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Thanks for the Memories

Playing from memory has a tendency to really impress people. I still laugh about the time many years ago when I was playing a Mozart Sonata from memory before a rehearsal and a fellow walked in, listened for a few seconds and said, "wow! you must be making that up! There's no way you could play all that from memory!"

Why thank you sir! Thank you for assuming I could improvise so convincingly in the style of Mozart. But seriously, why do people worship that skill above so many others? And, more to the point, how does one go about doing it?

I'm imagining there may be more than one panicked conservatory student reading this article and hoping there is some magic secret to a skill that has eluded them for years. This is because it is customary for solo pianists and some others (like solo singers) to be required to memorize their music, particularly in an academic setting. I had to give several recitals to get my various degrees from music school, and all but one (a chamber music recital) had to be performed entirely from memory. Liszt frequently gets the blame for this, or Clara Schumann--before the 19th century it appears that nobody memorized anything when they gave concerts. That is, unless, like Beethoven or Mozart, they hadn't managed to completely write out the piano part in time for the performance!

If it is May and the recital is upon you in a few days I wish you good luck, rest, and inner calm, because cramming and memorization don't mix well, in my experience. It is best to start early-very early. And to view it as a process, and an integral part of the learning of the piece you are memorizing, rather than as something you tack on at the end. There are, I think, some "tricks" or "short-cuts" but these tend not to be magic elixirs so much as extensions of time and effort, and you find them as the result of knowing how your own mind works, not by simply employing a formula you read about on the internet. But let's start with the various kinds of memory and see which you are best at:

Muscle memory--it seems impossible that those strange, fleshy protuberances that we have on the ends of our appendages could all be equipped with their own mental functions. Fingers don't have brains; that much can seem sorely obvious when you are practicing and repeatedly running into difficulty. But if you have practiced the same passage enough times, the fingers seem to actually learn their routes without our brains having to direct them. I am typing this now at a fairly high rate of speed because my fingers seem to know where all the letters are quicker than I can actually think about them. In fact, I might even fail a quiz where I had a blank keyboard and had to write where all the letters even were. But my fingers know. I once averted a disaster at a piano competition in which my brain froze, wondering "what comes next?!?" and my fingers went on without me for a measure or two, causing me to relax and reboot my brain. Nobody ever knew anything was wrong! I don't think muscle memory alone is strong enough to get us through a piece of music, but it is an important part of it.

Sonic memory--most of us have the ability to get songs stuck in our heads. That generally happens because the piece is "catchy," which usually means it is not only interesting, but repetitive. Are you able to get your piece stuck in yours? Can you "listen" to it, beginning to end? If not, why are some parts murky and others clear? (look, it might be the composer's fault here, but in any case I often find being able to hear the piece as I'm playing it can be very effective. This might be more important in my case because I can play music by ear as well, and thus have forged a connection between being able to hear something and to play it back. There have been some cases where I was virtually recreating portions of pieces from my inner ear because I couldn't "remember" it, and thus was able to get back on track.)

Linguistic memory--theory teachers like to stress the importance of knowing music theory, and so far my approach hasn't mentioned it. I think there is far more to memory, and frankly, more to understanding music than is presented in most theory classes. But I also think most students underestimate its importance because they think it is just a bunch of arcane details and haven't yet developed the ability to see it in a larger context. If you understand the way chord patterns work, or voice leading, you are able, for most tonal compositions, to begin to get inside the composition and even to guess where the composer is going next. The next time you are learning a new piece, try this: when you get to the end of a page, and the composer seems to be in the middle of a musical thought, rather than at the end, try predicting the first chord on the next page. In most cases, you should be able to either guess correctly, or at least come up with something that makes sense. This is because either your head or your ear understands where the musical idea should go in that instance. For example, if I said, "I went to the store to buy a" you would naturally supply a noun to finish the sentence. It might not be the one I was thinking of but it should still work. If I said, "I went to the store to buy a stick of" you would almost certainly get it right, although I suppose it wouldn't always have to be a stick of gum. I suppose it could be a stick of dynamite.* In any case, it wouldn't be a stick of toothpaste, or a stick of motor oil, or a stick of bananas.

Actually, they don't really sell gum by the stick. Never mind.

Getting inside the language of the composer, and of that style and period of music in general, may seem like the long way around, but it really increases my comfort level when I know that, should some specific detail escape me, I can at least find a suitable synonym and go on. I once completely lost my way playing Bach's Goldberg Variations in Studio Class, and was able to finish the variation by making up something using the chord pattern that Bach used. It wasn't pretty but it kept me going. After, since it wasn't an actual recital, I confessed that I was lost and was just paraphrasing. My teacher was impressed.

I might also add that the details themselves are more likely to get stuck in your head if you have some earthly idea why they should be there. If you have to memorize a speech in a foreign language that you barely know at all, it will be much harder than one in your native language, where the words and the ways they are often put together are familiar to you, and you can concentrate on the ideas you are trying to get across rather than trying to remember if you have to say the word "the" in a particular place. If it sounds natural, of course! But in an unfamiliar language, do any of the little transition words sound natural? All you can do is try to remember them by what was on the page with no help from your internal sense of grammar and flow.

Structural memory--This is a bit like linguistic memory, but refers not to details but to the large scheme of things. If you want to memorize, just as in practicing, you should try breaking the piece up into tiny parts, such as measures, repeating them many times, and seeing how well you can remember each one before going on. But it also helps to take a bird's eye view and understand the way the piece proceeds from beginning to end. What form is it in? How long is each section? What major idea comes next, so that if I get completely lost in one section I can at least bail and start at the beginning of the next? Sometimes just listening to a recording of your piece can help you here. See if you know which part is coming next before it arrives. Be a conductor with an orchestra and cue the imaginary players (melody lines, voices, whatever) when it is their turn to begin. And interpret the piece through your gestures. That might help you see how you want to play the piece. It's not just about getting the details right, it's about making music, after all.

Emotional memory--yes, but how does the piece make you feel?? There have been studies that indicate what we already know: that strong emotions, positive or negative, cause things to lodge in the memory. If something didn't cause much of a reaction, we may well forget it. Well, then, aren't there parts of your piece that you really like? I'll bet you know them best, and can remember them with the most ease. Wouldn't it be great if every moment of the piece were that way? Is there a way to emotionally connect with every measure? Either with a narrative--it might not be the climax, maybe it is just building suspense, or introducing a character, or being mildly annoying, or maybe the composer did something completely unexpected and you want to be sure to make that plain to your audience--or rather, fabulous, to your audience! Maybe it's just the tang of a good staccato chord, the ripple of a good scale, the way you are getting a super awesome sound out of that high E--a passage that sounds like the composer just put it there to get from one place to the next is just asking for a memory slip, unless, you can awaken to its possibilities and, as you practice it each time, develop something that you desperately want to communicate to people in that one unforgettable moment. If it matters to you, you'll remember it! This, in turn, begins to focus your mind on what you are trying to say, rather than on a blinding host of details you are hoping you don't forget, and causes you to be much more calm, and, your playing or singing will be that much more interesting! It requires the most creativity to plant all of these interpretive Easter eggs, and seems, counter-intuitively, like you are just adding to the things you have to memorize. But that E chord will stick with you better if you have a purpose for playing it. And frankly, I'd rather hear that one coming out of the piano.


*or butter. Duh! (welcome to my mind)

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