Archive for the ‘Performing’ Category

Memorizing Music

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

By Matt Marvuglio

Republished with permission from Artist House Music

matt-marvuglioOne way to impress people at an audition or in performance is to have your music memorized. This can be a daunting adventure for some of us and can create a good amount of anxiety too.Most musicians I know don’t like to memorize music. What if I forget? Will I have to go all the way back to the beginning and start again? I’d like to explore the process of memorizing music where you will gain more confidence in your playing. Once you get hooked on the process you will want to memorize everything. First of all, your mind works like a computer. Actually it’s the other way around. Computers were designed by examining the way people think and modeling a machine after our thought processes. We have a short term memory and a long term memory which is the same as RAM in the computer and the hard drive. Our short term memory is the window through which we process information to store it in long term memory (or our hard drive.) The more ways or cues you use to process the music, the more chances you have for retrieving it.

The biggest fear of memorizing music is forgetting. Forgetting usually happens when a retrieval strategy breaks down. It happens to everyone if you don’t process the music in a number of different ways. We need to process music in a number of different ways so you will be confident that you will not forget. This way, if one system breaks down, the other one can take over. Maybe a better way of describing playing music without reading it would be “internalizing” the music. Let’s talk about the different ways that you can internalize a piece of music through different memory systems.

Visual is the most common memory system through which we all relate to the world. For some of us, this is the way we learn music. We read it. When you close your eyes, you can visualize the part and see the page in front of you.

Tactile is the memory system through which we can feel the music by fingering the instrument. You can remember how a passage feels and you can reach for it. Through this system you can recognize familiar patterns such as scales and arpeggios. Musicians who don’t read can rely upon this memory system.

Aural is the memory system through which we can hear the music. Solfege is a system of study that clearly identifies the pitches in a systematic way and helps us build our aural perception. Scale degrees are assigned numbers or syllables and you identify chromatic alterations and key changes.

You need to use all of these systems and be aware of what you are seeing, feeling, and hearing when you practice. Also, it is important to isolate each system to fully understand what’s happening. This is a great way that you can put your music theory and solfege to use.Everyone will have a different memory system that is stronger based upon how you practice and learn music. Let’s look at the following passage from the J.S. Bach Minuet in G and put it through the different memory systems. Let’s begin by reading the example.

The Visual Memory System
Before you start reading the example you should look over the passage and answer the following questions:

• What is the tempo?
• What is the time signature?
• What is the key signature?
• Are there any chromatic alterations?
• Sing the rhythm to yourself?
• Are there any tricky rhythms?

Now you are ready to read the example.



After playing the example you should ask yourself, what did I just play?



In this case we have two four-measure phrases and within these phrases, a question and an answer.

We are starting to create a network of knowledge of the piece that will help us remember what we are seeing on the page. Let’s continue with the next memory system to help us create yet a deeper understanding of the composition.

Tactile Memory System

Here I’d like to make a case for practicing scales and arpeggios in different patterns. The more you practice different patterns, the more you can develop your memory system. This is very similar to learning vocabulary. The more you learn, the better you can express yourself. Let’s play the piece by fingering your instrument silently focusing on the patterns and the intervals. We already know that the tune is in G major, so we can focus on the different patterns in the key of G and not worry about any chromatic alterations and reduce the possibilities. I like to think of the patterns as leaps or steps.



Let’s review what we just fingered. The first two phrases are constructed by leap step leap. Where the second phrase is all stepwise patterns with a leap at the end for a cadence. And, the whole passage is constructed with a G major scale. Including our third memory system will complete the picture and really give meaning to the music.

Aural Memory System
One way to organize the melodies that you hear is by using a solfege system. This system was invented a long time ago to help monks remember the tunes they were singing because they weren’t writing them down. There are two basic systems and I prefer to use the moveable Do system where a syllable or number is assigned to each scale degree of a key and it moves with the key. Our example is in G major which means that G would be Do or 1. Let’s use numbers to identify the scale degrees:



Now it’s time to sing the example without your instrument using the scale degrees. If you know the solfege syllables you can use them too. If you need to check yourself with your instrument, by all means do so until you can sing it without a pitch reference.

Wrap Up
This way of thinking will open up a whole new way of practicing efficiently and help you memorize music. Using different modalities to learn or encode music should make it easier to retrieve music or have it at your fingertips. And that’s what we did with this small Bach passage. What you will find is that one memory system is stronger than the others and you will not by able to rely upon each system equally. When you’re trying to memorize a piece, it is important to create a network of knowledge that will give you a deeper understanding of the music. Work on different ways to learn to memorize music so when one system fails, you can rely upon another. Don’t forget now!

Matt Marvuglio is Dean of the Performance Division at Berklee College of Music. As a virtuosic flutist and composer, he has traveled throughout the United States, Europe, and Japan, premiering his compositions for jazz flute. He has presented clinics for the National Flute Association, the Acoustic Society of America, and the International Flute Convention in Sao Paulo, Brazil. He teaches in Berklee’s online extension school, Berkleemusi Visit Matt’s Web site at

Tapering for Performance

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

by Wendy Morgan Hunter

“Practice as if you are the worst, perform as if you are the best.”

When I was a young singer, I struggled with how to prepare for a performance. I had been taught technique, I knew how to practice for hours and hours to perfect a piece, but I had little guidance and knowledge of how to prepare the month of, week of, or day of a performance. I knew how to work hard, but not how to rest! It took years of experimenting to determine how I should prepare to perform.

