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Build Your Memory Palace

A few years ago I read “The Madonnas of Leningrad” and was deeply moved by the book.  An idea was planted that finally grew as my students were preparing their recent end of term exams. (January 2015)

This amazing book, written by Debra Dean, is about a woman who worked in the Hermitage museum in Saint Petersburg.  During the siege of the city (then called Leningrad) during World War II, all the art work was moved to protect it and the museum was an empty shell with faded marks where the paintings had hung.  The woman would move through the empty museum  recalling every painting in her mind as if it was truly there hanging on the wall.  She used a technique called “creating a memory palace”.

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You create a house, palace, or in her case a museum in your mind and you fill the rooms with the images, memories, or sounds of what you want to remember.  By walking through the house, from room to room, you can remember everything that you felt was important by a series of mental connections.  It is a very famous technique used by memory specialists.

Why did this book and recent events spark these reflections?  Well…..years ago I was watching a master class given by Frøydis Ree Werke.  She was working with a student to get them to visualise, or feel what their best performance/sound/articulation was.  Trying to bring forward a memory of when everything was going well. Through good practice we develop muscle memory.  After years of work you don’t think about what the muscles need to do to play a high C.  It becomes a reflex action.  When problems creep in we need to rediscover those memories or sensations which we have lost.  The same could be applied to performance anxiety.


Francis Orval used a similar technique to help to prepare for an audition or recital.  He would have me imagine a large cabinet, like the image below.  Each drawer, or door would have a name on it. (concerto, etude, excerpt, etc…)

antique-apothecary-cabinet

The concept is very simple, as you can imagine.  Mentally, put each item in it’s own drawer.  When that drawer is closed the piece does not exist.  You only concentrate on the open drawer.

So, for an audition.

1.  Open the drawer for Mozart 4

2.  Play Mozart 4

3.  Close the drawer for Mozart 4

4.  Open the drawer for Till Eulenspiegel

5.  Play Till Eulenspiegel

6.  etc…...

The most important part for me is that whatever happens during the performance of the current piece all other considerations are forgotten.  Missed notes and other errors are closed away when the piece is finished.  You can go back later and look through the drawer for the errors when the time to fix things comes around.  The same technique could be applied to an orchestra concert, or recital.

This cabinet is my memory palace.  It contains all the memories of the music I have worked on.  All the technical details, all the breathing locations, all the fingerings, all the intonation concerns/resolutions.  How does a high C feel, how does it sound, how is the air used, how is the tongue used/placed, etc…  Every detail is saved.  I try to get my students to avoid bad memories.  We clean out the drawers to remove the bad notes, or other errors on a regular basis.  All that is left is the positive part of each experience.  The drawer cleaning process is part of the self-analysis that we all have to go through.

We have all been there.  We are performing a piece and an accident happens.  For the next few measures, or even the rest of the piece, we think about that error and it impacts the rest of our performance.  We perform a piece with a difficult part which we have been worried about.  It goes well in the concert and we are so surprised/pleased that we miss the next few easier notes because our concentration lapses.

Build confidence, build a useful strategy to learn and remember what you need to correct, and what went well.  Build your own “memory palace”.

The Origins of “Your" Sound

I haven’t written a blog post for some time, and I imagine that the reason is simply that I have been so busy that I have prioritised other things over writing.  Also, Facebook has become a de facto blog space and I have been more active in a couple of the horn groups. (Horn People, Harcore Horn, Chinese Wagner Tuba, etc…)

Yesterday I had the privilege of performing the Mozart Symphony Concertante for flute, oboe, bassoon, and horn with the Liège Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.  Chamber music between 50 people where you feel the support, and love from everyone.  Great evening, and great experience.

