Nigel is the orchestra’s principal trombonist. He is also blind. (He also designed the orchestra’s excellent website).
The fact that someone can play works like Rachmaninov 1, Shostakovich 7 and Mahler 6 (a sampling of the works we’ve done together) from memory and lead the low brass without being able to see the conductor (although some baton-skeptics may think this constitutes an unfair advantage for him).
Of course, over the years as friends and colleagues have come to WSO concerts, many have asked me how he does it.
Well, as it happened, I was tweeted last week by a Mahler fan who is also a blind musician. Michael asked how Nige learns his music, and I found Nige’s answer so fascinating that I thought it would make a great Vftp post.
In the essay below, Nige explains in detail how he learns and memorizes his parts and how he copes with playing in orchestra.
Forgive the pun, but his only blind spot seems to be a lack of affinity for the music of Elgar, as you will see below.
I’ve had a quick look at the “tweets” between you and Ken.
I’ll try and explain the strategies that I follow, however please be aware that this is quite a long explanation. I just wanted to ensure I explained it sufficiently for you to understand and try to cover off everything. Apologies if it’s too much, but here goes anyway…
I have a couple of friends who play in the same orchestras as myself who kindly volunteer to record trombone parts on MP3 for me. One records it on viola, the other on horn. Where notes in the part are too low for viola, they are played an octave above and the sound file is manipulated to push those specific notes down the octave so it sounds at the correct pitch.
Each entry would normally be covered in 3 MP3 files as follows:
File 1 – Verbal explanation of any bars rest since previous entry (if applicable), a suggested cue, rehearsal references, any changes in time signature or key signature at or leading up to the start of the entry, and the division within the bar at which the first note starts.
File 2 – A playthrough of the entry with a recording of the piece behind it. This would normally start a few bars prior to the start of the entry, in order to understand the context within the overall music (I don’t count all my bars rest) and to either listen for the cue suggested in File 1, or to identify a “better” cue myself (obviously I can also do that by listening to an orchestral recording). Sometimes I will opt for an alternative cue if I know the player in our orchestra is unreliable, or if it’s for an instrument that may not be at all of the rehearsals that I attend.
File 3 – This would normally be a brief explanation to confirm notes, note lengths, rests, tempo, dynamics and any other markings in the part (e.g. staccato, legato, muted etc). These need to be as concise as possible as it’s important to get to the useful info quickly.
Each playing entry would normally be no more than about 40 seconds long, with the explanation being no more than twice the length of the entry (need to be concise as mentioned above). Obviously many entries last longer than this. In these instances the entry is played in full, then the MP3 is split out into multiple files, each with its own explanation. I would learn each one in turn, and then put it together by selecting all the files that make up the entry and playing along with that.
If a particular piece has what I would call a large number of entries, then I would break down further in order to aid the learning process. For instance, a movement from a symphony is typically 10 – 12 entries, of varying length. I would simply learn each entry in turn, then when confident with each, I would play the whole movement with an orchestral recording of the movement, ultimately playing the whole symphony from start to finish to prove to myself that I know it (I would only do that no earlier than the week before the concert).
I considered the first movement of Mahler 6 to have a lot of entries, with 38 in total. I therefore broke this down into parts:
Part 1 – Start to second time bar of repeat – 10 entries
Part 2 – 3 entries
Part 3 – 4 entries
Part 4 – 1 entry (isolated, after and before quite a few bars rest)
Part 5 – 5 entries
Part 6 – 15 entries
With regards the ongoing learning:
Firstly, I must get to know the piece itself. I would not normally undertake learning a part until I know how it goes. I didn’t know Mahler 6 for instance, so I spent the first few weeks listening to nothing else but a recording of that. Even if’s just 10 minutes on my short bus journey to work, it’s enough to stick when you play it often enough.
Next, I ensure the conductor has produced a rehearsal schedule, check it to see what’s coming up and target my first rehearsal to attend. I would normally allow a week and a half initially, so if I target my first rehearsal as Wednesday the 12th, then I would start learning the music specifically for that rehearsal on the 1st of the month. I would use the weekends but not usually the evenings during the week at this stage. I would certainly not try to learn everything all in one go. I would also expect the conductor to try to keep to the schedule as far as possible or provide notice of changes, as it does screw up the learning process when the schedule changes.
