Grace Notes: Memorising Music

I recently read an article on the BBC News website about the Aurora Orchestra and how they are memorising an entire Beethoven symphony for one of the BBC Proms this summer. The article goes on to talk about the pros and cons of playing from memory, when memorising music in solo concerts became the norm, and why music is resistant to some memory problems. This inspired me to share some of my own views about memorising music.

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According to the article musicians are split on the practice of memorising. I personally feel that it can be a very freeing experience, when the piece is truly ‘within you’. However, if you don’t have it completely welded into your memory, it is terrifying and risky. For instance, last year as part of my end of year exam at Trinity Laban, we had to perform a movement of a classical concerto from memory. Now I had memorised the piece, and so knew it, but I wasn’t so secure I could play it in my sleep. This resulted in me having ‘slips’ and making silly mistakes because the piece wasn’t completely under the fingers. Memorising just because you have to is silly in my opinion. You end up not ‘getting’ the piece and it causes more nerves as you struggle to remember (I always have ‘blank brain’ in exams) and in actual fact kills any expression you tried to put in,

At other times however, being free from the printed page is great. When I was auditioning for conservatoires in 2011 one of the pieces I played was Bloch’s Nigun. It’s a very emotional piece with lots of anguish, and my teacher at the time suggested that I would tap into my emotions more if I played from memory. So I played and played and played until the piece was practically engrained in my bones. I had memorised it about a month before the auditions and then practiced WITHOUT music. This was important because then all of the little nuances I added were practiced in with no associations to the printed page and so when it came to the auditions, the fact I didn’t have music just allowed me to be free. I’m trying to do that for my next exam.

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So far, I have memorised my piece (I’m playing the first movement of Prokofiev’s 2nd violin concerto) and I can sort of play it all the way through (by sort of I mean that all the fast tricky bits are about half speed…..I’m working on that!). My exam is a month yesterday, so the plan is to now not use the music to practice at all and get everything up to tempo and flowing. Hopefully this will work in solidifying my memory of it and my nerves won’t take over and make me forget everything! (I wrote a blog post about my nerves here… I’m still trying to implement these techniques!)

This is my personal opinion on memorising. When used correctly it can be very freeing and allow musicality to shine through, but if the memory isn’t 100% water tight then be prepared for some slips and a very scary performance. I’ll let you know how my end of year exam goes and if the above technique will help me to free up and enjoy the performance of my Prokofiev.

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Grace Notes: Return to the Forbidden Planet

Last night, I went to the New Theatre in Cardiff and saw Return to the Forbidden Planet with my parents. Between us we have seen the musical 11 times! This was my third viewing and I was so excited to see it again! My Dad had seen the original on-stage version in Liverpool in the 80’s so we were very excited to see the 25th anniversary tour!

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The poster for the tour (I do not own this image).

If you haven’t hears of it, Return to the Forbidden Planet is ‘Shakespeare’s lost Rock and Roll Musical’. It loosely follows the plot of The Tempest’, and the script is made up of Shakespeare quotes (with all other dialogue in the style of Shakespeare) punctuated by Rock and Roll songs (such as ‘Wipe Out’ and ‘Good Vibrations’).

This show is perfect for me! It’s totally ridiculous, nerdy, and hilarious! The songs are great, the plot zips along, and I love all of the sci-fi references!

The cast of this production was small (only 10) and they were also the band. The set was designed in such a way that the instruments were part of the ship, and hung off the walls so that one second the cast were the crew, and the next they were the band. The Captain played bass, Miranda played a trumpet solo and Cookie had the famous guitar solo in ‘She’s not there’ (including playing with his teeth!). You could also tell that the cast were having an amazing time, which in turn made us have a great time too. The excitement and fun was completely infectious.

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The cast of Return to the Forbidden Planet (I do not own this image).

The Newscaster in this production was Brian May, obviously having a great time opening and closing each half. The costumes were all reminiscent of the film ‘The Forbidden Planet’, the Captain even had a pipe! We all got to ‘Reverse Polarity’ in order to save the ship and the attack of the ‘monster’ at the end of the first half was wonderfully cheesy as well!

This show stands up to watching over and over again. Each production I’ve seen has done something differently (Ariel the robot roller-skates, the costumes are reminiscent to Star Trek: Next Generation as well as the Captain being Bald and Derek the Weather is narrator…) so there is always something new to look forward to.

