memorization dos and don'ts
I am playing in a studio recital in about five weeks. I'll be playing a concerto movement with piano accompaniment.
I've been working on the concerto for a while and it's going reasonably well. My teacher has suggested playing from memory at the recital. I've never done this in a recital, though I spent many years playing in rock bands (all from memory).
The movement is fairly short and uncomplicated, and I can pretty much sing the solo viola part start to finish. Actually *playing* it from memory is much different :-)
I've just started the memorization process in the past couple of days; I've played along with a recording of the piano accompaniment, which I can speed up/slow down as needed, and I've also tried playing with just the metronome. I'm surprised at how distracting this can be!. You'd never know that I spent years playing by ear/from memory - some of my mistakes are that dumb. I find that I am trying to remember what the music looks like and "read" it from a picture in my mind. When I make a mistake, I get stuck looking at that picture, trying to figure out what I did wrong, even after the moment has passed. Something tells me this might not be a good habit :-)
I realize that I've just started the memorization process so I'm not too discouraged yet, but any tips you might have (as well as suggestions of things *not* to do) would be most appreciated.
I think the photographic-memory approach to memorizing isn't very effective, especially under stressful conditions.
I never play from memory! Seven months from now will mark the 80th anniversary of the birthday I received my first violin - I cannot remember standing in front of an audience to play from memory.. There are a few pieces I have known well enough to play from memory, just from "overwork.". The last time I performed standing in front of an orchestra I essentially played from memory, but I had the music in front of me anyway. I was going to do it from memory, but chickened out.
Karen, I don't know my experience will be helpful to you for your upcoming recital, but here is what I'm doing. I start to play from memory as soon as I start a new piece: I'll learn some chunks and walk away from the music stand practice, often in front of a mirror or look out of the window to listen how to sound cleaner and more musically appropriate. So basically I'd have all the notes in my hand and all the details in my head way before the time I've learned the piece. If I have to look at the music during my lesson, I consider my work is under-prepared. That does happen from time to time and I don't feel it's the best use of my lesson time.
For me, it is very helpful to visualize. Look at a measure and play it once. Then, look away and try to visualize the music, imagining seeing the paper and notes. It also helps to listen to it a bunch!
Thank you all for your responses so far. I will have more time later to answer your questions, but I will add this: I know the piece well enough that I barely look at the music when it's in front of me (this sometimes leads to some interesting "where was I" moments). Having the music there is mostly a security blanket.
What I do and teach my kid (and was likely taught) to memorize a piece is to break it down by the natural phrases in the pieces. Re-learn the piece phrase by phrase but now focusing on the feel of the notes - your hand position, the bow strokes, the expression you want to convey. Once familiar enough you should be able to close your eyes and play from “feel” (aural and kinesthic memory as Lydia says.)
There are so many things to think about and to try. But ... if you want to be able to play pieces at recitals from memory, then there has to be a first time. And it will not be perfect. But it'll be fine anyway. I suggest you divide the piece into chunks mentally. Rehearsal letters/numbers are good for this. Then decide I'll play section C now, and play that section. Also it is good to try to play it with some distraction such as the piano accompaniment or even just ordinary noises of home.
It’s worth memorizing. There is nothing like carrying the music around with you all the time, and the satisfaction and accomplishment of making it through with no major memory slips is something you’ll have forever.
One thing I've learned from pro-oriented young players in our community conservatory is that they would practice their reps whenever they get a chance. This means that they would practice these passages from memory before and between rehearsals or during social time. It's very handy when we can practice things we are working on anywhere and any time we can get. Doing so it also helps us to play imperfectly in front of others without being self-conscious, a very healthy attitude that adult players should cultivate.
If you have a piece so thoroughly in your memory so that you can "play it in your sleep", then it's probably not a good idea to have the sheet music in front of you when you're performing. It's possible you may make little unexpected mistakes, slightly unnerving perhaps but not disastrous. I think the reason for this is that the memory part of the brain is quite happily organizing your hands and fingers without much input from you, but if you start reading from the score when you're playing from memory then the brain finds it has another task, that of reading the music from the score and instructing the fingers. I believe this causes a brain circuitry conflict between the two tasks of playing from memory and sight-reading, resulting in the aforesaid unexpected little mistakes. That has been my experience in folk music workshops where some of the sheet music placed on my stand was already deep in my repertoire.
