a bit of an insight


In the course of my life, I have done very little memorizing of music. My degrees are such that often this was the one difference between a performance degree and the one I obtained.  I have been thinking about this for a while. No time like the present to remedy this situation.

Ultimately, I think it would be fun to memorize some organ stuff, but I thought I would start smaller. I’m thinking if I succeed, I will learn about memorizing using short pieces. At this point I want to memorize stuff that I like and would appreciate having in my memory.

That’s why I chose a two part invention to begin. As I started working on it, I immediately noticed an increase in my personal confidence in my musical skills (such as they are). Some of this may come from the fact that I (like many artists) am my own severest critic.

I think often of how well I perform. Since I usually perform publically once a week, this means a continual evaluation of how well things went and why.

I am reading So What: The Life of Miles Davis by John Szwed. In it, he has referred a couple of times to giants of Jazz like Davis and others confronting the limit of their own abilities. Including, in the case of Davis, re-recording stuff when he made mistakes.

This makes sense, of course. But in the age of recording, it’s difficult not to slip into the idea that the only one who makes mistakes is oneself. If I had some students, I’m sure I would remind them that mistakes are part of performing. But that little voice in my head wonders why I make mistakes.

I think a lack of perspective contributes to this as well. I hope this little time of rest and relaxation will restore some of my perspective. I think it might be working.

But my recent insight has been about how I memorize. Many years ago, I played a memorized jury in an attempt to be accepted into Ohio Wesleyan University. It went very well as I remember. But it may have been the last time I seriously memorized anything, especially classical music.

I was reading what some other pianists have found about memorizing online. One of them  pointed out that muscle memory is not the goal. The more one can understand about the piece one is memorizing the better. This means slow practice from memory helps clarify the actual memory in the mind as opposed to the memory in the muscles.

I almost have the F major invention memorized. But now I can tell which parts are mostly in my mind and which are in the muscles. This is clear especially in slow practice.

At this point, I can usually remember all of the Invention but often with a stumble or two. Yesterday practicing slowly, I played it completely correct twice in a row with no stumbles or memory lapses. This morning, I attempted to play it slowly and discovered more holes in this memory. When i sped up, the piece came out fine but it was definitely muscle recall, not mental.

I guess the goal would be that I could sit down and write the whole dam piece from memory. I’ll add that to my regimen.

Of course, I am aware that memory issues are something most of us have to confront if we live long enough. Another reason to flex this particular muscle.

My next piece is going to be this Mazurka in C# minor by Chopin – Op. 6 #2. I love this piece. Plus, I have deliberately chosen something completely different in texture and ideas from a two part polyphonic piece.

2 thoughts on “a bit of an insight

  1. Memorizing is a super interesting topic! Like you, I’ve pretty much stopped now that I’m not in school, and don’t have anyone making me.

    But back when I did it more, and spent more time thinking about it, it was fascinating for me to realize that the more senses we can involved in the experience, the stronger our “memory” of the piece will be.
    So muscle memory is one – often the first one we use, it’s not bad, it gets us started.

    But then your aural memory is another, I’ll bet it’s a strong sense for you. Do you know how it sounds? Could you sing it from memory?

    Then there are other ways to cue into the piece – what about visual. How your hands look when playing, or how the score looks – can you visualize the actual score?
    An interesting exercise is to try and visualize/ sing your way through the piece away from the score. I used to do this to fall asleep at night, but I don’t think it would be relaxing anymore!

    Some people like to involve some kind of analysis of a piece in the memorizing process. That was never my thing, but I would find that certain analytical ways of thinking about the piece could help me a lot in tricky spots, such as – the second cadence is a half cadence, when that motive comes around at the end, if leads to the 16th note passage, etc.

    I also will occasionally have this same conversation as you with myself – it would be good for me to do some memorizing… But then I don’t get too far with it.
    And one does absolutely learn the piece better when one memorizes it! So good for you!

    Maybe you’ve read this all already, but just wanted to chime in.
    Sorry for the nerdy digression. Keep relaxing!!

    1. Rhonda,

      Thank you for your fascinating comments! I always appreciate hearing from you and what you have to say.

      Vacation’s almost done. I would love to have social distanced tea and coffee with you and Jordan after Easter.


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