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WORKSHOP #11: "The Case for Memorizing: Am I Crazy?!?"

First off, let me assure you that I'm not going to suggest we all start playing recitals from memory so don't worry. Secondly, I know I'm not alone in barely having enough time in my schedule for learning new music let alone memorizing it, so I'm not going to recommend anything unrealistic. Most of us were all too happy to leave playing from memory behind in college. We avoid it at all costs and it's just below the dentist on our Top Ten list of bad experiences. So why am I even bringing it up?

A few years ago, I decided to memorize the Fugue in G Minor (BWV 578). I'm pretty sure it was due to my mother's voice in my head saying, "It's always a good idea to have something prepared in case you're asked to play." It's not a bad idea to have a "ready" piece. Imagine being away on vacation and stumbling across a beautiful organ. It would be a shame to have to say, "Sorry, I can't play anything. I don't have my music with me."

On a related note, I live in dread of being asked to play Happy Birthday. I don't know how many times I've memorized it only to forget it again. And then there was the time I left my wedding music at home 30 minutes away with only 20 minutes until the start of the ceremony. Picture me, in a panic, pecking and scribbling in the choir room trying to assemble a workable version of the Wedding March.

These are all compelling reasons for using the power of memorization but I'm actually getting at something else entirely. It took me a long time to memorize the Fugue in G Minor but once I became really comfortable with it, something interesting happened. When I wasn't playing from the printed music, the Fugue became non-linear. In other words, it ceased being a left to right, top to bottom kind of thing. Once these boundaries were removed, I was able to experience the Fugue as pure music-sound. I no longer saw the printed notes in my mind's eye. I only saw and felt my ears, hands, and feet dancing together. Playing the Fugue from printed music and playing it from memory became such different experiences that it was almost as if I was playing two completely different pieces.

The needs of the visual process when we play from printed music (seeing and focusing on the notes, converting them into meaningful signals, looking ahead, comparing what we played with what's on the page, etc.) place such a high demand on the resources of the brain that they can all but obliterate the needs of the hearing/listening process. We're not aware of it because we're used to it but consider the files on your computer. All things being equal, a digital video file is much, much larger than a digital audio file of the same duration. Playing the video file therefore requires a greater commitment of your computer's operating resources.

Playing from memory frees up huge amounts of mental resources that can be devoted to listening and playing. Rather than eye-(hand/foot)-ear coordination, playing becomes simply ear-(hand/foot) coordination. All the brain power that was designated for the eye-brain process can now be shifted to the ear-brain and (hand/foot)-brain processes. By not relying on your eyes, playing is now achieved through what could be called Muscle Memory and Ear Memory.

Why Me?
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At this point, you're saying, "That sounds nice but why would I want to subject myself to all that work?" Well, at the beginning, you'll just have to take my word for it but after that you'll very quickly begin to understand what I'm talking about. First of all, there's no work, only fun. It's fun because there's no pressure. And there's no pressure because there's no deadline. This is a long-term, at your leisure, project. Think of it as a relaxing hobby. I recently started memorizing the Prelude and Fugue in D Minor (BWV 539). After four weeks (eight practice sessions), I have only fourteen bars of the Fugue memorized from a total of 96. But that's OK because I'm not in any hurry. I'm just having fun.

I also know that I'm not doing this for anyone but myself. Even though I finished memorizing the Fugue in G Minor over three years ago, I don't perform it from memory in front of people. Oh, I tried to for a while but I gave up. It was too nerve-wracking and I finally lost the desire to prove I could do it. I simply play from memory for my own enjoyment. Even if I only ever memorized that one piece, I'm perfectly happy playing it from memory over and over again. It frees me, like I'm flying.

Where to Begin?
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Printed music is useful to a point but after that point it begins to limit your ability to realize your performing potential, as well as to limit your enjoyment of the experience. In reality, we use printed music as a crutch. Now, there's a time to use a crutch but there's also a time to throw away the crutch and walk on your own. If you know a piece really well, you likely have it 85% memorized already.

The first step is to select your "ready" piece. Now, don't go picking the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Start with something smaller. Keep in mind that a smaller piece will get you playing from memory sooner. I like the Fugue in G Minor because it's four to five minutes in length and most of the time has three or fewer voices going. Even at that it took me six months to learn, taken in weekly four- to eight-bar chunks. Or you could choose something simpler like "Ich ruf' zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ" (BWV 639) from the Orgel-Büchlein. Something to consider though is that while preludes are easier to memorize, in the end you'll get more satisfaction out of memorizing a fugue.

