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Mendy Smith

A Well Tempered Practice Diet - Memorization

April 3, 2011 at 2:28 AM

'If you can sing it, you can play it' is something we all hear time and time again from our teachers, and it is very true. 

When I first learn a new piece, my eyes are glued to the printed notes in front of me - trying to make musical sense out of all the markings scattered across the page like a bunch of chicken scratchings.  I add to the chaos by adding my own markings, erasing them, and adding different ones.  Over time, I find that I start memorizing the markings and what is printed becomes music.

Only when I have memorized a piece - the notes, bowings, dynamics, other instrument parts - I begin to truly  study the music.  Freed from the printed page, I begin to understand the notes as they relate to one another, sense the changes of mood from one phrase to the next, and can focus on the technique required to make the music 'speak'.

It takes weeks, sometimes months, to memorize a piece of music from beginning to end.  Sometimes I memorize wrong notes, wrong rhythms, wrong tempos - those that are in my mind but not printed on the page.  I listen to recordings when I can find them to try to prevent this from happening. It  takes longer to un-learn something than it does to learn it correctly to begin with.  On complicated passages, I break it down to its component parts - a small grouping of notes, the upper voice, lower voice, open strings for rhythm & bow control - then build it back up again.

It sometimes seems tedious to break things down like this, but it all adds up in the end. 

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on April 4, 2011 at 10:42 AM

 I don't think it's more tedious than a lot of things that are recommended when practicing.  Memorization was out of fashion for a while in academia--often coupled with the word "regurgitate"--and characterized as inimical to critical thinking.  I think this was misguided, and I hope the view is changing.

From Ray Randall
Posted on April 4, 2011 at 2:34 PM

I find that as we get older you have to choose something to forget in order to make room for something new. :)

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on April 4, 2011 at 2:39 PM

Ray, I wish we had that much control over what we could forget to make room for new things!  

From Terez Mertes
Posted on April 4, 2011 at 5:17 PM

 >Only when I have memorized a piece - the notes, bowings, dynamics, other instrument parts - I begin to truly  study the music. 

This is the best part, in my mind. Same goes for me and my writing - once the words are down, the real fun can begin. : )

From Charlie Gibbs
Posted on April 4, 2011 at 7:19 PM

In a previous life I was involved with a local theatre group.  There is no option there; you have to memorize your lines.  But once you've done this, you no longer have to wander around with your nose buried in the script; you're free to interact with your fellow actors and get right into the play.  Going "off book", as it's referred to, is a wonderfully exhilarating phase of the rehearsal process.

I think the same thing applies in music (although perhaps not as strongly).  Once you know the music, you're free to interact with your fellow musicians - and the audience - and concentrate on the true meaning of what you're playing.  I love it when I can play from memory.  The biggest impediment so far seems to be remembering tricky bowing - I usually have no trouble remembering the notes themselves.

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