I encourage all bassoonists to memorize and to perform from memory.
Just like all of your favourite rock stars.
I mean, can you imagine Pink looking cautiously down at a music stand before she flies across a stadium, belting out Fuckin Perfect??
My teachers encouraged me to memorize while at the same time not insisting on it because honestly, it has not been part of contemporary woodwind pedagogy.But thanks to them, my mind was opened to the possibility and I have always aimed to memorize my repertoire.
The first time that I played a concerto from memory was with the Curtis Symphony Orchestra upon my graduation in 1981, performing the ubiquitous Mozart K191. I then performed it two more times with Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal and then with Orchestre de Trois-Rivieres and a pick-up orchestra in California. I played my teacher’s cadenzas for the Curtis performances, then wrote my own cadenzas for the professional performances. I laboured over those and wrote way too much material. I eventually learned to keep cadenzas short, also easier to memorize!
The Mozart bassoon concerto is one of the easiest works to memorize, being simple and clear in structure with distinct and bite-sized solo sections. Tackle it with confidence!
The caste system in classical music places instrumentalists in hierarchies of expectations, with the violinists at the top, and descending somewhat in score order, though truthfully, bassists probably face the same prejudices as bassoonists when it comes to concerti. Woodwinds are not expected to have the mental capacity to memorize, though it is never stated as bluntly. We are to know our place, do our jobs, and not aspire to the limelight. Well, fuck that.
Luckily, my brilliant senior teachers at Curtis, Bernard Garfield and Sol Schoenbach, both believed that we can and should memorize. As an added bonus, they completely believed that women were strong and capable and encouraged me to go as far as I wanted, but the biggest obstacle was often my own self-doubt. And since we encounter all kinds of teachers and influential colleagues, it took me many years to realize that not all great colleagues have all the information that we need, and that is ok. We can be uplifted by our teachers, or our teachers can present useful obstacles that we can intentionally demolish in our own good time.
Memorizing music comes very quickly to me. But that is never the biggest challenge. After learning the other parts, understanding the structure and harmony to the best of my ability, the MOST important thing for me is drilling the music in such a way that when the demons of self-doubt arise, I will not sabotage myself. That is the greatest part of my work.
And honestly, it doesn’t harm me to put in the extra work to engrave the music into my memory, but it does require access to time. Creating time means identifying your purpose to memorize and to start immediately.
Memorizing is a skill that grows with experience. The time that you put into memorizing one concerto will make it a thousand times easier to memorize your orchestral excerpts and other concerti or whatever it is you wish to make your own through memorizing.
Also, the intention carries forward from one effort to the next. Even if you cannot achieve full memorization for a certain performance, you will for the next. Don’t give up.
I have encouraged my students to memorize, and some of them come to it easily while others are more like me in that they need to work it out over time. How you get there doesn’t matter.
Recently, I performed Mathieu Lussier’s Oddbird Concerto with the Sudbury Symphony Orchestra, led by Michael Hall. This exceptionally musical conductor also performed the concerto by memory, which was a novel experience for me. I have performed with many great conductors, but none who felt comfortable enough to be off-book in a new bassoon concerto.
Memorizing new concerti takes extra time. And remember to prepare yourself for all other aspects of the experience, from imagining different conductors, where you will be standing, whether the conductor is on a podium or not, whether the orchestra can handle your tempi. . . imagine lots of possibilities and prepare for those too. Imagine stopping and starting, sometimes repeatedly, while the conductor rehearses the orchestra.
The great trombonist, Alain Trudel told me that when he first performed from memory (something that he is remarkably skilled at doing), he would increase the discomfort level by working in smaller and smaller rooms, and finally, by inviting all of his friends to cram into a closet-like space while he blasted through some fabulous trombone concerto. Admittedly, this is a pre-covid strategy, but use your imagination and embrace novel challenges that will train your nerves and strengthen your purpose.
Here is my current process. You can mix and match. Some things are essential (bold print), others can be exchanged. Try it out for yourself. Talk to others about how they memorize
- Practice from the full score.
- Learn the other parts, but especially the interludes between your entrances. Once you have memorized your concerto, you will not be counting in the usual sense.
- Play all the parts on piano. I cannot play piano at all, but I work through all the harmonies. Sometimes I try singing too. It ain’t pretty but it sure helps my understanding of the music.
- Visualize the solo part before playing.
- Write out from memory. At first, use piano or bassoon to assist your memory, eventually arrive at a point when you can write it all out without reference. Bassoon fingerings are not particularly linear or logical, so you need lots of ways of visualizing the music.
- Sometimes practice from the back of the concerto, or of each movement, to the beginning, overlapping as you go.
- Play with recordings if any are available. And use different recordings with different tempi.
- Play with a pianist. If you don’t have a reduction of the orchestra part, have the pianist play one of the string lines, or any other instrumental line. It all helps with your deep knowledge of the music.
- Play for other people well in advance of the rehearsals and performance. Have the work fully memorized for this.
- Learn the rehearsal numbers (I always forget about doing this)
- Start the concerto from different points. Ask people to call out rehearsal numbers and you start there.
- Practice a rehearsal scenario where passages get repeated.
- Add your own training ideas.
- Confidence grows with experience.