The Nitty-Gritty
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Once you've chosen your "ready" piece, it's time to begin memorizing. Don't try to do too much in any one session. More specifically, work in small chunks. I'd recommend only one per session. It takes time for the music to settle into your muscles and ears as they get used to their new-found emancipation from your eyes. Depending on the piece, take a chunk of four to eight bars and stick with it until you can play it well without looking at the music. Work out any fingerings that are giving you trouble. That's it for the first session.

At your next session, review the first chunk but then go directly to the second chunk and work ONLY on that chunk. DO NOT work on the second chunk by repeatedly going back to the beginning of the first chunk. Be aware that the second chunk can be a lot more challenging than the first chunk since it usually has more voices and/or notes to deal with. It's not unusual to quickly complete the first chunk and then hit a wall with the second or even third chunk. If you stick with it though, you'll get over that hump and it won't be long before you're slowly developing momentum. At that point you should be able to catch your first glimpse of your reward.

Once the second chunk is set, THEN go back and try to join the second chunk to the first chunk. If both chunks are solid, it shouldn't take too long to connect them. DO NOT move on to a new chunk before making sure that the connection between the first and second chunks is solid.

At your next session, review the first and second chunks and their connection before moving on to the third chunk. Once the third chunk is solid, DO NOT immediately go back to the first chunk. Instead, go to the beginning of the second chunk and work on connecting the third chunk to it. After that connection is good, THEN go back to the beginning of the first chunk and work on connecting all three chunks. If you need to go back over the connections between the first and second chunks or between the second and third chunks, do so and then try again to work on all three chunks as a whole.

In this manner, continue working through the piece. This method will keep you focused and working efficiently while helping you avoid frustration and wasted effort. If the explanation is at all confusing, perhaps consulting the graphic below will help.

Modular Approach to Memorizing Music:

This modular approach may seem obvious but I was never taught how to memorize. I would often start memorizing at the beginning of a piece and just try to fight my way through as far as I could get, hopefully adding a little to the end each time. When I got bogged down, I would go all the way back to the beginning and start over. It's a wonder I ever got anything memorized back in school.

Every so often, it's a good idea to throw it all out the window and plunge into the rest of the piece, reading from the printed music but resisting the urge to stop and fix wrong notes. It's fun to have a break from the structured routine with the added benefit of familiarizing you with what's coming up. You'll have an overall sense of where the piece is going with a little head start when you get there.

Finally, it's OK to occasionally close your eyes in order to visualize the printed notes but try as much as possible to play with your eyes open so you can watch your hands. It's a bit unrealistic to have to play the entire piece with your eyes closed and what happens if you do open your eyes? I used to get distracted by my hands, lose my visualization, and crash. So I feel that if you're visualizing the printed notes in your head, whether your eyes are open or closed, you might as well just be looking at the music. Better to watch your hands, familiarize yourself with how they move and enjoy watching how good it feels to play.

Down the Road
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Essential to this method of memorizing is working slowly and, along with that, a heavy dose of patience. Most of us won't have a problem since we're limited time-wise anyway but there is still room for frustration. Sometimes you lose a chunk that was at one time very solid. It's OK, backsliding is a natural part of the process. That's why it's important to review previous chunks at the start of each session. You have to shore up what you've already worked on. Sometimes a chunk you're working on just won't solidify. Don't feel like this means you're not getting anywhere. The key is to never give up, never stop trying. Eventually it will all come together.

I've managed to hang on to the Fugue in G Minor for the past three years but it's a weekly battle. There are weeks when I can't get to it and it starts to fade so I have to run through it the first chance I get in order to get it back. Even those weeks when I'm feeling comfortable with it, I sometimes find myself questioning and having to recheck the printed music to see whether what I played was correct.

In her book "If You Want to Write," Brenda Ueland had this to say about memorizing:

"Sometimes when I walk I learn a poem, a Shakespeare sonnet, say, as I go along. I have discovered this: if you say a line over and over again, as children do in memorizing, half mechanically, after a long time the nerves and muscles in your brain and jaws will know how to do it automatically.

"But all that automatic grinding takes a long, long time. To learn it more easily I do this: I say a line slowly, slowly, slowly, and I can see in my imagination each word and how it looks in print and in reality. If the word is "winds" I see winds. And in my imagination I trace and marvel at the wonderful economy of Shakespeare's grammar."

Memorizing words is quite a bit different than memorizing notes but memorizing music in chunks will allow you to marvel at the wonderful economy of Bach's grammar. Playing Bach from memory will bring you closer than you've ever been to experiencing what Bach experienced when he played. You'll have the ability to pick out a voice and follow it while playing. That may sound trivial but that experience alone makes all the effort of memorizing worthwhile.

I also came across this in Russell Stinson's "J. S. Bach's Great Eighteen Organ Chorales:"
"Another Widor pupil was Marcel Dupré, who effectively inaugurated his career as a concert organist in 1920 by playing the complete organ works of Bach (from memory, of course) in a series of ten recitals at the conservatory."

