Take Note: A Short Pencil is Always Better Than a “Long” Memory!

Take Note: A Short Pencil is Always Better Than a “Long” Memory!

By Robert Fisher, Catoctin School of Music

How good is your memory? Are you gifted with the ability to see or hear something once and recall forever? For most musicians, even those highly trained and advanced in their specialties, overcoming forgetfulness is a part of the battle we face in daily practice. The search for perfection is elusive, yet most strive to correct mistakes and remember technique with flawless precision as much as humanly possible. In the end, however, most of us aside from the few truly gifted memorizers out there, are forgetful. We make mistakes. We forget things and require repetition and practice to imprint music in our memory. Those who have matured enough on their musical journey embrace the imperfections and use it to fuel the fire and hunger to improve. Still, if there is one area of improvement most musicians strive to develop, it would be memory and recall.

One simple yet oft neglected way to help remember and correct mistakes is to simply take notes! Think how often young musicians will make repeated mistakes in specific technical passages, forgetting fingerings, hand positions or in the case of singing, words and vowel placement? I’ve seen musicians beginning and seasoned make repeated mistakes at times, in the same passage or measure in music, only to continue to fail or even gloss over in a futile attempt a teacher won’t notice a repeated mistake. I often encourage my students to pick up one of the most valuable tools in our rehearsal arsenal: the trusty no. 2 pencil! It is an almost an insultingly simple concept, yet so many seem to neglect marking and taking notes in their music, to their own peril. Too often, mistakes are then compounded, and then rehearsed, over and over, all because a student hasn’t taken a few seconds at most to mark their music with their pencil!

Some students claim they don’t want to mark to “challenge” themselves, others say it takes “too much time” (a few seconds?) or won’t actually help. Ultimately in the end, whatever the excuse, the problem remains that by not addressing repeated errors with even the simple action of circling or marking in reminders in music when rehearsing, we are essentially reinforcing the idea that repeated problems are worthy enough to address with simple action. So, too often, simple mistakes that might have been quickly resolved with brief notes or markings compound and become rehearsed errors, requiring triple the amount of effort to unlearn, relearn and weave into the rest of a passage. Whenever I encounter students that question the significance or point of marking in reminders or notes, I simply point to the large, blank margins found in nearly every piece of written music. I explain that this blank space not only helps separate lines and passages of music, it also gives us margin to think and reflect on the music. As a part of thinking about music, it provides us the spaces to literally take “notes” and create reminder markings in out notes. If you consider written sheet music itself, it is simply a system (a well-established system evolved and improved upon over the centuries), that literally place “notes” as reminders as to which pitches to sing/play, for how long, with specific technique and style. A piece of written sheet music is a page of written notes! So, I usually end my note taking pep talk in lessons encouraging my students to “take notes with your [music] notes!”. The margins in sheet music are there for us to use. Ultimately, the audience does not look at the notation or sheet music (if used in performance): they listen to our exposition of the literal and figurative “notes” we’ve studied and rehearsed earlier, hopefully with little error! The first steps to avoiding errors in performance: take notes!

“A short pencil is always better than a “long” memory!”
I remember first seeing this quote plastered above the whiteboard in my high school Band room. The homemade poster consisted of a string of large, oversized Times New Roman text printed across a string of plain 8.5”x11” sheets of copy paper. Nothing fancy, just a simple quote, enlarged and posted for all to see throughout the entirety of every rehearsal. I used to wonder why our director would post such a seemingly rhetorical concept front and center, easily visible above his head from every angle. I recall countless rehearsals and sessions, not focused on simply making sound, but rather, methodically and purposefully marking and notating specific passages our director found noteworthy or troublesome from previous rehearsals. Only after a thorough examination of each passage and piece, in its entirety, would we resume the actual “playing” rehearsal. It struck me that while many wanted to simply play and make sound the entire time, with little regard to mistakes of difficult technical runs or intricate moving harmonies, our band director resisted the masses and insisted on note taking. He knew we would not recall all the “mistakes” and trouble spots uncovered in our first few run throughs. He was right. Taking the minimal amount of time required to make a few notes would allow us to learn and correct mistakes with ease compared to simply living on a hope and prayer that mistakes would “fix” themselves. My band director would often hold up the smallest pencil I had ever seen: it had been sharpened down to where only the smallest sliver of yellow remained, attached to the small eraser nib. The pencil miraculously still function, able to mark paper and enough of the eraser remained, though worn, to smudge away a few stray markings. My director would boldly declare that “this pencil here will outlast anyone here claiming they have flawless memory of every notation, fingering, marking or passage.” He would occasionally end his speech at the first ring of the bell signaling the end of rehearsal, waving the short stub of a pencil around in one hand while pointing with the other up towards the large, hand-made sign above his head. To this day, that image and quote has impacted how I view note taking, marking music and the prominent role it should take in any rehearsal.

Let’s encourage our students to take ownership of their music making and practice. This includes developing simple but revolutionary habits of learning to mark their own music, as needed, to aid in resolving technical issues or remove doubt when encountering long or difficult passages. There is something beautifully symbolic about music that has been marked up from rehearsal. It symbolizes a sense of discipline, humility, and ownership of one’s music. The same goes for a well-loved, well sharpened, well used, short pencil; it can be a profound symbol and testament to one’s musical maturity!

Catoctin School of Music
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