Sunday, September 5, 2010

Inhabiting Music

Jonathan West left the following comment down on this post:

Being good at sightreading means that when you have to learn a piece thoroughly, you can start from much further forward than you otherwise would. Being good at sightreading means that for relatively easy pieces, you can pay attention to balance, phrasing and expression even in the first rehearsal. Of course, it is possible to treat sightreading as an end in itself - for instance so that you are able to produce a decent performance in a concert even when you join an orchestra only for the final rehearsal on the afternoon of a concert. British professional orchestral musicians are famously good at this, partly because British orchestras are perpetually short of money and therefore rehearsal time. But even here, one can argue that the quality of sightreading makes for a concert which will be enjoyed more by the audience than it would have been otherwise. Of course, there is a degree of inner satisfaction at being able to memorise a piece, memorisation is a tour de force which greatly impresses audiences, and I agree entirely that not being tied to the need to keep the music in sight frees you up for more visual expression as part of the performance. There are occasions when this makes a lot of difference to a performance, and other occasions when it makes little difference. For instance, I doubt that you would find it worthwhile to memorise the horn parts for a band concert. While it might in principle be good to do so, the effort involved would be disproportionate to the effect achieved.

And that reminded me of what Jeffrey Agrell said sometime back in this post:

For some time now I have been convinced of the efficacy of doing a lot of practicing with the eyes closed (with the prominent exception of sight-reading…). In learning a new piece, chop it into small bits, and do 97% of your practicing on it eyes shut. Playing it from memory automatically forces you to a higher level. You have to get past the struggle stage, but you actually acquire facility in the chunk much quicker and better. With eyes open, you still are “processing” the visual material, which slows you down. Your attention is also on the ink, outside what is really happening, both kinesthetically (physically) and aurally, i.e. we’re not really feeling or hearing what is happening. The ink tells us zero about what we just played. By forcing yourself to learn it from memory, you are able to really listen to what is happen and feel the details of what is happening, making it also easier to make an adjustment to do it better the next time.

It's not an either or situation, but as a therapist I tend towards nurturing in clients that feeling Jeffrey is talking about, what I sometimes call "inhabiting the music and letting the music inhabit you". That kind of engagement with music making is where a lot of its therapeutic aspects begin. Once you get that going sight reading can be encouraged, but without that kind of engagement, making music isn't going to be enjoyable enough over the long term for the client to want to continue.

A couple of other points - 1) Jonathan grew up musical, so his experience of making music is very different than that of someone without those blessings of nature and nurture. As a rule, people that fortunate don't need a music therapist (unless they burn out). All music therapy really is is trying to help regular people get a glimpse of what comes naturally to folks like Jonathan. 2) I do memorize my horn parts in band, at least the exposed solos. As Jeffrey says, it's a great way to practice and feel the music as opposed to seeing notes. I do keep my eyes open in rehearsal though ;-)


  1. Ah, I think we may have been talking at cross purposes to some extent. I think there is a distinction to be made between memorizing an entire piece (e.g. a concerto) such that you can perform it without music, and memorizing individual exposed passages so you can concentrate more on expressiveness and on coordinating your sound with the rest of the group.

    Memorizing individual passages this way doesn't remove the need to have the music on the stand in front of you, but it does enable you to look up and ignore the page for the duration of your important passage. And I'm wholly in favour of that kind of memorization as a standard technique in all performances.

    I deliberately do this in practice - repeating a passage slowly and then progressively more quickly until I can play it perfectly and reliably at concert speed. That practice technique (which I've described before on my blog) almost inevitably means that by the time you have finished on a passage you can play it with your eyes closed. I hadn't really thought of this as memorization at all - it's just practice.

  2. Thanks for that clarification, Jonathan. Reading it made me realize I should have understood that from the beginning. I was conflating memorizing and practicing/playing with eyes closed to develop musicality. There's overlap, but they're not the same thing.