Memorising Mozart

Later this week I’ll begin rehearsals with Aurora Orchestra for some upcoming concerts in Singapore (April) and around the UK (June). We’ll be performing a brilliant programme including Thomas Adès’ Violin Concerto and Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony. However anyone who’s heard of Aurora Orchestra will be aware of their unique and pioneering practice of playing symphonies from memory! These concerts are no different and we’ll be playing both the Mozart symphony and a short encore withoit music. I thought I’d share my process for how I have gone about memorising the Mozart in case it might be interesting or helpful for anyone else...

I have performed solo pieces from memory many times, and I’ve always enjoyed the freedom it brings. When you don't have the music in front of you, you are forced to stay present and only think about what’s coming immediately next, rather than perhaps dwelling on previous moments that didn’t go so well or worrying about difficult passages ahead. Having seen Aurora perform live a few times, I’ve loved feeling this freedom and energy exude from the stage: levels of communication sky-rocket as eyes dart around to find each other and smiles are shared between every member of the orchestra.

Not having to use music stands or chairs also gives the orchestra complete flexibility in their formation and freedom to move around the stage. I remember watching an Aurora concert a couple of years ago where the orchestra dispersed around the hall and performed the last movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No.5 as an encore in amongst the audience. It was a totally thrilling experience even as an orchestral musician myself, so I was excited to be asked to play in these concerts and be presented with the challenge of memorising a symphony. 

And a challenge it certainly is..!  I’m not sure if I’ve ever actively tried to memorise a piece before - it’s usually been a much more organic process of just playing it through countless times in my practice and then gradually being able to remember it. I didn’t know the Mozart symphony very well before I was offered this work, so I listened to it and realised pretty quickly that I was going to need some sort of memorisation plan.

I decided to follow a similar method to one I’ve used before when learning a new piece of contemporary music: I look through the music to find any obvious sections, give each section a number, and then start by working on the last section. Once I’ve got to grips with that one, I move back and start learning the previous section. Then I can play both of the last two sections together. I work backwards slowly like this, constantly re-playing the material I’ve just learned, until I reach the beginning of the piece. It’s always a great feeling to know that once I’ve reached bar one, I can already play the rest of the piece!

I thought that this method could work well for memorisation too, since I could keep reinforcing the sections I’d already memorised whilst adding a new section on to the front each time. I found a recording I liked and made a note of where each section started in that recording. This meant that I could then skip very easily to whichever section I was learning and play along with my headphones on to test myself.

I know from previous experience that my brain responds well to colour, so I dug out my colouring pencils and assigned a colour to each section. I then made a ‘colour map’ (scroll down for photo) to help guide me through each movement: if I could recall the musical material from each colour section then I’d know that I’d learnt it properly. The colour map has been a great resource for testing myself - I can avoid having the notes in front of me but can use the map to stay on track whilst I’m still in the process of learning the part completely from memory. It’s also been crucial to learn how many bars rest there are between each section so that I don’t come ploughing in in the wrong place!

In these concerts with Aurora, I’ll be playing 2nd trumpet and will be using a natural (baroque) trumpet, similar to the type of trumpets that Mozart would have written for, but at modern pitch. Trumpets in Mozart’s day didn’t have use of the full chromatic scale - they could only play a limited selection of natural harmonics (such as bottom G, then C, E, G, C etc.) - so they were used harmonically, more like timpani. Therefore, one of the most challenging aspects of learning this part has been the similarity of the material. Even though string and woodwind players will have to play many more notes than trumpeters in this piece, their notes are often in tunes which can be easier to remember. Since I don’t really have any tunes of my own, I’ve had to try and find rhythmic patterns in my part and have used various lines/drawings to highlight the shapes in my music. 

I am really enjoying the challenge of learning this symphony from memory and it has been immensely satisfying to gradually get each of the three movements under my belt (thankfully we have the second movement off!). I’ve found that time has flown by when I’ve been doing this type of practice, but I’ve also had to take regular breaks to allow my brain to process it all… I hope it’s been interesting for you to read how I’ve gone about the memorising process and please do send me any tips or methods that have worked for you!