Once I’ve attended a rehearsal, I work out what I need to work on, both from a playing perspective, and from a memory perspective. Often I don’t have any problems from a memory perspective, but things can sound different with the orchestra that you’re playing with compared with the CD recording! In between that rehearsal and the next one in which the same works are being played again, I will work on those to ensure they are better next time.
As the concert gets closer, I will have become much more familiar with the parts as the repetition of practise helps commit it to memory, and I increase the practise as the concert gets closer, ultimately putting it all together by the weekend before the concert. In theory I should then be able to play it all in the remaining rehearsals.
Now some FAQs
How long does it typically take to learn a piece?
All depends. Mahler 6 took a long time. It’s a big work for trombone. One long movement could literally take a few days, with each day being 4 or 5 hours of practise, though this is unusual. Shorter or less complex works can take much less time.
Does it take the same time again if you play the work again in another concert in the future?
No. It takes a fraction of the time. The human brain is a wonderful thing, and you sub-consciously remember much of it from last time, even though it could have been years earlier. I did Mahler 1 last July, having previously played it in 2004, and it didn’t take long at all. I did Shostakovich Festive Overture in November having previously played it in 2002 and I was literally playing along to the recording as it all came flooding back, although that piece is quite obvious as it’s full of scales in most of the instruments. I have Tchaik 5 in May, and although I haven’t played it since 1999, and I played Trombone 2 then whereas I’ll be playing Trombone 1 this time round, I don’t anticipate it taking me very long to learn it. I’ve played it a few times before 1999 too, and I also find Tchaikovsky “an obvious composer”, and that’s not meant to be critical of him.
What’s the hardest piece you’ve learned?
The hardest one I succeeded in learning was Copland Appalachian Spring.
The first time I played this I didn’t have my trombone available as I was at college, and learning without playing was an absolute nightmare. Coupled with the fact that Copland changes time signature every other bar if not every bar! Actually I’ve got round the time signature thing now by totally ignoring them and counting “my bars”, so I’m “feeling it” more than “counting it” and will simply count my own beats when required.
I played this piece again 10 or 11 years after the first time, and found it much easier. Probably because I’d already played it before, but also because I had my trombone with me the second time around.
Have you ever given up in defeat?
Unfortunately, I have to admit that I have.
Elgar 1 completely confounded me. I am not an Elgar fan anyway, but I just could not get my head around this part, and I had to pull out of the concert as I didn’t have confidence in my own ability to be able to learn it. I don’t like pulling out of concerts that I’ve committed to as I feel like I’m letting people down, but I didn’t see any way round it.
One of my friends who records for me hasn’t mentioned anything, but I suspect he thought I was going to do the same with Mahler 6, but although it was difficult, I understood it, so I pressed forward with it and overcame any difficulties.
With regards Elgar 1, I think in hindsight, the problem may have been more down to not liking Elgar, as I didn’t have the motivation to get to know the piece. The net result was that I hadn’t done my homework up front and the learning of the part became that much harder.
Maybe I’m doing Elgar a disservice, but it’s all down to personal taste isn’t it? I know some people in the orchestra last week didn’t like Mahler 6, but personally I love it.
Another concert that confounded me was an opera themed concert. Again, opera isn’t really my thing and I found it very hard to learn and pulled out of that concert too (they are the only ones I’ve pulled out of), and the cues are pretty much always in the vocals. Interestingly though I don’t have any issues learning concertos.
How do you know when to blow when you’re either on the first beat of the piece or after a general pause?
Ah, I’m giving my secrets away now!
It’s quite easy really. If I’m sitting next to a reliable Trombone 2, I can hear him take a breath before he starts to play. If he’s not in, I’ll work out who else is also playing and try to listen for them. It usually always works!
My last note in Mahler 6 is a prime example. My friend suggested I mimed it, but I’d have missed a note out wouldn’t I? We can’t have that? I think I got it in the right place! I’m sure Ken will say if I didn’t?
Do you ever have any memory lapses?
