Musicians juggle rhythm, harmony and melody routinely. That doesn’t mean that it ever gets easier. They just get better at it. Violinists have several more plates in the air: bow arms that more often go where they’re not supposed to go, and sound production much more difficult than what pianists deal with. Bow distribution adds so much complexity that some violinists throw up their hands and play everything in only one part of the bow, usually the wrong part.
So why would anyone add memorization to the mix?
I may sound like a musical pessimist, but identifying the difficulties in music has become a hobby of mine. Others over-simplify. When you hear numerous players with technique to burn who have difficulty in learning flexibility, both in sound and rhythm, you realize the nature of the obstacles that words have a hard time describing.
Bach famously said that music isn’t that hard; it’s just a matter of getting the right notes at the right time. (This is the earliest recorded example of a musician being a smart-aleck.) It’s also just a matter of overcoming each obstacle, one at a time.
Robert Jourdain, the author of Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy, wrote about the depth and complexity of each part of music that we may take for granted. “It is often said that rhythm is music’s most ‘natural’ aspect, that it comes to music from pulsations we find in our bodies. This is one of those observations that, like the flatness of the earth, is blatantly obvious and blatantly wrong.” No sugar-coating here!! Mr. Jourdain’s honesty and insight come as welcome relief to anyone who has taken on music and instrument as a personal, life-long challenge.
There is an inherent difficulty in the act of making music, no matter how talented a person is. The tools we are given by our teachers to improve can never replace the act of teaching ourselves. Given our ultimate desire to exactly re-create what is in our ears, even as they get more highly developed, I wonder why this amazing pursuit that can sustain a lifetime should by hampered by the added burden of memorizing.
Shutting Down the System: The Zero – Sum Game of Memorization
The obligation to memorize at an early age is inherently tied to the act of playing by ear.
Children who are taught first to play music before learning to read it must play by memory. Therefore, one would assume that eventually, once music is read from the page, the memorization would not be necessary. Yet, the same process can continue for several years, and possibly at an early stage in the child’s development, the brain can become so used to playing be ear, that the child may unconsciously avoid reading at all costs.
What is sacrificed by putting off reading music and requiring memorization for all recital performances? The child spends too much energy worrying about having a memory slip during a performance, rather than experiencing the full benefits of absorbing and expressing the music. If only a tiny percentage of soloists must memorize concerti and solo pieces, why would it be necessary to inflict such a requirement on someone performing during the their first year of lessons?
Music can open the mind with its exploration of details and nuanced changes of perception. The fear of memory slips and humiliation closes the mind sooner than you can say “Where am I?”
Balancing Apples and Oranges
Fear of memorization and the accompanying stage fright could be avoided by teaching the student to read as soon as he starts playing. Some kids will be better at reading than others, and others will be better at playing by ear. The balance between these two will work themselves out, as long as they are both worked on. Try to improve the part that is weaker, so that reading and listening become evenly distributed.
Children have a better chance of being musically well rounded if they learn music like they learn to read. School teachers don’t ask them to memorize a book, because it’s not necessary. Just as it is a natural process to teach a child to read the words that correspond to things he knows, the correlation to music is similar. Most children readily absorb simple melodies, so reading notes is the next obvious step.
The mind stores things in odd ways. Our musical parts are designed to interact, but sometimes appear to conflict with each other. Reading and listening are apples and oranges. They exist in tandem, and will continue to improve because of their relationship to each other.
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