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Karen Allendoerfer

Learning Bit by Bit

September 19, 2008 at 5:27 PM

In addition to Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italien, for our November 9 concert, we are also working on Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 5, "Reformation." Unlike my experience last year, where prior familiarity with the William Tell Overture got me out of the viola section and into the first violins, I've never played either of these pieces before, and didn't know the Mendelssohn even to listen to before this.

Many have commented on the ease with which pieces learned in one's youth can come back, years later, in contrast to pieces one learns as an adult. Joshua Bell was quoted very succinctly last year on this point in the Washington Post:

"Also, the older I get the harder it is to learn, particularly by memory. I don't like using music for concertos but I may just resign myself to all concertos I learn now. ... because anything I learned as a kid, I can drop it for 15 years (and) I can bring it up again and it will be right there. But things I've learned as an adult, you have to keep drumming it back into your head again."

I experienced this phenomenon first hand last year, when I was playing Beethoven's Egmont Overture with the Arlington Phil. We were "sightreading," and I hadn't seen the 1st violin part since ~1982, when my high school orchestra played it. But, as I turned to the last page, the Allegro, I felt a familiar sense of excitement building. I was sitting in the same seat of the same section as I had all those years ago. I was even playing the same instrument. The last page of Egmont is not trivial. It's fast, and in my excitement and the flood of memories coming back, I even pushed the tempo too hard and rushed. But, as I settled into it, it soon felt to my fingers as if the intervening 25 years hadn't really passed.

As I mentioned, the sightreading didn't go quite as well this time, for obvious reasons. But I feel like being contrary anyway and questioning the conventional wisdom that aging and getting older are the whole story here. Because when I think back to how I learned Egmont, there's a big difference between what we did then and what we're doing now. In high school, we rehearsed every weekday, from 7:45 to 8:25 a.m. We broke Egmont down into small pieces and went over it in lessons. My teacher counted with me the leger lines to the high A triplets, he went over the intervals as I learned them shifting down and back up. We sang the intervals, we learned, as a group, to get them in our ear. We methodically put it back together again.

Of course adults don't have that kind of time. We have more repertoire to get through, more concerts to play, and fewer rehearsals. We also can't--and don't want to--get away with playing only one or two movements of a major symphony, something else that we did in high school.

But there are aspects of the approach that you can adapt on your own, like breaking the piece down and learning a movement, or part of a movement, at a time. I'm also rediscovering how helpful it is to listen to a piece of orchestra music and know your part well enough that you can just go over it in your head while you're listening. I know that's partly how I used to be able to learn fast passages of running 8th or 16th notes. I had the fingerings and notes memorized and went over them in my head at odd times of day (or night). And when I heard the piece as a whole, my brain would just play my part automatically for me, whether I had the instrument or not. It also helps you not get lost during long measures rest.

That process seemed to be a little easier when I was younger, perhaps, but is far from impossible now, and maybe it just seems harder because I don't have Mr. Thomas there in front of me anymore, writing everything on the blackboard. Now I write down what the conductor says, since blackboards seem to have gone the way of the typewriter and mimeograph machine.

Mostly, what I need to do now is slow down, break it down bit by bit, look, and listen. And wonder what will happen again when/if, 25 years from now, I have the good fortune to play the Mendelssohn again.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on September 19, 2008 at 7:03 PM
I've had the same experience with age and memory. I remember, sometimes note for note, pieces I've played in orchestras in high school and college. When I hear these pieces now, I can sing the second violin part along with the recording. However, sometimes when I hear something I've played 5 years ago, I barely remember it. It's all about aging. I'm somewhat surprised to hear about it happening to people so much younger than I.
From Ray Randall
Posted on September 19, 2008 at 7:35 PM
As I get older I'm finding it takes
more time to learn almost anything new.
From Tom Holzman
Posted on September 19, 2008 at 7:46 PM
You are not the only one who feels a need to slow things down and break them down in order to get them. Hilary Hahn learns music that way, so you are in good company.

Vaguely a propos of how well you remember pieces you played in your younger days even if you haven't played them for a while, I had a funny experience a couple of years ago. I went to a concert at the Smithsonian which included the Brahms Piano Quintet. For purposes of the concert, the group was using the Wirth viola, which was the one actually used when the piece was premiered lo those many years ago. They joked that the violist was able to rest while they practiced that piece because the viola remembered it.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on September 19, 2008 at 9:17 PM
Well, one of my points here is that I don't think it's "all about aging."

