committed to memory, I do think there is some value to revisiting the sheet music and looking at the composition again visually. I have a tendency to look ahead when reading music, whereas when playing a tune by memory or by ear I am more in the moment. There’s something to be said for starting your improvised phrase already thinking about where you’re going.

I don’t think that Powis is really arguing to never memorize your music, but when doing so we should be thinking about the drawbacks. Being aware of the potential problems helps us avoid them, while still holding on to the benefits from playing without written music.

On Learning the “Classics”

I recently came across an interesting blog post Ronan on his Mostly Music blog. This post, entitled 21st Century Bebop, asks some good questions that jazz educators might want to consider.

In a musical world which has moved away from traditional jazz repertoire, at least as far as the vast majority of the general public is concerned, what is the relevance or otherwise of these skills – playing standards, playing changes, playing common repertoire, the swing idiom etc. etc. ? Why, the question is often asked, should we spend so much time teaching a type of music that hasn’t been popular for over 60 years? What is the relevance of standard repertoire in the 21st-century, and are we holding onto this type of teaching out of some misguided sense of loyalty to the past?

Years ago, when I was still teaching in academia, I was sitting in on a juried recital for a drummer jazz studies major. He was accompanied by a couple musicians that he played around town frequently with and they seemed to draw the music primarily from the tunes they play on their gigs. The performance was excellent, but I was concerned about the lack of variety I heard. Afterwards, I commented to the student’s studio instructor that I wanted to hear something in the swing style and was confused when he insisted that there was. It took me a moment to realize that while I was talking about a jazz style and repertoire from the 30s and 40s, his instructor was thinking of something that had swing 8th notes.

It still seems strange to me that an undergraduate student completing a bachelors degree in jazz studies would go through 4 years of higher education and not be required to demonstrate a familiarity with performing in jazz styles developed prior to the 1950s or 60s. Perhaps it’s my professional bias as a trombonist to find myself performing traditional jazz and swing styles more than a drummer might, but I see a familiarity with the history of the style to be more than simply being professionally ready to play a gig where you need to play in a non-contemporary jazz style. Ronan addresses this too.

So – technique, aural training, harmonic knowledge, rhythmic skills, reading skills, musical memory, deep listening, understanding of form and the ability to instantly create melodies over moving harmony. All of these are necessary in order to able to be able to play standard jazz material. This is a serious set of skills for any musician venturing into the professional music world, and some or all of them are transferable into any kind of musical situation you may be find yourself in.

I would take this a step further. I may be misremembering who exactly said this (and I may even be making this up entirely, but the point is still valid), but I think it was Wynton Marsalis who said it’s equally important for jazz students to get experience learning to play “classical” music as well. First, the pedagogy and practice on development of instrumental technique has been refined already with classical studies to a point that I still don’t see with jazz methods. The skill set you will learn from performing a classical recital or performing in an orchestra or concert band is going to benefit in a way that playing in a jazz combo just can’t provide. For example, if you’re performing a solo concerto you are going to have to have the chops to make it through all the movements and play what’s on the page, whereas when we improvise we unconsciously make choices that we already have the technique to play. Classical music challenges jazz musicians to improve their skills and become familiar with phrasing, articulations, and other nuances that you just won’t get playing contemporary jazz.

And, for that matter, I make the same argument for classical musicians learning to improvise and become familiar with jazz styles. I’ve listened to and played many pops concerts and noticed how uncomfortable the classical musicians sounded trying to phrase and articulate jazz and pop styles.

Of course we’re all going to have our personal preferences and strengths. There are some musical styles that I have little to no interest in learning to perform and others that I have made a conscious effort to become as good as I can playing. However, my experience has been that becoming a well rounded musician has been beneficial to performing in my preferred styles. Furthermore, my abilities as a “musical chameleon” have made it possible for me to work successfully as a professional musician and music educator in a wide variety of situations that many of my peers cannot.

Paralysis By Analysis “Godwin’s Law”

In 1990 Mike Godwin famously wrote about Usnet discussion groups, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.” The corollary is that once this comparison is made, the individual who made it automatically looses the argument. It’s become known as “Godwin’s Law.” I propose a similar adage for the expression, “paralysis by analysis.” As an online discussion about brass technique gets longer, the probability that someone will come along and reject a logical or factual argument with the term “paralysis by analysis” approaches 1. When that happens, that individual looses the debate.

