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Karen Allendoerfer

Memorizing the Map

June 29, 2009 at 10:26 PM

In this round of playing the violin and viola, I've been paying more attention to memorization of pieces. When I was growing up I did almost none of that. My teachers didn't require it and I think that lack was part of a larger educational philosophy of the time that was anti-"rote" memorization and "regurgitation" for many subjects, not just music. I partially agree with this school of thought, in that I don't think memorization is the be-all and end-all of learning a piece. I don't think it should stop there. But, I am starting to think that it should *start* there.

I played a viola recital in April, my first recital in more years than I want to think about, and my first public performance ever of a piece from memory, without music. It was a short piece, a little under 5 minutes long, Rebecca Clarke's "Passacaglia on an Old English Tune." Given what other people manage to memorize--whole concertos, entire symphonies, multiple instrumental parts of entire symphonies--this one little viola part seemed like it should have been a surmountable challenge.  And, I perspired through it without memory glitches, sweaty hands and all. However, the fear of forgetting (if not actual forgetting) intensified the nerves that I normally feel anyway.

Now, over the past month, I've been trying to learn the first movement to Anton Stamitz' viola concerto in D.  I don't have much time.  Soon I'm leaving for Europe and after I get back, it's violin again, Simchas Torah and Franck Sonata, and then the orchestra season starts.   And, unlike Karl Stamitz' viola concerto in D, which abounds even on YouTube, there are no recordings that I can find of this piece.  I've heard it performed once, when I was a teenager in Berlin.  I was in the accompanying orchestra, in the 1st violin section.  While I remember being impressed with the soloist, I have to admit I remember very little of her musical interpretation--so that hasn't been very helpful.  

But what has been extraordinarily helpful has been memorization, even attempted-but-not-wholly-successful memorization.  The repetition required to commit a piece to memory seems to help my intonation, and sound quality, along the way.  Once I've played it enough to know what's coming next, I seem to be able to plan better where my fingers should go, and to listen better to intonation.  I also seem to be able to take another step back, mentally, and listen to and critique the piece the way I might do if someone else were playing.

I was hoping to be able to play the movement entirely from memory at my lesson today.  And although I put in a few daylight hours on both days over the weekend, I didn't quite achieve that goal.  Like other music of its time, this piece has a theme and then development of the same theme later, a 5th up.  I ran into this same kind of thing trying to memorize a Sonatina by Hook a few years ago.  I'd be cruising along and suddenly I'd realize I just kept modulating up, up, up, I'd missed the bridge and I was out of strings.  Or, I'd keep repeating the same passage 3 and 4 times, like being trapped circling a rotary and unable to exit.  So for the lesson, I decided to play it safe and use the "map," i.e. the sheet music.  This time, having the music mostly memorized calmed my nerves rather than making them worse.  I knew what was coming, I knew where the pitfalls were.  I knew where I have blown it, and what I could do when it all came together.  

I was quite pleased with how the lesson went overall.  By now, I've brought my teacher quite a selection of weird music for the viola:  underplayed Clarke, a self-transposed cello Chiacona from the 1630's, now a concerto by Karl Stamitz' underachieving kid brother.  But she said that I had convinced her this was a really nice piece and I should perform it if I could find a venue.  Maybe another continuing studies recital in the fall.  

From Drew Lecher
Posted on June 30, 2009 at 3:02 AM

 Hi Karen,

Sounds like a major achievement—congratulations!

Just remember memorization is not part guessing. We must know what we did, are doing and will be doing. It is like when you used the music for the lesson even though a good deal was in process of memorization. In addition to playing something many times, do a great deal of study regarding the note patterns (scale/arpeggio), finger sequences and interval patterns (Hand Groups) and , of course, rhythms.


As the page of music is the 'map' so is the fingerboard and bow pattern, just translate it perfectly and remember all those subtle nuances—piece of cake!

From Bart Meijer
Posted on June 30, 2009 at 5:35 AM

Hi Karen,

That's interesting: you too find that playing from memory allows you to pay extra attention to making music. I wonder if you could comment on that as a neuroscientist? How would reading music interfere with making music?


From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 30, 2009 at 10:12 AM

Bart, I think it has to do with not splitting attention too finely.  There are numerous studies pointing out that multitasking doesn't really work--but in my case, it's not like I needed a study to tell me that! 

For me, it really matters what I do with my eyes.  I think I'm naturally a visually-oriented person.  For example, I take in information much better if I read it than if I just hear it.  I get more out of lectures and speeches if I take notes and write things down.  But if I'm playing an instrument, it's a different thing altogether.  I become too attentive to visual input (the music), to the exclusion of the aural and kinesthetic input.  Sometimes, as an exercise, I'll just close my eyes altogether when I'm playing.  I don't know if an external observer would say it helps my sound or not, other than with memorization, but it does change my experience of the music quite profoundly.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on June 30, 2009 at 10:36 AM

 I know you're on to something here. I have played from memory exactly once. It went well enough but I haven't had the courage and energy to do it since. 

But I think that one doesn't really know a piece until they have memorized it. Laurie's note on the student at Starling was another goad.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 30, 2009 at 11:03 AM

Yeah, Laurie's blog about Chee-Yun's advice to write out a piece from memory was also interesting.  I've just been speculating how that would go with the Stamitz, but I should try it.  It also switches clefs repeatedly--between alto and treble, sometimes mid-measure--for more fun and games.

 There is a part that is a series of repeated triplet arpeggio's with only small differences between each section.  In one case, the first section is minor and then the next section is a 5th down, and major with high 4's instead of open strings (the way I fingered it--which my teacher agreed was the best way).  And I keep getting hung up there without the music--slowing down just a little and getting out of tempo, just enough to make sure I'm in the right section. 

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on July 2, 2009 at 12:21 AM

Karen, congratulations on memorizing the whole piece for your recital and for playing the recital, too.  I'm sure you played beautifully.  I have trouble memorizing, but my students who memorize pieces or passages say the same thing you did:  When they don't have to look at the printed music, they can focus better on the music itself, and they play better.  I can confirm that they play better when they've memorized the music.

Bart, I wrote a blog way back in Oct., 2006 that addressed the question you asked Karen as a neuroscientist.  A number of neuroscientists have studied the brains of living musicians.  In one study, the scientists compared the brains of professional and nonprofessional violinists while they played part of a Mozart concerto.  The brains of the professionals focussed more on the sound of the music and less on their muscle movements.  The brain can direct its finite resources quite well. 

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