The last few weeks have been pretty important for me in overcoming one of my SECRET FEARS . . . performing WITHOUT sheet music.
I know it doesn’t sound that frightening or serious, but its a big deal to me. I did my undergraduate degree in vocal performance, so I’m no stranger to performing memorized songs where someone else is accompanying (I memorized whole opera roles for heaven’s sake). However, adding that extra layer of accompaniment, strumming and fingerpicking on my not-very-simple homespun ukulele songs (I did my graduate degree in composition and its not uncommon for me to use a dozen different chords in a song) has been truly terrifying and has stopped me from pursuing more live performance opportunities than I would’ve liked to. This make me sad.
So why not just use a stand? The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain uses sheet music! Fine, when I’m doing a cover or performing with a group, but I just can’t bear the thought of performing my own music with a stand between me and the audience. It’s hard enough to connect with a group of strangers on a set of completely unknown songs without the additional barrier of a music stand between you and the audience, let alone without the task of dividing your attention between the score and their faces. Honestly, even in music I’ve written, I can’t help but lose my place glancing back and forth like that and I should know the music better than anyone; I wrote it.
I’ve been playing uke for a little over 5 years now (got my first uke as a present for Christmas of 2010) and I finally am beginning to feel like my skills are at a performable level for self-accompaniment. I also feel like it is time to take it to the next level. I’ll be doing a 30-minute set of original, mostly never-before-performed songs at Thanksgiving Point’s Tullip Festival this coming Saturday (April 16, 2016) at 11am . . . and I won’t be bringing a music stand with me. So, what am I doing to work toward this goal?
For a long time I labored under the assumption that if I just played a song enough times that eventually I would have it memorized through sheer repetition; that’s how I memorized songs at the university (keeping tally marks at the top of a score to tell me how many times I’d done a particular piece). Well, this was NOT working for me with self-accompaniment on the ukulele. In fact, I found as long as kept my eyes on the score I wasn’t memorizing the chords OR the words no matter how many times I repeated the song. It turns out my brain has figured out that if I always have a visual reminder then there is no need to commit the information to memory. Dang lazy brain! I just have to admit it, I am a recovering sheet music addict.
CHANGE OF TACTICS
Here are some steps that I believe are helping me in my recovery:
- I’ve sung these songs a lot of times. I can perform all the chord changes and accompanimental patterns flawlessly while singing emotively. This was a necessary first step, I needed that familiarity, but now is the time to move on.
- I stopped looking at the score and struggled through the songs passage by passage. Often I would forget which chord belonged where. When I made a mistake I would back up to the beginning of the phrase or section and go through it until I could do it right a few times in a row. Then I moved on until I came across another trouble spot. In this way I was eventually able to ‘connect-the-dots’ and make it through whole songs.
- I created cards that just showed the chord change patterns for an entire song with no words, melody or notes on strumming/fingerpicking. I did use these a few times and I think they helped me see the patterns in my own music better. Recognizing a pattern is very helpful to the brain in memorization.
- I timed all the songs and then ordered the songs and printed out a ‘set list’ for the upcoming performance. I am carrying this set list in my wallet and am making sure my ukulele is with me whenever I’m out an about in case I have a few moments to go through one or more songs.
In a few weeks, I’ve gone from having just one of my songs memorized to ten songs near ready to go. I’m still making mistakes and need to do a lot more reps of my set list in the coming week, but I’m encouraged by the progress I’m making. Hopefully, the distractions of live performance in a park setting won’t prove too much for me and turn this all into a disaster, but I have hope and recently read an interesting article on stage fright that had some pointers I think will really help. Here’s hoping I’ll ‘break a leg’!
It turns out the memorization process for me is just a brutal slog and I have to be disciplined enough not to go running back to the music unless I really can’t figure out a section. If you have any tips or ideas, things that help you memorize music, I’d love to hear about them in the comments. Thanks!