Memorization – Jeffers article

At National Seminar, I was thrilled to be asked to write an article for the Jeffers catalog Vibrations. After reviewing the list of topics covered in previous issues, and considering what I was teaching at the time, I decided to write about memorization. This article (published in Holiday 2013 Vibrations) draws from the memorization article previously published on this site, adapted to include suggestions for bell choir musicians and small ensembles, as well as soloists.

Memorizing frees us from the distraction of following notes on a page and allows us to relate to the audience and our performance partners while expressing the music to the fullest extent. Binders or music stands in front of the bell table block the listeners’ view of the bells and may also block the sound. Even sheet music laid flat on the table draws our focus from where it belongs: on the music, the bells, and the people around us.

Memorization is an acquired skill, and ringers who memorize early in their ringing career build this skill along with everything else. Memorization isn’t an all-or-nothing choice. You can memorize half a concert, or parts of certain pieces, or work toward playing a whole concert from memory. Here are some ideas to help you get started.

Overview: Get a sense of the story the music is telling. Start by looking at the structure of the piece. A common structure is ABA, where you have two main sections, and the first one (A) repeats after the second one (B). That means you have to memorize only 2 blocks, not 3. Maybe it’s an ABBA structure, or ABAB. Whatever the structure, you may have to memorize only a fraction of the piece to be able to play the whole thing.

Solidify your knowledge of the B section by practicing it more. If you play through an ABA piece 10 times, you’ll have practiced the A section 20 times and the B section 10 times. Compensate for this imbalance, or the B section will be fragile in performance. Consider memorizing the B section before memorizing the A section, and play it many times on its own. Play AB sometimes, and BA other times. It can take hundreds of iterations to solidify a section.

Notice what’s happening within the piece. Use the melody, chord progressions, and articulations as landmarks. Notice how your notes fit into patterns shared with your neighbors. If you see a scale, or recognize an arpeggio or chords, you can remember a larger pattern instead of numerous disconnected notes.

The memorization process: Memorize in small blocks, perhaps 2 to 4 measures at a time, plus one note (so you can connect the small blocks later). Start very slowly, incorporate all the expressive elements like dynamics, and work up to tempo over time. Get very comfortable with those measures at your practice tempo, then learn the next small block. Join small blocks together into a 4 to 8 measure phrase. This approach is much easier than trying to learn the entire piece at once, and you’ll learn all the musical expression at the same time. This sounds like it would take too much time, but it’s actually faster, because you don’t waste time fixing mistakes later. It’s also more secure in performance, because you learned every measure so thoroughly that (if something goes wrong) you can start at any point in the piece.

Sing the note names aloud (or just sing “da”), which reinforces the music in your memory. To reduce note names like F sharp to one syllable, use these syllables:

C# = cease, D# = deese, F# = feese, G# = geese, A# = ace
Db = dess, Eb = ess, Gb = guess, Ab = ice, Bb = bess

Now you can practice even without bells: sing the piece while riding your bike, gardening, or waiting for someone.

You can also learn the words, if the piece is a song or hymn. That helps not only to anchor the notes, but to express the emotion of the piece. If you ring it as you would sing it, it will sound better. However, that won’t help if you draw a blank in performance. Learn to associate the words with specific bells.

Practice tips: If you make a mistake in practice, correct it by playing that part again 3 times. If you make a mistake again, start over, until you can play it 3 times in a row without mistakes. This weights your memory in favor of the correct version. There’s no substitute for repetition in memorization, but make sure you’re repeating the right thing. Practice makes permanent.

You may ring mostly with sheet music, but need to memorize specific spots like page turns. I teach page turns by first drilling the system at the top of the second page, so ringers learn what’s on “the dark side of the moon.” Then play the last system at the bottom of the first page, and turn the page. Drill those 8 measures or so until the page turn is seamless, and everyone knows when to turn the page and with which hand. If you memorize the measure(s) at the bottom of the first page, not the top of the next page, you get a quick look to refresh your memory before you turn the page.

Always work on your memorization in rehearsal, even if the director is working with other ringers on a difficult part. Turn your bells sideways, and play along silently; see how much you can remember. By the time the others figure out their part, you’ll have memorized yours. If you don’t need this practice at the part your director is drilling with someone else, pick measures where you do need the extra practice. Bell rehearsal time is precious; make every minute count.

Setup: Remember to memorize not just how to play the piece, but how to set it up. People are watching you the entire time you’re at the bell table, and you want to inspire a feeling of confidence. If you forget to preset a bell correctly, you’ll probably make a mistake when you need that bell in the piece, or it may distract you so much when you notice it that you make unrelated mistakes. Once I set my concert order, I practice transitions, setting up each piece in order (from memory) and then playing it. I start at a different point every practice session, so every piece gets the benefit of practice while I’m fresh.

Testing memorization: You memorize with your eyes (visual memory), your ears (aural memory), and your body (kinesthetic or motor memory). To test your recollection and find the weaknesses, deprive yourself of one or more of these senses. For example, close your eyes and sing the note names, visualizing yourself playing each bell. Or sing the piece to yourself and visualize the notes on a staff. Try standing on the other side of the table (or relocate the table) to see what you remember without the visual landmarks of your practice space. Test your recall by playing your part on the piano.

My favorite approach is to pretend to ring through the piece, without sound. This deprives me of audible feedback; I have to hear it in my head, and know whether the bell in my hand is the right one. I do this “silent treatment” much more slowly than performance tempo, which takes me out of automatic pilot and exposes the weak spots in my memory. Points of hesitation need extra work, because they’re likely to fail in performance, where we play with more intention than we do in practice.

Performing from memory: In performance, let the music flow. Now it’s time to express emotion, not process notes. Instead of thinking too hard, let your hands do what you trained them to do. Sing the piece in your head so you know where you’re headed next. If you have a memory lapse in performance (and it happens to all of us), forgive yourself, let it go, and come back in at a secure place. Take action to prevent it from happening again. Drill that part relentlessly before you next perform the piece. Don’t be afraid of it; be prepared.

Copyright © 2013 Nancy Kirkner,