After all that intro., on to the title of this post:  The Origins of “Your” Sound

I have noticed a lot of posts on Facebook, and elsewhere, recently that have focused on sound production, color, equipment, etc… and how they interact to create an individual’s personal sound.  It seems that mostly students, amateurs, and some returning players (after long breaks, illness, or injury) struggle with the same issue.  They are trying to find their personal sound, and often ask what equipment they should use to find it, i.e.. mouthpiece or horn.  What school of teaching will help them to find it.  What embouchure method is best.  I want to sound like X, Y, or Z.

We all have been there.  As a student I wanted to be Dennis Brain, then Barry Tuckwell, then Dale Clevenger, then Dave Krehbiel, then Frøydis Ree Werke, then Francis Orval etc…  We hear a performance/recording of our favorite concert or symphony and we want to sound like that player.  It is no different than wanting to be a policeman or doctor as a kid.  We are drawn to the qualities of that person’s playing which touch something inside us.  We spend hours next to our teacher (in my case: Neill Sanders and Francis Orval) listening to their playing trying to copy everthing we hear or see.  Have you noticed that every student of a particular teacher empties water in the same way, or makes notations in the score in the same way, or breathes in the same way, aticulates in the same way.  It is from these very small details that a style and sound are formed.  It is completely natural, and when you are inside the microclimate of your teacher’s studio you are completely unaware of it’s impact.

Amid all these small details your sound is born.  Your choice of teacher is the first step. The following is a list of things which impact us all in our sound production.  Some are adaptable, but others are more or less fixed for life.

1.     Morphology, or our physical selves.

          A. Lung capacity

          B. Oral cavity 

          C. Hand size

          D.  Physical strength (obviously this can be developed, and is quite     debatable in it’s importance)

          E.  Lip size and shape

          F.   Teeth

2.   Teacher(s)

3.    Instrument choice (linked with number 2 & 4)

4.    Mouthpiece choice (linked with number 2 & 3)

5.     Other musical interests

          A. Singing

          B. Piano, or other instrument

          C. Personal music tastes ie. Jazz, Rock, Classical, Pop

6.      Where you choose to study (after high school/secondary school)

          A. This is obviously related to number 2.  The atmosphere of the school and studio to which you join can make all the difference.  I have never heard of a good teacher with a bad studio atmosphere.  They go hand in hand.

          B. Sometimes we don’t have any choice.  Financial problems can mean having to study at a school which offers financial aid.  Money can often be a deciding factor, I know it was for me.

          C. Your sound, teacher choice and geographic location can make a big difference in where you choose to study.  Studying in France or Germany depends mostly on where you were born.

               If you were born in the Midwest of the USA (like me), or on the East coast, etc…  I grew up near Chicago and the only orchestral player that mattered was Dale Clevenger.  When I wanted to choose a teacher Cleveland Conservatory was not an option (Wrong sound, wrong equipment, wrong teacher history.  Boy does that sound bad as I type it, but it was a painful reality)

So you see, everything about you and your experiences make up YOUR sound.  Fundamentally, your sound comes from inside you.  Your mind, your lip type, your oral cavity shape/size, your lungs, your SOUL (if you believe in that kind of thing), your experiences.

All the technical “stuff”: horn choice, mouthpiece choice, etc…  These only amplify YOU.  YOUR personality, YOUR music, YOUR passion, YOUR life. 

Your teacher’s job is give you the tools to express your sound and your music.  They need to help you find the right combination of tools which allows you to techically play while expressing not only a quality interpretation in an appropriate style, and expressing your own personal style.

When I performed Mozart last night it answered a question to which, I guess, I have always known the answer.  Why have I stayed in Liège, Belgium?  I studied with Francis Orval, my personal tastes match the orchestra’s traditions, my musical talents are good enough to play at this level,  my family is happy here.  When we first rehearsed the Concertante we read the piece through and we knew immediately that it was going to work, but not only at a basic level (we are all professionals), but a deeper level. The blend of sound, interpretation, articulation were almost instantaneous. 

Don’t fight who you are.  Embrace it, nuture it.  Be yourself, and allow your sound and your music to soar.

© Bruce Richards 2012-2015