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A different look at memorizing.

December 15, 2008 at 11:32 PM


a while back PM wrote a blog of frustration about memorization which I can really relate to. The solution is not harder work or more hours practice. The problem of playing from memory often has very deep roots and no simple answer although I will attempt to provide one that might work for somebody here.

When I was a kid memorization was easy. In fact it was automatic and I don’t have a photographic memory. Then when I entered adolescence I began to develop a hang up about it and even for my college graduation recital the memorization process was an agonizing stretch that precluded a lot of the fun and music making I could have shared with the panel. Ironically, after I graduated I went for lessons with a very famous teacher/player. I played very badly for him and he surprised me by laughing and asking me to play him something I had worked on when I was about ten. I put the fiddle up and went straight through Wieniawski 2 without any lapses of memory at all, not having played it in the interim at all. He smiled wryly and just noted `It’s amazing how we remember our childhood pieces....` Since then I have come across numerous pros with memory hang ups making their life miserable or at least more difficult. One of them is MR Haslop who explains in a blog how he broke through. You might take a look at that one. I had to find my own solution and it was surprisingly simple.

I had assumed that I simply did not have a musical memory, which is absurd. What I discovered after picking up the violin again post a long hiatus was that I could memorize whole works before picking up the violin and then play them quite easily and in a fairly good state. It wasn’t that I don’t have a musical memory, but rather the trauma of years of bad teachers and experiences leaves the violin having too many negative associations in that department. By bypassing the instrument the problem solved itself. But it wasn’t just a question of memorizing a piece by looking at the music and recreating the physical motions. That was still a little too close to home. The solution was actually provided by ASM (bless her little cotton socks) in her `The Way they Play Interview` when she stated she worked on new pieces at the piano. I found that by simply playing long passages of music a couple of times they were automatically committed to keyboard memory and very easy to reproduce on the violin. Over time I have honed this practice for maximum efficiency.

First of al there is the question of double stops. I always sing one line with the piano and then switch. This is really important. One reason we waste so much practice time on double stops is we think we are listening or visualizing or whatever when in fact our brains are dead until after we play the two notes at which point we decide, too late that we are not playing in tune and that the violin is difficult.

Then there is the question of transfer and I do go back to the violin in a sense. That is, I stand up form the keyboard and play the music holding an imaginary violin and bow. When I go back to the score the fingerings and bowings seem to appear on the page without effort. Last week I realized how far I had come with this approach when I memorized the first Reger Prelude and Fugue within five hours at the piano and then played it mostly correctly on the violin. Great piece by the way....

So if you are stuck and want to memorize something from a Suzuki book or whatever it might pay dividends to get away from the complexity of the violin and just do some musical work on the piano.



From Mendy Smith
Posted on December 16, 2008 at 3:43 AM

Buri -  interesting take on memorization.  While you can remember pieces from your childhood, I can only remember pieces that I've played in the past year or so.  Double stops never gave me problems.  In fact they are easier if I'm not looking at the music.  It may be due in part on HOW I learn doublestops in pieces.  I start with the high notes only while singing the lower (with correct fingering and lower finger where it should be but not played), then reverse the exercise playing the lower notes only and singing the higher, and then the combination (no singing, except in my head).  My fingers no where to go and my mind knows what they should sound like individually. 

From Charles C
Posted on December 17, 2008 at 2:32 AM

LOL "One reason we waste so much practice time on double stops is we think we are listening or visualizing or whatever when in fact our brains are dead until after we play the two notes at which point we decide, too late that we are not playing in tune and that the violin is difficult."

This sums up my life.


Great blog, btw.

From Benjamin K
Posted on December 17, 2008 at 4:51 AM

I envy you guys. You must be doing pretty well with sight reading.

I totally suck at sight reading and I cannot play anything with any kind of flow and rhythm when trying to play something I haven't memorised yet. When I try to practise sight reading, sooner than I feel that I have made any progress at all, I end up having memorised whatever it is I practised. I even tried practising backwards only to find myself having memorised the lot backwards, too. This just happens, I don't make any particular effort and I don't memorise the score, it's all muscle memory, but it definitely gets in the way of learning to sight read properly.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on December 17, 2008 at 5:55 AM


That`s interesting. I seriously think you might  benefit from Clayton Haslops teachng mehod.

Just a thought,


From PM Rolf
Posted on December 17, 2008 at 12:19 PM

Thanks for writing this blog Buri.  I'm gonna try your piano method.  Yes, double stops frustates me to a point that I want to throw my violin out the window! And yes, I remember all the piano pieces I learned as a kid, but cannot play you more than 10 bars out of the piece I am learning from memory!

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