To build a repertoire, two things are obvious: first, it helps to learn your music in the easiest and most efficient way; secondly, to maintain the repertoire you’ve learned, one must find a way to remember it reliably. Needless to say, practice is key in both cases, but let’s look at some nuances of both learning and remembering, in detail.
It may be a relief to know that musically there is no such thing as “cheating”; that’s a word used by those who for some reason have an investment in one and only one way of doing things. Any way that works for you is fine as long as it produces optimal results: as much repertoire as you can reasonably expect to build, all of it played well, and a reliable memory for all of it.
Two ways of learning music are from the page (notation or tablature) or by ear. Both are equally valuable, and a well rounded musician uses both skills well.
Learning from notation is important if you want to be able to play a piece as it is written or arranged, note for note. It is also very useful in ensembles if you don’t do your arranging aurally. As I’ve said before, the written music is a tool – if you want to change it, you can, unless it’s a classical piece, or a composition (in any style) by a living composer, in which case you need to get the composer’s permission to if you change the arrangement. Those who can read and write music notation can also pass pieces on to others accurately on paper. One simply has to be careful not to let the paper be The Law when it’s acceptable or preferable to be creative.
If you can read notation, why bother playing by ear? Because sometimes the notation or tablature isn’t available at the time, sometimes your aural source is the only one, sometimes you’ll want to arrange the piece yourself, and because for some styles of music it’s traditional to learn by ear. Learning “by ear” means learning by listening (not, as is a common misconception, by rote).
Some view the ability to play by ear as awesome and esoteric. Some see it as inferior to note reading, the “lazy musician’s way”, or “cheating”. Those attitudes are not based in reality, and such intimidation is unfair. In truth, those who can play by ear often have an easier time learning, composing, arranging, and improvising, and … the sophistication of the music is dependent on the ability of the individual musician, not the method they use to learn, arrange or compose it.
To learn by ear, there are four easy steps:
1. Listen to a tune over and over until you get it in your head and can hum it to yourself. You can listen while you are doing other things; it will sink in.
2. Remember: Hum the melody to yourself until you are sure you know it. (If there are lyrics, sing them to remember them.)
3. Find the Notes : On your instruments, find the notes to the tune as you remember them. When you are fairly certain you have found a full section of melody, check it against your source. Then continue in sections, until you have done the whole tune. Then you can create your own arrangement to go with the melody, or you can learn the arrangement you’ve heard.
4. Practice: Play it until your fingers stop asking questions.
Professional musicians are sometimes asked, “How do you remember all those tunes?”
It would be easy to say that the answer is never to stop practicing the tunes or songs you know. But that would be impractical; if you have a sizable repertoire, there’s no way to practice every piece every day.
I practice the tunes I enjoy most or that I need for upcoming gigs (which change from week to week or month to month). The rest of my repertoire can be played reasonably well on short notice for informal situations, but requires a bit of practice for serious gigs.
Actually, there’s a difference between being able to play your music well because it’s in practice, and being able to remember it. There are countless paper-trained (no insult intended!) musicians who play extremely well while reading their music. but put the paper away and often they think they can’t remember it. Usually they’re mistaken; I’ve seen many paper-trained folks play through entire pieces without looking at their music at all, yet they freeze when it’s not there. It’s psychological. (However, for very long orchestral pieces it is often a necessity to read the music no matter how well you know it.)
IMHO, the paper gets in the way of the three-way communication between you, your instrument and your audience. It adds a distraction both psychologically and visually. If for no other reason, I believe most music should be memorized. This is so easy, yet I sometimes hear people say they have trouble memorizing. Unless you’re having significant aging issues or a neurologic disorder, the inability to memorize is usually just from never having been taught how. Can you remember “Twinkle Twinkle”? Of course! Because when you were a toddler you sang it again and again and again. Even though you were just singing for fun, repetition is an important element for memory. Any piece of music can be remembered with adequate repetition and focus on the aural and kinesthetic qualities of the music and/or the way the finger patterns look on the strings or keys. Memorizing can, by the way, be done whether you learn from notation or by ear.
To memorize, play just a phrase at a time over and over, and when you know each phrase well, put them all togather. If memorizing from notation, don’t try to play the whole tune all the way through; take it in very small increments and repeat them until you remember them. Start to memorize every piece the very first time you play it. By the way, memorizing becomes easier with each consecutive piece you learn.
Pitfalls for those who believe they can’t memorize are: trying to remember how the notes look on the page, and/or trying to remember the names of each note in the piece. Instead, remember how your finger movement patterns look and feel, while paying attention to the sound of each pattern/phrase. Almost all music consists of patterns. For instance, melodic phrases and rhythmic accompaniment parts will often be repeated several times in a piece, sometimes with variations.
In ages past, a Bard could recite from memory, word by exact word, incredibly long odes and poems, and also an aural history of his people, and play memorized music pieces as much as six hours long. Needless to say, audiences back then had longer attention spans. Actually in Africa, the Griots of certain tribes still do this and their listeners still have long attention spans.
Although I can remember the lyrics to about 400 songs and play maybe 300 instrumental arrangements, compared to a Bard that’s pitiful. Most professional musicians have at least as much committed to memory. Some old-time musicians know thousands of tunes; can sit around playing maybe eight or ten hours and never repeat a tune, and do it again the next day with all different tunes. (How they do that without getting carpal tunnel syndrome, I don’t know.) It’s a no-brainer that they’ve done their requisite 10,000 hours of playing (the amount of playing-time said to be requisite for musical success), and it has probably not been drudgery for most of them – they’re doing what that love. They, and the ancient Bards, are and were simply human, which means that you, too, can memorize a lot of music.
Building Your Repertoire
Let’s talk about just developing and maintaining a repertoire sizable enough to do a full-length concert. That’s about 16 tunes. First, try not to abandon any of the tunes you’ve learned (except the ones you don’t enjoy playing). Many students make the mistake of practicing something until the teacher assigns a new piece, then dropping the old one. If you do that, your repertoire will always be limited to the pieces you’re currently working on, and usually what one is currently working on isn’t yet well enough practiced to play for an audience.
You can keep a full repertoire in practice by separating your performance-ready pieces from the ones you don’t yet know as well, and rotate those daily. If you know, say, ten pieces really well, you could play pieces 1, 2 and 3 on Monday; pieces 2, 3, and 4 on Tuesday; pieces 3, 4 and 5 on Wednesday, pieces 4, 5 and 6 on Thursday, and so on. Notice I didn’t say “pieces 1, 2 and 3 on Monday; pieces 4, 5 and 6 on Tuesday…” because playing a tune more than one day in a row keeps it in memory better.
To add new repertoire, it’s a good idea to learn no more than two pieces at a time. Play the two you’re learning every day until they are firmly in muscle memory and are performance-ready. Then put them into rotation with your other known pieces.
Using the above practice formula, a good practice session might look like this: play through three pieces you know well, followed by working on the two pieces you’re learning.
Many folks expect to learn too fast. Give yourself time! It can take several months for a new piece to become part of your repertoire. There are no shortcuts.