Return to the Forbidden Planet is one of the few shows that I’d make a special effort to see. You will be guaranteed a good night and will leave with a smile on your face! If you get the chance to see it, then go! This particular production is in Cardiff for the rest of this week, and then it moves onto Blackpool and Manchester. I cannot recommend it enough. And to end with the final words of the cast:

‘Live long and Prospero…’

Grace Notes: Orchestral Code of Conduct

I grew up in orchestras where discipline was strict. There was no talking, getting up or messing around during rehearsals. When mobile phones became widely available (that makes me feel so old), using a mobile to text, play games or go on Facebook was also not permitted. This has meant that during rehearsals now, I pay attention for the duration of the rehearsal, don’t go on my phone and don’t walk around during the rehearsals. It surprised me then, when I started playing in orchestras in London how many people hadn’t had the same sort of discipline growing up and what they thought was acceptable to get up to during rehearsals. Here are a few things that I think can and cannot be done during rehearsals (including some advice given by the head of strings Nic Pendelbury in one of my first ever string classes at Trinity Laban). Note, this is all from the perspective of a string player so obviously if you have a 3 movement tacet you’d get very bored sitting there, so possibly a book or a phone might be needed, so long as it was silent and you came in for your entry. But, most of the points I’m making are basic common politeness it applies to most sections as well as most walks of life, not just orchestras.

  • Be on time! There are so many ways (apps/internet/timetables) to check times of public transport and see if there are any delays, so you can make your rehearsal by about 15 minutes before the starting time. Obviously if the delays are sudden and unexpected then you’ll be ok. No one can expect you to teleport there!
  • Keep your phone on off (or at least on silent) face down on the floor in front of you. Then you can see it and won’t be tempted to look (as it’ll look very obvious if you lean down to check it all the time). And if for some reason the phone didn’t turn all the way onto silent, it’s close by to quickly stop it! And let’s face it, it’s not that hard to last 1.5 hours with your phone is it?
  • Don’t chat if you’re not involved in that particular portion on the rehearsal. The conductor might be working with the wind for a while, but that’s no excuse for a player from a different section to have a natter about the latest Poldark episode.
  • If you leave your phone in your bag/coat pocket/case/other storage place it’s really not ok to walk across the rehearsal room to check it, even if you aren’t the section being rehearsed at that particular moment. Common sense really, but you’d be surprised how many times I’ve seen it happen.
  • Eating (especially loud food). I have to admit, I’ve been guilty of this a couple of times if I’ve had long days of rehearsals, but I always choose soft foods (such as haribo, or non-wrapped soft foods). Crunchy and/or wrapped foods (think of the rustling…)are really not ok. Messy/smelly foods are also not great! If you can however, I’d try and avoid it as it doesn’t look very professional and won’t make a good impression.

To be honest, most of the above rules are fairly obvious. Same as any other lesson, meeting, or social gathering. Hopefully if you’re new to an orchestra these might help you to get more quickly accustomed to how to behave in such an intense situation.

I was inspired to write this after seeing ‘Wittertainment’s Code of Conduct’ by Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo.

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I thought it was hilarious, and so true!! Here is a video illustrating the above points.

Apologies for this post being late, and I promise the next post (about travelling with instruments) will be up by next Tuesday!

Grace Notes: Soundtrack to sewing

Over the Easter weekend, I was at home in Cardiff having a few quiet days off. I wanted a break from the craziness of London and decided that I should try and make something over the bank holiday (I’ve always been really into crafts). Inspired by ‘The Great British Sewing Bee’ I decided to have a go at making a garment. I’ve spent the majority of the last three days in the dining room surrounded by scraps of fabric making a top. (I’m rather pleased with the end result if I do say so myself!)

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While I was sewing I’ve had music on in the background. Due to the fact I was sewing in my parents house, only their music was available to play. This however meant that I spent the weekend re-living the soundtrack to my childhood. Pink Floyd, Sting, Cerys Matthews, David Bowie and Leonard Cohen all made an appearance. When I was growing up I had rather strange tastes and mainly listened to music that my parents listened to, rarely stuff in the charts. On the plus side, I now have a very broad range of music that I like and know about, but there’s a rather large gap in my life where I don’t know any of the popular songs from the late 90’s, much to the horror of my friends!

Ever since I first listened to them, I’ve loved Pink Floyd. Their music is interesting and complex that you can listen again and again and notice new things every time. I particularly like the song ‘Echos’ as the tune and lyrics are beautifully haunting (when they eventually come in…!), but the introduction is great too! Those sonar bleeps and gradually fading in introduction ease you into (and out of) the song and leave you with an amazing sense of calm.

We have a collection of Sting’s greatest hits, which was great to have a sing along to, but my favourite Sting album is ‘The Last Ship’. I wrote a blog about it here. I also thoroughly enjoyed listening to David Bowie. I am probably one of the few people my age who knows all the words the ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and David Bowie has been a permanent fixture on my iPod for a long time! I love listening to how his music develops as styles change. I have to say ‘Life on Mars’, ‘Space Oddity’ and ‘Ziggy Stardust’ are possibly three of my favourite songs ever.

This weekend was just what I needed. After a crazy term, I had a chance to listen to some of my childhood albums, and learn a new skill! I enjoyed the sewing (and I’m super proud of the top I made) and it was great to revisit some of my favourite albums! I wonder if you had a similar soundtrack to your childhood as me?…