I’ve blogged about my problems with this expression before, but it’s worth repeating.

The first issue I take with this expression is that it is almost always used to dismiss someone else’s points without actually addressing any of the logic or facts that were brought up. Someone can provide a well-documented and rational argument about some point of brass technique and rather than pointing out flaws with the argument, a contrarian will reject the entire argument without having to provide any evidence or logical explanation. If they don’t use the expression, “paralysis by analysis” they often say something like, “you’re thinking too much,” or “the body will figure itself out.” It’s intellectually lazy at best, and at its heart it’s bad advice.

analysis
noun, plural analyses

1. the separating of any material or abstract entity into its constituent elements (opposed to synthesis).
2. this process as a method of studying the nature of something or of determining its essential features and their relations.
3. a presentation, usually in writing, of the results of this process.

Analysis in musical pedagogy and practice is a good thing. It allows us to learn about the details of playing technique, put music into an historical and theoretical context, and help us to communicate the results of our study to other people. When people discourage analysis they are not just recommending against a valuable tool for teachers and students, they are actively encouraging students to NOT explore, question, and learn.

Do music students often freeze up when trying to play their instrument? Of course, but it’s worth looking deeper (dare I say, analyze) what’s actually happening to musicians when this happens. There are two scenarios. First, and I suspect most common, the musician is trying to multitask and rather than making for an improvement it leads to the musical equivalent of “athlete’s choke.”

Multitasking is really just task switching. It’s not really possible for people to think about more than one, maybe two, things at a time. Instead the focus changes from one thing to another. Because there are so many different physical skills that need to coordinate for playing a musical instrument it’s really impossible to keep them all in mind while playing, so we need to be selective on what we concentrate on while practicing and performing. Analysis should be done prior to picking up the instrument and the particular task to be practiced is selected based on what the player or teacher determines needs correction. Once the work on that particular point of focus is concluded, the musician should move on to another task. At no point is the analysis itself causing the freezing up, it’s the action of trying to analyze while coordinating all the physical tasks, and often trying to make corrections on the fly at the same time.

“Paralysis by multitasking” just doesn’t have the same ring to it, but it’s much more accurate.

The other scenario that happens when a musician struggles with analysis is that they aren’t drawing the correct conclusions from their analysis. This is why we have teachers, who presumably have more experience than the student and understands better what’s going on. Where I have a problem is when music teachers discourage their students to analyze because they want to always do that for their student. Those students are going to need to learn to do their own analysis, and so it’s better for the teacher to instruct the student in what correct playing mechanics are and how to spot check their own technique and make their own corrections. Furthermore, most serious music students end up doing some sort of teaching at some point in their careers, even if it’s just offering advice on the internet. When students consistently hear from their teacher, “paralysis by analysis” they take that mantra too seriously and it becomes an excuse. They use it to justify ignoring or dismissing information that is useful and it becomes a cover for teachers who simply don’t know what’s going on with their students.

“Paralysis by ignorance” doesn’t rhyme either.

So I herby declare that in the comments section in this blog, if you use the expression “paralysis by analysis” to dismiss a logical or specific point of view you don’t agree with you automatically loose the argument.

Memorial Day

Today, May 29, 2017, is Memorial Day in the United States. On this day we remember men and women who have died in service for the country. Here is a big band arrangement I wrote a while back of the armed forces marches, as performed by the Trinity Jazz Orchestra.

The Influence of Tongue Position On Brass Playing

Back in 2003 some physicists from Australia (Wolfe, Tarnopolsky, Fletcher, Hollenberg, and Smith) presented at the Stockholm Music Acoustics Conference on research they conducted on the role of the tongue position on didjeridu and the trombone.

Many players of wind instruments talk of the perceived importance of the shape of the mouth on the sound. In the case of the didjeridu, the effect on the timbre is so clear as to be incontestable. Among scientists, however, there is considerable variation in opinion about the effect on pitch [1- 4]. In this paper we report experiments on well-characterised model systems: artificial wind instrument players. Using plausible values of the relevant parameters, these show that vocal tract shapes can have important effects on both pitch and timbre.

