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Memorizing and Sight Reading

Rating: 14 votes, 2.36 average.
I would like to memorize more often than I do. Playing without music, once you get to the point where you really have it memorized, frees you in several ways. But it takes time to get to that "safe" point.

When you are looking at the music stand you are somewhat "locked" in position. That could actually be an advantage in a recording session if there is a mic on your bell, but for a live audience it limits your freedom to move along with your musical expression. You may also find that your expressiveness improves. Your mind is a bit freer to go with the spirit of the moment.

But if you don't have the solo solidly in your memory, the chances of a slip-up are greater by far. My own test of memorization is to play straight through a piece while I have the TV tuned to a show that I really like. Keep the volume loud enough on the TV so you can hear most of the dialog over your playing. That will test how you will do with distractions (which are almost always part of a live music performance).

To get solid with memorized solos, there is a "secret" technique. And the cool thing is that the technique is helpful when sight-reading as well. Send me $500 and I'll share the secret with you.
...just kidding...

The secret that I try to teach my students is that music is made up of familiar pieces. If you look it over you will see fragments of scales and arpeggios everywhere. Your first step is to know all those scales and arpeggios by heart. They should be part of your daily practice and warm-up routines. You should spend at least part of your warm up playing some of those patterns by memory (choose different ones each day) and even making up your own patterns. When they become a part of you, then you will start to recognize them as you play music.

As you get comfortable doing this, add a bit more by changing dynamics based on a pattern, like progressively louder measures (p, mp, mf, f). Then pick different articulations; if you are playing scales, vary the pattern through all tongued, all slurred, slur a measure at a time, slur 2 / tongue 2, tongue 2 / slur 2, etc. And during tongued passages alternate between staccato, legato, and in between. Also add accents based on some pattern you make up. This all contributes to the mental facility needed for good sight reading (not to mention performance).

So, let's say you are trying to read a new piece; then you recognize that all those black notes coming up are a Db scale; and the next tricky pattern you see is a broken scale (up 2, down 1, up 2, down 1, etc.), but all the notes are part of a certain scale. You might recognize a diminished arpeggio (keep working through that Arban book!). You might recognize repeated patterns of intervals (up a 5th, for example). All that recognition will help you sight read more comfortably. If you can get the notes with 20% less mental effort, that leave 20% to catch dynamics and articulations you might otherwise have missed.

And the same recognition will help you memorize! Rather than memorizing the sequence of 100 notes, you break it up into a scale, 5 notes, an arpeggio, 3 more notes, a 3-note scale fragment, etc. At that point you have synergy. The patterns you practice daily are easy to recognize AND to play. All you have to do is assemble them.

Most musicians do a little of that without even thinking about it. Your job is to increase the number of bits you recognize instantly and already know how to play.

There is another advantage of this type of music reading (recognizing patterns) and getting better at memorizing. You will be able to have micro-bits of memorization occurring "on the fly" within band pieces. You need this every time you look up at the conductor. You DO that, right? If so, then you must have had a little chunk of the music memorized in order to avert your gaze. The more facile you are with the micro memories, the more you can watch the conductor.

Another advantage comes subtly into "play" when you are playing through a tough, busy part. You may have trouble as you transition from the end of one staff to the beginning of the next, because it takes just a few milliseconds for your eyes to lock onto the new measure. If you can easily keep in mind the entire last half of the previous measure, you have time to lock in on the next measure.

See how this all works together?

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