That's never going to be me but all alone in an empty church, I can sure have a lot of fun. Good luck to you!

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Books of Interest
cover J. S. Bach's Great Eighteen Organ Chorales by Russell Stinson
This book has 20 sample pages. Click here to see all pages.
Book Description
On the 250th anniversary of the composer's death, this volume offers an in-depth look at the "Great Eighteen" organ chorales, among the most celebrated works for organ, and a milestone in the history of the chorale. Addressed to organists, scholars, and general listeners alike, this lucid and engaging book examines the music from a wide spectrum of historical and analytical perspectives. Stinson examines the models used by Bach in conceiving the original pieces, his subsequent compilation of these works into a collection, and his compositional process as preserved by the autograph manuscript. Himself an accomplished organist, Stinson also considers various issues of performance practice and concludes with a discussion of the music's reception--its dissemination in manuscript and printed form, its performance history, and its influence on later composers. Completely up-to-date and presenting a wealth of new material, much of it translated into English for the first time, this study will open up fresh perspectives on some of the composer's greatest creations.

cover If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit by Brenda Ueland
This book has 10 sample pages. Click here to see all pages.
Book Description
This book so speaks to the contemporary writer that it is nearly impossible to believe that it was originally published in 1938. In If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland sets forth not just a philosophy about how to write or how to create, but also about how to live. Beginning writers will certainly be encouraged by Ueland's words, but even the most experienced have much to glean from Ueland's simple wisdom. "Everybody," writes Ueland in the opening chapter, "is talented, original, and has something important to say." Finding that something important involves embracing creative idleness ("the imagination needs moodling--long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering"), freeing "what we really think, from what we think we ought to think," and "thumb[ing] your nose at all know-it-alls, jeerers, critics, doubters." One must think, she says, "of telling a story, not of writing it." And when revising one's writing, she advises, "do not try to think of better words, more gripping words.... It is not yet deeply enough imagined." Finally, "whenever you find yourself writing a single word or phrase or page dutifully and with boredom, then leave it out.... If what you write bores you, it will bore other people." And just because If You Want to Write is passionate, sincere, and even spiritual, do not think it is not also witty. One footnote bluntly declaims, "No doubt my terms would horrify a psychologist but I do not care at all." Elsewhere Ueland titles a chapter "Why Women Who Do Too Much Housework Should Neglect It for Their Writing." Amen, sister!

cover Passionate Practice: The Musician's Guide to Learning, Memorizing, and Performing by Margret Elson
Book Description
"Relax your shoulders." "Let go of tension." "Look at the music." "Don't look at the music." Look at the keyboard." "Don't look at the keyboard." "Listen to the music." "Don't think, just play." Every music student has heard such suggestions, and they all hold some truth. But the challenge is: how? This book is a gentle, progressive guide in exactly how to relax, focus, listen, and feel the music and how to harness them to work together, automatically and simultaneously. Its innovative approach combines special relaxing and behavior modification exercises that foster concentration, focus, security and passion in performance. The book, user-friendly, comprehensive, and filled with witty illustrations, can also be used as a key tool for psychotherapists working to help clients detoxify trauma, especially that associated with performing issues.

cover Memorizing Time by Laura Greenberg
Book Description
Memorizing Time recounts the Brooklyn childhood of a young musician, her struggle to leave home during the turbulent sixties, and her evolution into a modern, urban composer. The memoir depicts encounters with music teachers who changed her life and many extraordinary lessons, both taken and given. It is a profoundly personal story of one woman's progress through the second half of the twentieth century.

cover Music by Heart by Lilias Mackinnon
cover The Art of Practicing: A Guide to Making Music from the Heart by Madeline Bruser, Yehudi Menuhin (Foreword)
This book has 28 sample pages. Click here to see all pages.
Book Description
This landmark book enlightens amateur and professional musicians about a way of practicing that transforms a sometimes frustrating, monotonous, and overly strenuous labor into an exhilarating and rewarding experience. Acclaimed pianist and teacher Madeline Bruser combines physiological and meditative principles to help musicians release physical and mental tension and unleash their innate musical talent. She offers practical techniques for cultivating free and natural movement, a keen enjoyment of sounds and sensations, a clear and relaxed mind, and an open heart and she explains how to:
--Prepare the body and mind to practice with ease
--Understand the effect of posture on flexibility and expressiveness
--Make efficient use of the hands and arms
--Employ listening techniques to improve coordination
--Increase the range of color and dynamics by using less effort
--Cultivate rhythmic vitality
--Perform with confidence, warmth, and freedom
Photographs show essential points of posture and movement for a variety of instruments.

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