Many brass performers and teachers, including myself, have cited Bernoulli’s principle as assisting the air speed as it strikes the vibrating lips for the importance of tongue position while playing. I’ve asked some physics teachers and engineers about this and almost all of them, with some exceptions, have suggested that this might be true. That said, this presentation was focused on the vocal tract impedance (if I understand this correctly, that is how the shape of the vocal tract influence pitch and timbre of a particular pitch).

On the didjeridu the influence was quite strong, perhaps in part due to the larger bore size of the instrument and the much larger vibrating area (there are a lot more of the lips inside the “mouthpiece” of the didjeridu than inside a trombone mouthpiece). They did note that it was an influence on the trombone, however.

The shift in pitch, over the range studied, is typically 20cents: a musically important effect for intonation. Preliminary measurements on experienced brass players showed a comparable shift in pitch when they were asked to lower the tongue, keeping all else constant.

They also noted that a change in tongue position can “cause a transition between different playing register.” In other words, you can shift tongue position and change partials on a brass instrument.

This has some interesting implications for brass performers and teachers. Some folks swear that they keep their tongue position consistent, regardless of what register they play in. This view is in the minority and I suspect that players who claim this aren’t even aware of their shifting tongue position. That said, different people are going to have variations in the size and shape of their mouth and tongue and it would be interesting to compare those players. I’m also curious about the difference between different traditional brass instruments. Do trumpet players change the position of their tongue more or less than tuba players?

Regardless, I think that research like this suggests that tongue position is an important part of playing in tune and with a focused tone on a brass instrument. Players and teachers dealing with intonation issues or poor tone may want to investigate what is happening with the tongue position and work out practice approaches that can help a player learn how to achieve an optimal tongue position according to the register being played.

How To Form a Trumpet (brasswind) Embouchure in Four Steps, by Charlie Porter

Here’s a lengthy video by trumpet player Charlie Porter on how to form a brass embouchure.

I have had some disagreements with Porter in the past. I have some quibbles with some of his instructions too, but I like his recommendation to set firm the lips up before setting the mouthpiece on the lips. Two of the other steps he recommends (pulling the lips open after setting the mouthpiece and wetting the lip center with the tongue after that) I feel would risk undoing the value of firming before setting.

Watching through the video I didn’t understand if he was suggesting the embouchure aperture remains open throughout the lip vibration, so I asked him about it. He was kind enough to take the time to clarify for me.

Of course the lips rapidly close and open during vibration. That’s not the point…I’m not arguing that they they never close briefly, per each vibration occurring…the point is that players are often way too tight and begin with closed lips and press them together to the point of distorting the vibration.

It’s a rather long video, but take look at it if you’re interested in different thoughts about setting the embouchure formation for playing.

Learning Styles – How Can Teachers Best Help Students Learn

The idea of students having a “learning style” refers to a concept that that individuals differ on how the best learn, develop, and retain information. For example, someone who is considered to be a “visual” learner needs to see the information in some way, while an “aural” learner will want to hear it explained. On its surface this seems like a good thing, since we are all individuals and experienced teachers develop strategies to help students with different needs and backgrounds learn better. Unfortunately, the idea of catering lessons to a particular student’s learning style doesn’t show that it actually helps. In fact, it can even leave some students behind when proven methods of instruction are avoided in favor of what essentially amounts to a preference on the student’s part. Teachers end up working with a student’s strengths and not addressing the weaknesses.

In spite of the lack of evidence to back up the learning styles theory, this is a pervasive myth among educators, students, and the general public. Companies that want to sell lesson plans and other educational support materials to schools and teachers are, in part, to blame for the continued belief in this myth. Here’s one example that purports to tell you your learning style by asking you 20 questions. I tried it out and learned that I was an “auditory” learner.

Auditory

If you are an auditory learner, you learn by hearing and listening. You understand and remember things you have heard. You store information by the way it sounds, and you have an easier time understanding spoken instructions than written ones. You often learn by reading out loud because you have to hear it or speak it in order to know it.

As an auditory learner, you probably hum or talk to yourself or others if you become bored. People may think you are not paying attention, even though you may be hearing and understanding everything being said.

Here are some things that auditory learners like you can do to learn better.

