May 1, 2010

Memorizing Music, guest blog by Bratsche


For some people the idea of memorizing something for a performance (musical or otherwise), can be a very daunting prospect.  So, why memorize music?  In some cases it’s pretty much mandatory (ex. soloist with big orchestra or opera singer or entrant in certain music competitions).  In other situations, it is personal choice (ex. my up-coming viola recital).  The main reason I memorize music is that playing from memory takes another “distraction” (known as the black marks on the page) out of the performance.*  If I’m focused on my sheet music, then I have to be extra sure I’m not just playing the notes from the page but am instead giving the music the life/character/flow that I intend.  

Now, there is a balance to be sought in all this.  For example, I’m choosing to only play part of my recital from memory because I don’t want to take the extra time it would require to memorize all of the music.  There are a variety of reasons I would potentially recommend someone not play from memory:  time (haven’t had the music long enough to learn it and memorize it thoroughly), terror (if performing is scary enough, memorizing will probably make it seem worse), ensemble togetherness (chamber music), and purpose of performance (ex. orchestral auditions, which are not played from memory). 

If, however, as a challenge to yourself or because of a requirement from an outside source, you do need to play something from memory, I’ll share how I tackle it.  I always start by working on just a little bit at a time (a few measures to a few lines at most).  The next day, I play it without looking at the music** first in order to find out how much stuck from the previous day.  Small bits of it will probably have crept away to hide over-night, but some of it will have remained memorized.  I work that way until the whole piece is fairly well memorized.  If there is a part of the piece that is repeated almost exactly, then it is important to work on those spots back to back often enough that you know where they differ and can play one or the other on demand (both in and out of context).  Otherwise, you may find yourself making unintended transitions (by playing spot A when you should be playing spot B, or vice versa). 

There are a couple of things that can be done to polish memory.  Playing a section much slower than usual will often highlight spots that aren’t as clear in your memory as you think.  For anyone who is worried about performing from memory, I would also recommend playing for people who will make you nervous before your actual performance.  That way things which aren’t really solidly memorized will jump up and shout before your performance, not during it.  Don’t be surprised if a spot that has NEVER given you trouble before suddenly refuses to be played from memory.  That just means that section needs a bit more time spent on memorization. 

There’s one additional step which can help verify that things are as thoroughly memorized as you can get them.  Try playing without your instrument in hand (or at hand, if it’s a piano or something else you don’t hold).  For myself, I do it in two different ways.  First, I’ll use my left hand as usual (placing the fingers on the fingerboard); but I won’t use my bow, so I can’t hear what I’m doing.***  Then, once that is comfortable and accurate, I play it from memory without anything in my hands (hearing it in my head and knowing what both hands will be doing without moving them much~).  This makes me rely less on muscle memory (how it feels when I play it) and more on mental memory.  When I hit a spot that isn’t clear in my mind, I’ll look at the music to remind myself exactly how that bit goes. 

Lest that last idea seem too overwhelming to anyone who is already daunted by the idea of memorizing, I will add that it is completely possible to get something well memorized without using the “minus instrument” memory check.  I played things from memory for years before I encountered that tool.  If you are curious about trying it, I would recommend (as always with memorizing) that you start with a small section and work from there. 

The final bit of encouragement I can give to anyone who’s worried about memorizing music is that it is a skill that can be learned.  Sheer determination and persistence will eventually reward you with a memorized piece.  Even better, the more you do it, the easier it gets.~~  As with all other (effective) practice, the work you put in now accomplishes your current goal as well as building a foundation that makes it a bit faster and less painful the next time you memorize something. 


 *  Hang on, don’t start muttering imprecations or throwing things at me yet, I’ll address the “Wait just one bloomin’ minute, my music is NOT a distraction!” response. 

**  In fact, I would recommend that your music be shut and/or completely out of reach.  I don’t know why that makes a difference, but it is different than just turning away from your open music. 

***  I’ll also occasionally play it with just my bow arm moving (air bowing) without my viola in hand; but my bowing almost never causes trouble with memorization, so I generally don’t bother.  

~  I do move my fingers a bit when I work on the piece this way, but it’s only enough to be clear which finger goes with which note in my head.  I often just have my hand resting in my lap when I do this. 

~ ~ Eventually!  I cannot promise immediate measurable growth in ease and confidence.  However, I absolutely CAN promise that if you stick with it and keep trying, it will get easier.


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