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The other day in the H.M.S. Pinafore dressing room, I announced to the ladies of the chorus that I couldn’t stand it when people told me that musicians should be good at math.

I am decidedly not very good at math–granted, part of that is because I was accelerated into algebra when I was eleven and NOT READY for algebra, but whatever the reason, math was the bane of my existence at school until I was allowed to ditch it after muddling my way through calculus.

And occasionally I mention to somebody in the course of conversation that I am not good at math, and they say, “Oh, that’s interesting, because most people who are good at music are also good at math.”

This drives me crazy.

But then just now I did something that is going to make me eat my words a little bit, and maybe even change my outlook on how the math I learned in school MIGHT be useful in my singing career.

I have quite literally mountains of music to learn in the next six months, most of it for my four-month Artist-in-Residence stint in Pensacola in January. Of that chunk I’ve decided to tackle Carmen first, because A. I love and am already comfortable with a lot of Carmen, and B. French is easier for me than Italian.

But my brain is not organized. I accidentally memorized the Act II quintet because it got stuck in my head.

Quoi? Vous avez besoin de nous?!

And today I decided it was time to look at “Quant au douanier” in Act III, because I really don’t know it at all.

I started with the words. Which is great, but my brain tends to latch on to one or two phrases of text, lulling me into a false sense of memorization security where I think I know a piece and then I realize that I have no idea what comes next.

So I decided to do something radical.

I made a very scientific chart. It looked kind of like this.

A (Quant au douanier)–>A–>B (Il aime a plaire, il est galant, etc.)–>A’ (OUI, le douanier)–>C (Il ne s’agit pas…la contrebande passera)–>A” (En avant…le douanier)–>E (Marchons en avant…FIN)

Now in addition to being able to learn the text–because that’s what I do best–I have a system for learning the structure. It strikes me that the latter may almost need to come first for me, because spending too much time on words and notes without getting a feel for the big picture is a little counterproductive. And there needs to be an order of operations, or else I feel like I’m just opening my score at random and looking at words and notes au hasard, if you will.

Which feels an awful lot like…

Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction.

Math, you guys. Stuff I learned a million years ago in whoever’s math class (Mrs. Kapferer? Mrs. Gilbert? Who even remembers?) turns out to be useful. Order of Operations. Scientific Method. Whaddaya know?

Much as I hate to admit it because it does kind of obliterate my Bad at Math assumption about myself, music is math and science as well as art and literature. I’m finding that actually, the scientific approach to music can be really satisfying. I was feeling adrift on a sea of unlearned music, and now I feel like I got this one. My brain is awesome!