Problem with memorizing/ retaining repertoire
I’m currently a Masters degree violin student. Today I went to try out some bows that were being shown at my conservatory by a dealer. I tried a few out- a couple were Tourtes!- just for fun. (Not currently in my budget!) However, I realized that I was only able to remember the concerto I am currently working on, Prokofiev 2, plus one or two movements of Bach that I have played a million times. I heard the other people around me seemingly playing every concerto, Paganini Caprice, Bach fugue and orchestra exerpt they had ever learned. I couldn’t even remember any of the rep I successfully auditioned for my program with last March! I guess what I’m trying to ask is: is retaining repertoire really such a crucial skill as long as you can perform your program at a high level by the concert date, assuming you aren’t a soloist, and if it is, how do you improve the ability to retain old rep? I also struggle to memorize new works quite a bit, and wonder how I can improve. I have no problem when performing from music. All of this seems very ironic to me, considering that I was brought up on Suzuki, which is supposed to endow you with a tremendous musical memory... *snort.*
I am sure this must be very disconcerting. Have you always had this memory retention problem?
The funny thing is that I have an excellent memory for most other things- I have always been an honors student, am really good at foreign languages, used to act in lots of plays and never forgot a line, etc. It’s truly frustrating!
Is it a matter not so much as trying to remember something that may have largely evaporated, or rather a matter of recalling something that is still there in the brain? I know from my own experience of playing Irish folk music in sessions (no sheet music allowed!) that I sometimes may not be able to start a particular tune because I think I may have forgotten it, but it only needs someone to jog my memory with the first couple of notes and it comes back perfectly.
No, it’s mostly gone!! I would say after 2 weeks of not playing a piece, (because I moved on to new rep, generally,) I can’t play through the previously memorized portion, (movement, entire work, etc) without significant stopping and starting. 6 months of not working on it and I can’t even remember how big sections sound, let alone play them. This happened to me with the 1st movement of Mozart 5- I recorded the entire 1st movement from memory with cadenza, and then didn’t touch it for about 2 months, after which I attempted to play through it at home and could only get through the first two pages until I was stumped and had to look at the part to remember how it continued. Another example: recently, I heard a piece on the radio. I thought out loud, “that piece sounds really familiar... what piece is that?” My friend said, “That’s Tchaikovsky 4! We performed that THIS semester!!”
I'm the same way. It hasn't seemed to matter. There are some passages (for example, opening of Don Juan) that I've learned and relearned so many times that they're burned into my memory, but it seems to take several times of playing a piece before I remember what it is or how it goes, and even then if I can recognize it I can't necessarily produce it. I tend to retain the muscle memory even if I don't have a conscious memory of it, though.
Maybe I simply need to re-visit these concertos several times, (Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Wieniawski 2, etc) and then the second or third go-around they will “stick” in my memory better. It’s just frustrating to think that you put all that effort into learning and memorizing the piece only for all traces of the effort to disappear in a few months!
I've found that memory retention depends on challenging myself to remember. So, that would be playing a piece without music, and sneaking a peek when you got stuck, until you had it memorized. I have not found that playing while reading music really ingrains the music into my memory. But I am more of a beginning player, so take everything I say with a grain of salt. Or rosin.
That's pretty fascinating.
I've always had the same problem. One idea: come up with a list of your core repertoire, say a couple of concertos, some Bach, a Paganini or two. Keep revisiting them on a cycle, maybe every couple of months.
It might be a structural issue of the brains.
Anyway, playing without music is more a matter of custom and tradition than anything else. Although concert pianists generally perform without the music (there are exceptions) a concert organist and double concerto players will. On a few occasions I've seen a solo violinist have the music in front of them for a concerto; in particular I remember seeing live on TV a long time ago Kyung Wha Chung performing the Korngold with the music in front of her.
I usually spend about an hour or two a week reviewing old pieces. I never know when a performance opportunity for something random will come up, so I try and have a lot of rep ready to go.
There's a jazz pianist on Youtube called Aimee Nolte who talks about memorising and learning music. In one particular video, she says something along the lines of (referring to a song she had to learn many, many years ago) "if I'd just pulled out my book and played the song from there, I would have forgotten it like all the others. But because I took the time to learn it by ear and figure it out myself, it sticks with me to this day".
In any case we don't "read" the score so much as glance at it as a reminder, and the hours of practice do the rest. Like glancing at a road map on the passenger seat of one's car while driving.
During the YouTube video of the lunch Hilary Hahn has with Brett and Eddy of TwoSet, she says that she has trouble memorizing repertoire for the following year's performances while she is performing this season's repertoire. She doesn't elaborate on what she means exactly, though.
Aside from practicing a piece many times, practicing slowly, practicing away from the music, listening to the piece many times, etc does anyone have any other specific techniques for memorization that seem to really make a piece stick?
What about understanding the form very intellectually? so that the chunks which you need to remember are smaller and more manageable, but connected to each other by a larger structure that you can keep in your mind?
Look up "The Four Memories Cedarvillemusic" on YouTube. Explains how memorizing music is done most effectively.
No discussion concerning memorizing and recalling repertoire can be complete without this video and its comments:
I have never had any memory for music I have played - I have always played with the music on a stand in front of me. All I have memorized are the beginnings of the few things I worked on hard and for a long time. In fact that faulty memory is why I switched from chemistry to physics after getting my bachelors degree.
I once took a memory course which basically teaches you how to tie everything into something else familiar, so that if you meet a person who's name is fishinato you might tie that into the image of a fish or an event in your life that might have involved fish.Or similarly making connections based on things happening in succession, for instance if you practice music you always practice it in a certain sequence so that you begin to remember what comes next.
Trevor - I believe something similar happened when a violinist was due to play Mozart 4 with orchestra, but they tried to pull a prank on him by playing the Mendelssohn, but it backfired when he switched gears and went along with it. I think they just ended up playing the entire Mendelssohn, not sure whether they still played the Mozart.
He was set to play the Prokofiev, and tbe conductor started the Mendelssohn. When the soloist entered without a hitch, they stoppd pretty much immediatly.
Memory is an area where I've done a lot of research and personal experiments.
Oops. Looks like I had a memory lapse of my own.
Maria Lammi: what you said really resonates with me. I find I am often ‘composing’ all the time in my head, and will sometimes ‘re-compose’ a piece of music in my mind, and then it just sounds ‘wrong’ the way it is actually written. For example, when I was studying the Bach G minor sonata, there were a few places in the fugue where I kept playing the wrong harmony at a cadence and then modulating the next section into a different key!! It just sounded more ‘correct’ that way to me! The way it was actually written just sounded weird. I also remember playing the first movement of Tchaikovsky for my teacher when I was 16. She stopped me at some point amd said gently, “my dear, you have modulated into a different key than what Mr. Tchaikovsky wrote. However, you did it without missing a beat, which was quite amusing.”
I mean, you really only need to have something memorized when you are performing it from memory. I wouldn't worry too much. The people that can keep a bunch of full concertos memorized at any given moment are probably pretty rare, and I'm sure that most top performers make sure to bring concertos back when they perform them for the first time in a while.
Let's see now, what were we talking about?
I gave up on my memory. I always play with the music in front of me except for Paganini, which I rarely play anymore.
Hey, being able to modulate is an excellent skill - very useful, and unfortunately not enough people are able to transpose on the spot.
I do improvise quite a bit! Used to have a steady Saturday night gig at a nightclub in Tribeca performing with a jazz band. Funny thing is, I never felt nervous performing jazz solos, but I always feel incredibly nervous performing classical music such as Bach, Paganini, Tchaikovsky, etc. I suppose it’s a whole different mindset.
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