Some time ago, I decided to memorize a large repertoire of instrumental guitar music. By large, I mean four hours of music.
I did not come to this decision lightly. Some very inspiring performances pushed me in this direction. I started memorizing in a rock band and then applied what worked with classical music. I’d like to share those stories and share methods of memorization that have worked for me in future columns.
THE BAR GIG/STARING AT THE SHEET
I play in a band. We usually play a three-hour set; sometimes it stretches to three and a half, sometimes four. Luckily, I only sing half of the songs, and my brother takes the other half.
After a few years, I noticed I was pretty good at memorizing lyrics. I would push myself to learn really long songs. We have the audience try to distract me when I sing difficult songs. This pushes me to learn the lyrics out of fear of embarrassment. I could write an article on just what has been done over the years to stump my flow! (Maybe in March!)
If I’m not comfortable with a song yet, I have a “cheat sheet” lying on the floor for whatever song was new that night. I thought of it as a rare helper when the rest of the night was memorized.
I later noticed I spent the whole song staring at the sheet instead of trying to look at the audience to see if the song was going over well. I’ll do this to “get through” the song, especially if the other members of the band are really enthusiastic about playing the song. Eventually, the song gets memorized and a new challenge comes along to replace the old one.
I went to see two local cover bands, and they were using iPads and binders of music to get through the night. Let it be said, I have absolutely no problem with this at all. A binder of tunes helps for bands that take requests. (A wedding musician should always have sheet music; nobody is looking at you anyway!) In one band, everyone spent the gig staring at their music. The singer of the other band couldn’t stop looking at his music, even during the catchy chorus parts of songs when everyone sings along. Being a self-centered musician, I thought, “Do I do this?” The answer was yes. I was using sheet music to carry me like an electric wheelchair, whereas it should be a very light cane.
I don’t want this to be a debate about using cheat sheets, go see any symphony orchestra to see the merits of using sheet music at the highest level. I just decided that it wasn’t right for me in this particular band. I’ll admit I’m no angel; I still indulge from time to time.
Some other experiences eventually let me turn my bar band memorization skills to my classical gigs.
FLYING FINGERS NEED TO BE SEEN
I am a huge fan of Al DiMeola.
In 2008, I got to see the Return To Forever reunion tour. I wanted to see Al play with the band that brought him to prominence. My ticket stub said I was in the third row of the second section.
I was surprised to find out that the second section was right in front of Al! The show was great, but one aspect bummed me out. Drummer Lenny White was surrounded by plexiglass. This is not unusual, the glass protects hearing and also makes it easier to mix live sound and live recording. From where I was sitting, the overhead lights reflected off the glass so I could only see a drumstick when hitting the cymbals. This was nobody’s fault, but left an impression on me: people love to hear live music, but they also want to see live music! (The show was still one of the best performances I’ve ever seen!)
GETTING YOUR MONEY’S WORTH or I’M A WIMP.
This also reminded me of another great ensemble, the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet.
If you ever get a chance to see the quartet or any of their members live, do it. When I saw them as a young college student, I wondered why their sheet music was lying in front of them on piano benches. I realized later that people paid big money to see the ensemble, and they don’t want to look at four guys behind music stands. Seeing the group interact with each other is way better than hearing the recording, and this is what people pay to see.
I tried the low music stand, but it just didn’t work for me. I found it hard to maintain the posture I need to play all night and was having neck issues. I couldn’t understand what I was doing wrong.
I realized that the LAGQ really only glanced at their music and concentrated on each other when they play. I’ve seen members of the quartet play solo and either use the bench, or just play memorized.
THE LOGICAL CHOICE or GLUTTON FOR PUNISHMENT
I am by no means the caliber of musicians mentioned above. You’ll see me play my repertoire of classical, some originals, and pop and jazz arrangements at local restaurants, stores, and festivals. Maybe you’ll see me at a wedding playing the ceremony and the cocktail hour. Even in these situations, having a memorized set ready to go has come in handy when the phone rings, and the gig will happen soon. One year, I would say a third of my gigs were due to cancellations. I like to be the guy you can depend on to play the show and do it well! I also want people to see what I’m doing on the instrument.
Considering all of the above, I came to the only logical conclusion: I’m going to have to memorize my repertoire.
In the next few installments, I’ll talk about what works for me as far as memorizing music. What are your thoughts?