  • Sit where you can hear.
  • Have your hearing checked on a regular basis.
  • Use flashcards to learn new words; read them out loud.
  • Read stories, assignments, or directions out loud.
  • Record yourself spelling words and then listen to the recording.
  • Have test questions read to you out loud.
  • Study new material by reading it out loud.

Remember that you need to hear things, not just see things, in order to learn well.

The problem with assessing a student’s learning style with questions like this survey is that it doesn’t actually address learning. Asking someone the “best way to study for a test” doesn’t offer information on how a student best learns because it doesn’t assess whether the student did well on the test! The only way to assess whether learning styles are helpful is how well they learned the material, not what someone prefers to do for fun or what strategies they want to try.

Another online “test” (I won’t link because it wants you to register before it gives you results) is a bit more thorough one that has some more nuance to the questions and asks more, but again, I find many of the questions odd (“You have a good sense of color” “You hear small things that others don’t” – can a so-called visual learner be color blind or can someone with some hearing loss still be a so-called aural learner?) and none of the questions assess learning.

A good summary of why learning styles is a myth can be found in this Wired article.

Convincing evidence for learning styles would show that people of one preferred learning style learned better when taught material in their favored way, whereas a different group with a different preference learned the same material better when taught in their favored fashion. Yet surprisingly few studies of this format have produced supporting evidence for learning styles; far more evidence (such as this study) runs counter to the myth. What often happens is that both groups perform better when taught by one particular style. This makes sense because although each of us is unique, usually the most effective way for us to learn is based not on our individual preferences but on the nature of the material we’re being taught – just try learning French grammar pictorially, or learning geometry purely verbally.

Here is another one.

Teaching children according to their individual “learning style” does not achieve better results and should be ditched by schools in favour of evidence-based practice, according to leading scientists.

Thirty eminent academics from the worlds of neuroscience, education and psychology have signed a letter to the Guardian voicing their concern about the popularity of the learning style approach among some teachers.

What about all that literature that supposedly supports learning styles? Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork wrote a review of the literature.

Our review of the literature disclosed ample evidence that children and adults will, if asked, express preferences about how they prefer information to be presented to them. There is also plentiful evidence arguing that people differ in the degree to which they have some fairly specific apti- tudes for different kinds of thinking and for processing different types of information. However, we found virtu- ally no evidence for the interaction pattern mentioned above, which was judged to be a precondition for vali- dating the educational applications of learning styles. Al- though the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis.

Searching online for evidence that both supports and refutes the theory of learning styles shows a general difference between those supporting and those debunking. Sites and “articles” that support learning styles tend to lack citations and when they do have them, the studies listed either are from companies that want to sell their materials to teachers, are poorly done, or even state the exact opposite of what that source is claiming. On the other hand, criticisms of learning styles tend to be well researched with peer reviewed articles from reputable authors and journals and provide a much more nuanced view of teaching and learning.

The bottom line for teachers is that while we can and should use every tool available when necessary, it’s important to look at the bigger picture – whether learning is taking place and whether the results we’re getting from our students is what they are truly capable of. By all means, reinforce the students’ strengths, but address their weaknesses too.

Firm, Place, Breathe, Blow

A thread on the Facebook Trombone Pedagogy group lately has been discussing different thoughts on coordinating breathing with setting the embouchure and placing the mouthpiece. I thought I’d take this opportunity to discuss my preferred way of teaching students to coordinate air and embouchure together, based on Donald Reinhardt’s instructions from his writings, including his Encyclopedia of the Pivot System.

While the jaw is in its playing position, form the saturated embouchure with ALMOST buzzing firmness, so that the lips are “just touching” at the vibrating points. When in doubt, form the lips as if to buzz. . .

Place the mouthpiece upon the embouchure formation as just prescribed and use sufficient “contact pressure” to locate and sustain its position in the playing groove of the embouchure. The actually placement must be executed in accordance with the [embouchure] type. . .

Inhale the high-pitched, whispered “IM” (not “OM” or “UM”) through both mouthcorners – NEVER THE MOUTHCENTER – simultaneously. . . In short, eliminate “gear shifting” and inhale with a minimum of embouchure distortion.