Over the years I have been teaching I have been experimenting with how to best prepare my students for their performances.

As I prepare my students for their recital performance in the final month before the performance, I drop the breath support exercises, the “woodshedding” and work on building my students comfort with singing through their pieces completely.

I have discovered that as I teach a new piece, my system is roughly as follows:

1) I introduce the piece to the student. We discuss the poetry or text of the song or aria, using the translation if the piece is in another language. We discuss the opera, show or song cycle the piece is from and its relevant history, and the song/arias style.

2) We sing through the notes – learning the chorus and melodies, and emphasizing any patterns we may find in the song or aria – particularly with pieces with coloratura or melismatic phrases or sections.

3) We then begin to woodshed or work section by section. I usually begin the rehearsal by singing through the piece in its entirety and then move to the “woodshedding”, or focusing on trouble spots and phrases.

4) We then begin the final month performance prep tapering.

Performance prep tapering:

When the performance month occurs I usually drop the extra exercises – for example glottal exercises, enunciation exercises, and breath support exercises – are laid aside. All singers must be off of their music at this time. During this month we work on:

1) Dramatic interpretation.

2) Appearance when singing.

3) Completing the song/aria without “self-editing”.

4) A confident and believable performance.

I encourage my students to rest, hydrate, and care for themselves. At two weeks prior to the recital I stop critiquing and begin encouraging the positive aspects of the performance, nudging and coaxing out the performance. Confidence is such a large part of performance! At two weeks for most young singers– the die is cast- and you can rely on the best they can do at that time to be their optimal technical peak for the performance.

This fall I will add a new piece to my performance prep: an instruction sheet for parents of young singers! I had one young singer who did not do her best at this recital due to exhaustion. She swam in a swim meet the day of the performance, and vocally was not up to the piece she performed so well at the two week prior to the performance mark. This I will add to my checklist!

Failing Our Job as Teachers/Coaches?

Sunday, September 6th, 2009

By Rachel Velarde

What do we as music professionals owe our students?

I just came back from the Classical Singer Convention in Chicago.  I heard some AMAZING singing and some really good singing.  Unfortunately, I also heard some excruciatingly bad singing – from people who are trying to make it in the singing business.  This means that they spent the money to attend the convention (fees, hotel, flights…), they are paying for voice lessons and coachings, and somebody is telling them that they are ready for a professional career.

When I teach, I try to make sure that I am honest with my students about their possibilities.  I can teach anyone to sing.  I cannot make them practice.  I cannot overcome certain physical characteristics.  I do have several students who have potential and might want a career.  I have other students who tell me that they want careers in singing, but don’t practice.  Do I have the right, ever, to smash someone’s dream?  But, I also have the responsibility to let my student know that they might be wasting their time in pursuit of the goal of being a professional singer.  I will NEVER tell my student that they “can’t sing,” as I believe everyone is able to sing (even if just in the shower).  I think, though, that I do need to gently let them know that their goals are possibly not within reach – if they don’t have the vocal strength/stamina, dedication to practicing, physical qualifications.  Many necessary skills can be learned and improved on.  If you REALLY want it, I believe that you should try your hardest.  This, though, includes clear self-honesty on YOUR part.   You cannot make it in this business and be delusional about your flaws or bad habits.

That being said, I think that students MUST be aware of their voice and take responsibility for their training.  Do you record your lessons and listen with a critical ear?  This doesn’t mean being hard on yourself & deciding you are a horrible singer.  Do you just like your teacher and are impressed with them, or are you REALLY improving?  Does your voice, honestly, compare with those currently performing the same repertoire (and getting paid for it & re-hired for it)?  If not, what do you need to do to get up to that level?  Is your teacher guiding you in this path?  Are you REALLY making enough progress to be able to achieve your goals within a reasonable time?

Things to beware of with teachers, no matter their qualifications:

  • If their studio is comprised of only beginning students and you are an advanced student – this possibly means that advanced students don’t feel this teacher is effective (and opera singers MUST be, by definition, advanced).
  • If all the students in the studio sound the same – everyone has their own voice and should not sound the same as anyone else.
  • If there is huge disparity between “advanced” students – some students are amazing & others are not, yet they’re singing the same difficulty of repertoire.
  • If it seems you’re not making any progress and yet others in the studio are progressing by leaps and bounds.
  • If it hurts when you sing.
  • If you “fix” a problem during your lesson, but you can’t reproduce it at home. This is CRUCIAL to effective practice. You must know what you did to improve your sound so that you can practice it and it can become a physical habit.

The most important thing is that when I go to a convention such as the Classical Singer Convention, I should NEVER hear extremely bad singing, let alone singing which I can barely sit through (excruciating, as I said in my opening paragraph).  At a convention such as this one, I would hope that only serious singers would attend and perform.  When I hear such horrific singing, that means that there are some VERY bad teachers out there who are basically robbing their students.  That makes me ANGRY!!!  It is not my right to destroy a student’s dream.  But, it is also not my right to build them up to an unsupportable expectation of performance/career.  At some point that student will be told by someone that they are horrible and that then leads to the risk of them never singing again (which is the biggest DON’T I know of!).

What are your thoughts on the subject?  What do you see as YOUR job as a teacher or coach?  At what point do you discourage someone who wants a career?  How do you word that discouragement?  How do you support the talented student and push them to greater heights?  When helping a student improve, do you use positive or negative criticism (see my post on my solo website “I don’t care what you don’t want“)?  Where is the line to be drawn between our needing to make a living and our responsibility to the student (and therefore to furthering our art)?