I take the same approach as Yixi. Once I learn a section of a piece, I would polish it away from the stand. By the time the piece is polished to an acceptable standard ( for an amateur), it is memorized.
I agree with Trevor about not having the sheet music in front of you if you're performing from memory. Play from memory or play from the music, but don't try to mix. What happens too often is that the performer is going along just fine by memory, then has a moment of doubt, decides to look at the music just for confirmation, can't find where on the music he/she is, and then the trainwreck ensues.
Trevor, I've heard that story but never seen the video before. Her reaction at the beginning is stunning (and the conductor: oh, you'll be fine, don't worry! LOL). Once she gets going, though, it's humorous to watch her play the music calmly, and then during the rests the stressed look returns, and she alternates back and forth several times=)
Playing from memory forces you to learn the piece! For me, playing from memory vs. from the paper probably uses different parts of the brain. No matter how many repetitions I have done looking at the paper, memorizing is like starting over again. Start with small chunks, when you make a mistake, stop, look at the paper, but then look away before re-starting.
Mary Ellen Goree: "What happens too often is that the performer is going along just fine by memory, then has a moment of doubt, decides to look at the music just for confirmation, can't find where on the music he/she is, and then the trainwreck ensues."
Still pressed for time today, but to answer some of your questions:
Here is an update, after four days of memorization-practice.
I'm bumping this not to be a pest, but to ask again whether it's too optimistic to expect this memorization process to be linear (i.e., up-up-up), or whether off-days are normal. After a day or so of doubt, I had a few days where I played well from memory. Today I played from memory for my teacher (for the first time), but I had a few lapses, and my playing sounded generally worse. Are off days to be expected? It's not too late for me to go back to playing from the music.
Karen, I do think it's too optimistic to expect any learning process to be linear, but the doubt's also not helpful. My old teacher used to say we don't even think about doubt or playing badly. We don't want to go on stage with those feelings, as we don't want to project that on the audience. That said it's not all about positive thinking, but positive thinking backed up by very thorough preparation. My teacher also said the piece needed long enough to "bake". So I wouldn't worry about ups and downs, but you have to give it enough time and careful attention.
Playing from memory in the comfort of your home is very different from playing from memory in front of your teacher or someone else whom you know will be critical. You know your dogs will love you no matter what. You're comparing apples and oranges here.
Karen and Mary Ellen, very good point about playing solo rep during rehearsal breaks. Yes, I understand this is unprofessional. Still, I admire the young musicians who would take whatever opportunity they get to practice in public. And I kind of believe that goofing around a bit from time to time does no harm after all the hard serous work one has put into what is expected of us to do.
Sidetrack, but the problem with playing solo rep during rehearsal breaks isn't that the offending musician is "goofing around." It's that everyone else who is also on break is having their peace disturbed.
I think there's two types of solo playing in break: 1) showing off (please don't, everyone will hate you), and 2) someone really pressed for time for practice and trying to solve a technical problem discreetly (doesn't bother me, I find it fascinating to hear how your brain is working at the problem). Although personally I would find Yixi's scenario to fall into category 1...
Sometimes when a student is struggling with taking the wrong memory track on a similar-but-not-quite-identical phrase, I will have them play the first iteration just up to where the phrases differ, pause, announce out loud the next note (or fingering, or string--whatever helps the student most), and finish the phrase--then do exactly the same thing with the second iteration. This is one method of getting those similar figures into the student's analytical memory as Dorian recommends.
I am at a very basic level in my playing right now, but almost everything I've learned had the intent of eventual memorization. In an Irish folk music session people seldom bring music along to look at. It's kinda tacky to do so. Granted much of the music isn't terribly difficult when compared to some classical music violin solos.
I find that thinking too hard about how it's done makes it harder. Concentration, deliberation, but not being too consciously analytical, makes it go faster for me. It'll happen anyway if one practices enough.. I recall an old story about a centipede who started to analyze in what order he ought to place his feet, and ended up by not being able to walk. Self-doubt will make you freeze in performance.
I think sometimes we might not practice in the same way when we are attempting to memorize. Like, the spots that need work regardless of whether you have music in front of you, those should be practiced slowly, in rhythms and all the other stuff you normally do to really nail a section, but all away from the music.
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