At it’s heart, Reinhardt’s advice is to work towards unifying the player’s pre-playing sensations with the playing sensations. In other words, he felt it was valuable to have as little change as possible in the position of the lips and mouthpiece upon the lips from inhaling to playing. In order to encourage this, he instructed his students to practice (during certain exercises – not during rehearsing and performance) to firm the lips as if buzzing first, place the mouthpiece on the firmed lips, inhale through the mouth corners while maintaining mouthpiece pressure and holding the lip center just touching, then commence blowing by coordinating the mouth corners snapping into their correct position. Taking breaths in the middle of phrases is to be simply a matter of continuing to breathe through the mouth corners while keeping everything under the mouthpiece rim and inside the mouthpiece should remain more or less in playing position.

Many players, including some excellent ones, either don’t consider their embouchure when breathing or are so focused on moving lots of air that they don’t feel that minimizing the embouchure “gear shift” between inhaling and blowing is valuable. Some players will open their mouth very wide to inhale and the mouthpiece placement shifts slightly every time they begin blowing. Some players will set the mouthpiece on relaxed lips and firm them only just as they begin blowing, which can result in twisting or winding the lips up under the rim or distortions and inconsistency in their overall embouchure formation from breath to breath. Consistency in a player’s embouchure formation should result in better playing consistency.

One of the biggest challenges to adopting this approach is that it’s difficult to take in as much air as quickly when you’re only breathing through the mouth corners. Trumpet and horn players may find the smaller mouthpiece size makes keeping the lip center just touching inside the mouthpiece while inhaling to be easier than low brass players with their larger mouthpieces. I think it’s important to keep in mind that this approach is meant to be practiced only at specific times in your routine and then forgotten about while you move on or are performing. We can think of this approach as an ideal goal, but that not every playing situation is going to make that ideal work at every moment. By aiming towards the ideal in your practice you are minimizing the potential for this to cause issues, both short term cracking notes from time to time or the longer term (and fortunately rarer) embouchure dysfunction that can result.

Composition Exercises

It’s common for instrumentalists to practice exercises and etudes to practice technique or expressive playing. These materials usually are never intended to be performed, but are instead done for the benefit they offer the musician. Composers can similarly practice composition exercises that aren’t intended to be heard by anyone, but help the composer get comfortable using a particular approach or get the creative juices flowing. Here’s a resource with 4 exercises.

Exercise 1: Compose Three Short One Minute Compositions

In this exercise you have two weeks to complete three short compositions. I like the idea of challenging yourself to complete something specific on a deadline. Some arranging commissions I have gotten are like this exercise, the client needs an arrangement of a specific tune by a specific date.

Exercise 1b: Compose One Composition Two Minutes Long

The details of this exercise include avoiding your compositional comfort zone. Again, it’s not an uncommon situation for a professional composer or arranger to be commissioned to write something that he or she might not take on as a personal project. It’s useful to be able to put your personal preferences aside and explore something completely different from your own style.

Exercise 2: Vocal Rhythms

Exercise 2b: Vocal Rhythms in a Foreign Language

I’ve used this idea many times. Select a text from somewhere and say it out loud rhythmically. Write out the rhythms you come up with and they can become the basis for an extended composition. As an aside, this works great with young music students to get them composing music together as a class. Ask them a question about what they did over the weekend and you might get an answer like, “Birthday parties, two in a row!”

Use these rhythms to create percussion music or add pitches to create a melody.

Check out the details of these exercises and then get composing.

Use Eye Tracking to Study What a Pianist Sees While Playing

I love hearing about research like this done on musicians (and other artists). I wouldn’t be surprised if something similar hasn’t been done for athletics, so it’s nice to see that musicians are taking advantage of the technology too.

 

In this video they show the difference between an older, more experienced, pianist and a younger, less accomplished, pianist. They tracked both of their eye movements while playing a memorized piece and also sight reading. While playing the memorized pieces the experienced pianist visual range on the keyboard was much more stable and consistent than the inexperienced pianist.

The results of the experienced pianist sight reading is directly relevant to anyone sight reading. His eyes are scanning ahead of where he is playing. It also jumps between the treble clef and bass clef staves consistently. This skill of reading ahead is perhaps one of the most important things to develop for sight reading.