There's a lot more that goes into learning at different ages, especially in the realm of expectations. So, when I was learning Egmont in high school, there was no way we were expected to learn it perfectly in a couple of rehearsals with a week in between each one. The expectations on adults are much higher, but that doesn't seem to get taken into account.

I find that's true for many memory- and organizational-related tasks. There may be a small age-related decline in cognitive and memory skills that plays a role, but that's entirely swamped by the hugely increased expectations that you'll remember everything and be able to manage and organize your life independently (not to mention everybody else's life including that of your kids and other loved ones).

There's an extent to which people don't appreciate how much their teachers and parents do for them--or at least I didn't, until I had to be my own teacher and figure it out for myself what to do during the week between rehearsals and lessons.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on September 19, 2008 at 10:27 PM
Karen, I agree with you that the method of teaching and learning has a strong effect on the length of time you remember something. "Over learning" makes what you've learned stay in your mind for a longer time than other kinds of learnin do. A separate issue is the effect of aging on long and short term memory. I apologize for not making this clear in my earlier comment.
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on September 19, 2008 at 11:12 PM
I can't remember anything I learned when I was a kid. But the older I get, the faster I learn and the better I memorize. I'm finally getting some hair on my chest too.
From David Allen
Posted on September 20, 2008 at 2:11 AM
Uh, what were we talking about?
From Mendy Smith
Posted on September 20, 2008 at 2:50 AM
I've also discovered that many of the pieces that I played as a teen I can play *almost* by rote as an adult. I find freedom in this to be able to add new levels of interpretation to those pieces. Eine Kliene is a good example. It was painful to learn when I was 12, but now at ::cough:: pushing 40, I can have alot more fun with that piece, even though it has been ::hem hem::: nearly 30 years since I played it before. The kicker was when I was just learning to play cello, and was able to play Eine Kliene mostly from memory even though I never played the cello part (or cello for that matter).

Say something about learning young.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on September 20, 2008 at 4:18 PM
I'm not familiar with the jargon, but perhaps what I'm getting at is that adult players can and should make more use of "over learning," the way kids do.

To me the key point seems to be the daily, or more than daily, repetition of small chunks. (I don't know if that qualifies as "over learning," and it sounds a bit like aspects of the Suzuki method).

The way it's working for me now is something like this: we go over a passage in rehearsal, the conductor has something wise to say about it, and I write down what he said, either in the music or in the practice log. And then the next day, when I'm practicing, I play the passage or movement again, and review my notes about what he said, both mentally and in writing, and then repeat the passage with my instrument one or more times to make sure the lesson sank in. It only takes a few minutes. And when I do that throughout the week, between weekly rehearsals, it simulates the continuity of the Monday-Friday orchestra rehearsals that I had in school when I was a kid.

But I don't know, it's weird, most adults don't seem to approach practicing orchestra music this way (present company excluded?). Instead, their practice agendas are crammed with 3-octave scales in thirds up and down the circle of fifths, etudes, and solo performance pieces. While in orchestra, they expect themselves to just remember from one week to the next or one year to the next something they heard in passing once or twice, without even writing it down.

From Royce Faina
Posted on September 21, 2008 at 1:19 AM
My son, Royce Jr., was a nurse. He worked in Geriontology for most of his career and taught me that older persons can learn new things. Granted recall of longterm is easier than short term as we age. As children/teen-agers, we are in the formiable years and the things we learn during those years are to be our tools of survival for the rest of our lives once we reach maturity. It's shown when elderly persons can remember their childhood and early adult lives readily, but lack recall of what's gone on durring the recent week/month. Maybe this helps with the topic of this blog?

Kinde Regards,


From Ray Randall
Posted on September 21, 2008 at 6:55 PM
The brain only holds so much. I'm trying to figure out what I need to forget to make room for something new.
From Helen Martin
Posted on September 22, 2008 at 12:19 AM
In 1995, after hearing a lecture by Edwin Gordon at the CMEA Convention, I enrolled for graduate courses at Temple University; and, in essence, started to restructure my own training.
Almost immediately the audiation promise of security in knowing what comes next - a sort of double tracking whereby I can hear phrase "B" while I am playing phrase "A"- kicked in.
I am planning to go to the 50th reunion of my high school graduating class and have asked permission to play the solo that I played at graduation.
I may just be lucky but I think that there is more to it. And, yes, this security in playing without the score is a new experience for me!

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