Yes. Not very often though, but it does happen. I had one in rehearsal last Wednesday and just didn’t have a clue what the part was at one point. We did the section again and I was ok then.
Sometimes in the early rehearsals it can happen because I just don’t know the part well enough yet. I’m often encouraged to attend rehearsals before I feel I’m ready, and I don’t feel I have a good rehearsal. I have to feel ready.
Do you learn all the rehearsal numbers/letters?
Definitely not. I don’t feel it’s essential. Some of them will sub-consciously stick in my mind, but that’s not through intentional learning.
If Ken (or another conductor) says we’re going from a particular place, then I’ll either listen for a few bars (one reason why you need to know the piece) or Trombone 2 will give me an indication.
Similarly I don’t learn all the bars rest. I know there are lots of people round me counting like mad all the time, and I find that very amusing, but am also disappointed with them, as it’s simply because they don’t know the piece. I feel that anyone who is going to perform a piece should get to know how it goes. Some people can simply miscount their bars rest and come in a bar or so early, and not even notice, but if they *knew* the piece, these mistakes just shouldn’t happen.
Do you use Braille music?
I notice you asked Ken this question, but his answer wasn’t quite right.
He’s right in the sense that I don’t use it, but it’s not because the repertoire is too limiting (although I suspect it is).
There are two other reasons:
Firstly, I don’t know Braille music, only standard English grade 2 Braille, and I’m not a very fast Braille reader.
Secondly, I don’t see how it aids playing as you still have to learn it. You can’t read the Braille and play your instrument at the same time.
In the early days after I first lost my sight, my friend looked at a number of different music solutions on my behalf, including very very very large print music which was no good as I still couldn’t read it. I gave up playing for a couple of years, until his father (conductor of the orchestra at that time) suggested learning a relatively easy piece, and only performing that piece in the concert. That was Mozart Cosi fan Tutti. As my first piece I learned it very quickly, so felt confident to also play the rest of the concert, being Beethoven 6, again not too taxing as I was only in the 4th and 5th movements. It all followed from there and my friends and I have refind the process over the years, and now we pretty much have it spot on
How many pieces have you learned?
I don’t know the exact number, but it’s a lot. I finally got round to catalogueing it last year, as I have loads of parts on the old audio tape (yes, we even used that for many years in the days before MP3!).
The catalogue isn’t complete, but I’ve got 130 entries in there. Some of those are for the same piece where I’ve played both Trombone 1 and 2 at one time or another, but most are unique entries for separate works.
At the end of the day, I wouldn’t be able to perform any of these without my friends Mark (who’s done the vast majority of the parts for me) and Matthew, who started a year or so ago! I’m very grateful to them, especially as I sometimes give them a hard time when things are not quite right, but as you’ve probably gathered, I’m a bit of a perfectionist and like to get it right, otherwise it’s not worth doing it at all (in my opinion).
Are you amazing?
Well, I’m often told I am by people who observe what I achieve through my playing, however the answer is that I’m no more amazing than any other human being.
Everybody has a brain that can take in what mine takes in. My friends and I have simply worked out a way of doing it in a very structured way, working out what works, what doesn’t work and just getting on with it.
I think it helps to have played an instrument sighted (which I did, but maybe I’m wrong, having never started to learn an instrument as a blind person).
I understand all the musical concepts, and I remember what written/printed music looks like. I can picture in my mind music using all the four clefs, which I could still read if I could see them.
I firmly believe that anyone can achieve what I do, providing the motivation is there to put in the time, be confident to play (even if you get it wrong a few times first), and above all, like every musician should be doing anyway….listen!
Well I know this is a lot of information, so I’m sorry if I’ve bored you to tears, but that’s how it’s done.
I’m sure there must be other blind people out there who play in symphony orchestras, but I’m not aware of any, other than possibly a blind Japanese professional violinist. If that’s true, I’ve no idea how he learns it, as he would do much more playing and memorising than me, given firstly he’s a professional and will be playing all the time, and secondly there are so many more notes to learn in a violin part! Now I’d love to know how *he* does it!
I hope this has been interesting for you and has given you an insight into what I do and how I do it. If you have any questions, please feel free to get in touch.
Please also visit our orchestra’s website: