Archive for the ‘Practicing’ 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!

On Practicing

Sunday, August 30th, 2009

On Practicing

By Matt Marvuglio

Republished with permission from Artists House Music

There are so many things to say about practicing and it’s difficult to cover all of the aspects of practicing in one single article. But if I were to reduce it to one question it would be, “Why?” I think the answer would be, “We practice for performance.” I find that some of the best reasons to practice are for a specific engagement, audition, or maybe a recording session. That’s because you have to accomplish a specific task in the near future. The second kind of practice is more long term to keep improving on your instrument because you love playing it and you want to learn the literature and master it. Sometimes the two meet and practicing satisfies both reasons to prepare you for a single event. This will happen at different levels throughout your life. The best thing about practicing is if you do it correctly, you can be in the moment and really enjoy playing. Some musicians I know refer to practicing as a form of meditation.

When we play music or practice there are three levels of thinking going on at the same time. And the purpose of practicing is to process musical information into the following three categories of thinking or paying attention: automatic, veiled, and controlled. An automatic thinking process is when you are not aware of thinking or paying attention to what you are doing, but you are doing it. These are things like riding a bike, driving a car, skate boarding, and playing scales and arpeggios. Did you catch the last one? A veiled thinking process is doing two things at the same time where one requires a little more attention and requires more control. I think of it as riding a bike with someone and having a conversation at the same time. Or doing something when someone is talking to you and you keep saying, “What?,” even though you are pretty sure you heard them but you really want to make sure. (Maybe the last one only happens to me.) The musical version would be playing in a band or a quartet and you are playing in unison with one instrument while reading your part. A controlled thinking process is doing something that requires all of your attention and where you focus your attention to control a specific task. This is stopping for a red light, crossing the street, or looking at a conductor or a fellow band mate for an entrance.

As you can imagine, we need to incorporate all of these three levels of thinking into our practice because we are performing a number of different tasks at the same time. All of these tasks cannot have our full attention. Ask yourself, what requires your immediate attention when you are playing a piece of music? Is it the fingerings, the rhythm, and the form? The item that needs your full attention is the controlled process, the secondary task is veiled, and the one you are not even thinking about is the automatic process. You want to get to the point where you are paying attention to what is going on around you and interacting with the musicians in the band. You are not worried about fingerings or the rhythm but you can make music and enjoy it. This is when you know your practicing has paid off.

How we process music when we practice is through three different memory systems: hearing it (aural), seeing it (visual), and feeling it (tactile). It’s important to include all of these memory systems when you practice. This will help you from forgetting things because if one system fails, you can rely upon the others. Then you will have three chances for getting it right! Have you ever been playing where you forget what comes next in a piece and then you can either hear it or reach for it? Depending upon how you practice and your training, one memory system will be stronger than the other. For example, classically trained musicians have a very strong visual memory because they were trained from the beginning reading music. Other styles come to music through picking at an instrument or singing in the church choir. If you practice scales frequently without reading them you are building a strong tactile memory. Taking another approach to really listen while you’re playing is working on your aural system. Whatever your strength may be, you need to develop all of your memory systems and thinking processes on your instrument. I know of great musicians who practice scales while watching television. Or some talk about playing a piece of music while preparing a shopping list. These are clues as to what kind of processing these musicians have accomplished through practicing.

It would be good just to talk a little about two different kinds of practice. When I listen to different musicians practice there are two opposite ends of the spectrum. There is a level of practicing which is simply playing things you like, and mostly all of these pieces are things you can play. This becomes a get better and faster at all of the things you can do kind of practicing. I would call this maintenance practice. This is where you are really enjoying playing your instrument and making sure that you are keeping up your technique. Then there is a practice of playing music and technical exercises that you cannot perform which is self-improvement practice. This kind of practice usually involves playing in awkward keys or tempos that are too fast or too slow or simply things you can’t do. This kind of practice is very tiring and can create a good amount of tension. Actually, too much of this kind of practice could create physical problems with your playing. Make sure that you blend these different kinds of practice into each session.

Each practice session should contain both kinds of practicing and employ an elaborative rehearsal method. This technique of rehearsal involves making associations to other information you already know. By elaborating or creating a network of knowledge you can create a deeper or richer understand of the music on different levels. Most of us get locked into a rote rehearsal method at an early age. This technique is simply repeating the material over and over again to try to remember it. A common example used to illustrate this concept is repeating a phone number over and over again while running to the phone. It may last in your memory for a little while but it is soon forgotten. Sometimes this technique is confused with learning something by ear. If you learn something by ear and analyze it as a scale or arpeggio, then this is an elaborative rehearsal technique. If you just repeat it over and over again without trying to make a different connection each time, then you are learning by rote. Have you ever been playing a piece and you forget the music? It has happened to me on a number of occasions. If you need to go all the way back to the beginning of the piece to start again, you are not practicing properly and may be employing more of a rote rehearsal method. If you can start again by thinking of taking it from the theme, the last dominant chord, or the string entrance; then you are working more from an elaborative method where you are making different connections.

Let’s see if we can put this all together. You have heard of musicians practicing four- to six-hours a day. This is possible if you take breaks in between and employ different kinds of practice. But I would like to set up a weekly practice schedule for you based upon an hour, and you can modify this schedule to suit your specific needs. No matter what style of music you play, you should practice your technique, sound, and repertoire. And don’t forget to include a 10-minute warm up. I’m a flute player so I’ll leave you with a routine that works for me. Also, you can modify the routine to suit your own practice needs. I like to practice in six-day cycles where I give myself a day off. This provides me with an incubation period where I can reflect on the music I am playing and look at things differently. On this “day off” I usually end up practicing without my instrument, which is another kind of elaborative rehearsal technique. The following routine emphasizes an elaborative rehearsal method putting all of the memory systems to use.

Day 10 minutes 15 minutes 5 minutes 30 minutes
1 Warm up
(focus on rhythm and sound)
Scale study
(maybe major scales)
Analyze your piece without your instrument When introducing a new piece see how much you can sight read
2 Warm up
(focus on scale and sound)
Chord study
(maybe major triads)
Analyze a new section silently fingering your instrument Work on connections between scale and chord materials in the piece
3 Warm up
(focus on chords and sound)
New scale study
(minor scales)
Analyze another section Look for the repetitive sections and determine the form
4 Warm up
Day 1
New chord study
(minor triads)
Practice the piece without instrument See how much you can play by ear
5 Warm up
Day 2
Another new scale study (in 3rds) Practice difficult passages without instrument Work on special sections that need attention with instrument
6 Warm up
Day 3
Scale and chord study review of major and minor Sing the piece without the instrument See how much of the piece you can play by memory (visualize)

This practice routine is based upon self-improvement and does not include maintenance practice or what I consider just playing. As you can see this hour of practice is quite rigorous and you should blend both types of practice each day. It is important to blend your practice time so you can enjoy it. Yes, that’s correct. You should enjoy practicing. Practicing is a solitary event and should be blended with making music with others. Music is a social art and if you are spending numerous hours in the practice room without playing with others, something is wrong. Practice is for performance, play and be well.

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 basic improvisation and ear training in Berklee’s online extension school, Berkleemusic. Visit Matt’s Web site.