Seraph Brass is a dynamic brass quintet (sometimes a sextet) composed of America’s top female brass players. They are award winners of major competitions, hold faculty positions at colleges, and are passionately engaged in festivals and projects around the country. Their repertoire includes original transcriptions, newly commissioned works, and clever arrangements of well-known classics.
I had the immense pleasure of seeing them perform in April 2018 in Hudson, New York. After the concert, I spoke with some of them about how they master their parts. Mary Elizabeth Bowden (Trumpet, far right in the photo), Jean Laurenz (Trumpet, far left), Hana Beloglavec (Trombone), and Gretchen Renshaw James (Tuba) continued the conversation with me by email. Read on for wisdom that will benefit anyone learning to play an instrument.
Brent: What are your reasons for wanting to memorize more of the music you perform? You mentioned that the music stands might be perceived as barriers even though you use them to great effect as props.
Jean: Music stands not only create a physical barrier, but also, when you are facing your stand, you have less range of motion. When the music is memorized, the group can experiment with bell angle, and choose to point directly at the audience or in towards each other for a softer effect. When the music is memorized, I also find it easier to connect to the group more frequently. When I know a piece enough to have it memorized, I can remove myself from the technical aspect and connect more, with my ears and eyes, to the music and the other ensemble members.
Mary: I personally like to perform as much by memory as possible. I think the connection to the music and audience is much more personal this way. For the group, we make a point to have our stands as low as possible. I have a lot of the show memorized anyway, and having the music as a reference is nice, but it is really important to not be dependent on it. Seraph Brass plans on incorporating more memory in our concerts beginning next season.
Gretchen: When we memorize music, it allows us to communicate even better and more constantly with one another. Memorization also allows for the possibility of moving around during pieces, which is a tool that we could utilize to highlight certain aspects of the music.
Hana: I think the memorization makes it easier for the audience to connect with us, and it makes it possible for us to do some of our choreography. Also, I think about the music differently when I have something really well memorized, so it’s a different performance experience for me, too.
Brent: When not performing, all of you teach music at institutions around the country. What memorization techniques do you teach your students to learn their parts?
Mary: I have students memorize melodies by being able to sing them using solfège [the “do-re-mi” scale notes]. I do this as well to memorize, singing the pitches while doing the fingerings on the trumpet. This is the most effective way for me. I also have students write out the piece a few times by memory. Learning the chord progressions is helpful, too.
Gretchen: I don’t think actually think of it as just memorization. Rather, I like to think of truly knowing a piece of music, and that includes knowing the relevant background information about the piece as well as the notes and rhythms. For me, this all comes from my conducting study. My most influential conducting teacher regularly conducted major symphonic works from memory, but the memorization of the score was never the goal—the goal was a complete and thorough knowledge of the piece, a knowledge that he used to make interpretive decisions about the music.
Jean: I teach the “funnel effect”: start by memorizing the general form and how your part fits in with the ensemble. Next, memorize melodic contour, followed by nuances.
Hana: Everybody is different, so I suggest each student to figure out what works for them. For me personally I think about the music structurally—chords, scales, etc.—and the patterns that my slide makes while I play; I almost envision a shape being drawn. Some of my students are able to memorize music simply through repetition, but I find I need to actively participate to make memorization happen.
Brent: Can you elaborate on that?
Hana: Everyone is different, but with a student who struggles with repetition, I highly suggest memorizing very small amounts of music at a time, as well as looking at the music away from the instrument.
Brent: What is the most challenging piece you've ever had to learn in terms of memorization? How did you master it?
Hana: I did memorize the Martin Ballade once for a competition. I had already performed it a couple times, which helped a lot, but I did what I said before and it helped! Twelve-tone is not super easy to remember. It’s a great piece, and that helped! Also I got lucky and the judges didn’t make me start somewhere in the middle.
Mary: I've memorized both Jolivet Concertino and Tomasi Concerto. I used the same methods I mentioned earlier. If I can sing the piece using solfège, the memory falls into place. I also practice very slowly, so I learn to play by memory without ingraining mistakes. This is the most crucial part for me to achieve success with memory. I also practice difficult passages using different rhythms and also the fingerings left-handed.
Gretchen: Perhaps the most difficult piece I’ve had to memorize was the Tuba Concerto by Roland Szentpali. It’s a wild piece and is just all over the place. Believe it or not, I did most of my memorization work on that piece while not actually playing the tuba but rather when I was on a treadmill or elliptical machine at the gym. I had my score and would “wind pattern” through small sections of the piece while practicing the fingerings.
Brent: Explain what “wind pattern” is.
Gretchen: What I mean by wind pattern is that I would practice the breathing and articulations exactly as they appeared on the page while doing the fingerings. In essence, wind patterning is a way to practice your music while doing everything required in playing except making the lips buzz. So, I would wind pattern through a small section of the piece while looking at the music, then I would do the same thing several times without looking at the music. Over a couple of weeks of gym visits, I worked my way through the whole piece until I had it all memorized.
Brent: That is an incredibly efficient use of your time, and it no doubt increased the cardio benefits of your workout! Jean, what about you?
Jean: I memorized the Böhme Trumpet Concerto. I followed the steps I mentioned before, and I’d run through a movement in my head anytime I had to walk somewhere. I knew it was in my head when I could play it while thinking about something else, like watching television.
Brent: Performers consistently tell me that they have lines, music, or movements running through their minds in their downtime. Anything else you’d like to add?
Mary: The more you play music by memory, the easier it becomes. Avoid labeling yourself as being "bad at memory." It's a skill like anything else that can be mastered.
Brent: Exactly, it’s just a matter of discipline and training.
Hana: Memorization isn’t very comfortable for me still, but I’m learning a lot about myself through it! Once I had made a couple little errors in performance and noticed the world didn’t collapse, I realized that I could let go and free myself up and I make fewer mistakes! And if I do make a mistake, it’s less of a snowball/avalanche situation.
Gretchen: Playing in Seraph Brass has been the first experience I’ve had in memorizing music in the context of a chamber ensemble. Previously, I had been used to memorizing solo pieces—either as a tuba or euphonium player, or in my younger days, as a violinist or pianist. It feels a lot different to memorize solo music because you are almost always playing the melody, whereas chamber music, especially as the tuba player in a brass quintet, requires a different type of memorization because the function of the tuba in that setting is so different. There’s also more pressure because there are five people working together with their music memorized, and we are all relying on each other to be rock solid on our parts to deliver a great performance.
Brent: Thank you all for your time and insights. I greatly enjoyed your concert and look forward to seeing you on stage again.
Gretchen: You’re welcome! Thanks for doing this!
Find out more about these musicians and when they will be performing near you.