​Losing the music stand – Committing horn arrangements to memory

I can read music fluently; I’ve been able to do so since I was about 8 or 9. I’m also a pretty useful sight reader - It allows me to turn up as a dep for a band and read the charts on the night – no problems. However, given a choice I will always perform without the dots. Of course not everyone thinks that’s a good thing! Opinion is divided, especially in the classical world. Learning the parts can be time consuming and there is always the potential for making mistakes or forgetting something. This can lead to performance anxiety and stress which can have an adverse effect on the performance. Playing from the written score means you play the same thing every time and if the score is properly written you will be playing what the composer intended. So why do all of the great classical virtuoso soloists play from memory? Perhaps because not having to slavishly read the part means greater natural creativity and freedom of expression – again, not everyone thinks that’s a good thing!

I do a lot of my work in horn sections, with The Little Big Horns or Bad Manners or as a dep in any number of soul, blues, funk or pop bands. I often watch sections in other bands and notice that the horn players are using music stands and reading the dots; like I said, they may just have turned up as deps for the night but I know of some sections who are full time in bands and who still insist on reading the parts – I have to ask myself why. Often if you look at the parts they are reading from they are inaccurate, hastily scribbled and even sometimes in a kind of longhand gobbledegook. Their answer is usually along the lines of “well I don’t actually read from them, they’re just there as a prompt – I’ve tried to learn the parts but it’s really hard”. There’s the irony, if they are not actually reading from them then they must have already learnt them! They are less of a necessary prompt and more of an unnecessary crutch.

But actually having the confidence to throw the stand away is another matter. I once did a soul band gig in a section consisting of myself and two sax players; myself and the tenor player, Patsy Gamble, had learned all the songs but the alto player insisted on having a music stand on stage with some ‘crib notes’. It meant he was concentrating on those and not doing what good section players do and that is listening and tuning in to the others in the section. While Patsy and I were giving an inspired performance, interacting with the audience and feeding musically off of each other, the alto player was glued to his stand (crutch). So just before the band took to the stage after the mid gig interval I snuck on stage and threw his stand and his ‘crib notes’ out of the window. The first he knew of it was when we went to start the first number of the second set – he was furious but there was nothing he could do about it, he just had to go for it and guess what? He found to his amazement that he actually did know the parts after all. He had a great gig, really enjoyed the freedom to perform properly and never used his ‘crib notes’ again.

Learning the parts takes time and effort but everyone can do it. If I asked you to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ I’m fairly confident you’d know the words and the tune – if you can learn that song, simple as it is, then you can learn more complex songs and arrangements too – it’s just a matter of knowing how to do it.

Different people learn and recall information in different ways and that includes how they learn music; some people prefer to actually see something in front of them and memorise it that way (visual), others prefer to hear the music over and over till they can remember it (auditory) others might prefer to concentrate on hand or finger movements and remember what feels right (kinaesthetic). Most people will find a combination of all three works best – I do.

In my next blog I’m going to look in more depth at how we learn and suggest some techniques for committing those killer horn lines to memory.

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