Thanks for the Memories – the Musical Cliff

I would hate to start 2013 off on a contrarian note, but since that’s the way I ended 2012 why change now?  Matter of fact, why not up the ante?  Start the year on a high note?  So my first target of 2013 is……. the New York Times.

No, seriously, I don’t really have a beef with the NYT, although I did just hear that the Culture Editor is stepping down, and that makes me a little nervous.  However, there has been one article that has made the rounds the last few days written by Anthony Tommasini about memorization.  In this article he posits that the Rule of Memorization for pianists has not necessarily been the best thing, and that it’s about time for the rule to come down.

Respectfully, Anthony, I disagree.  Before I go on, I’m not disagreeing just to be contrarian, and I also realize that I might be disagreeing for very personal and individual reasons.

There are many kinds of memorization.  The two biggies are Declarative memory – where something is explicitely stored and retrieved – and Procedural memory – which has more to do with learning through repetition.  From my perspective there are three (sub?)types of memory I have seen used or use myself when learning music: Photographic, Direct, and Muscle.  (Note: I am not an expert in memory and I’m creating these descriptions on the fly.)

I’ve seen photographic memory used in learning music and from my experience this can be both helpful and a real problem.  Helpful, because one always has the score in front of them, but a problem because having something stored in photographic memory does not necessarily mean that one has learned the music!  This is an important distinction.  While at Eastman one of my fellow students had real trouble with her photographic memory for this very reason.  She felt that she didn’t really know the music well because she kept reading the score in her mind.  My teacher had an interesting way around it.  He suggested that she use multiple editions so that she never got locked into one photographic memory of the piece.

There was also a conductor I knew who used this kind of memory in performances.  Eventually this drove his orchestra crazy because they felt a real disconnect with the conductor.  Instead of making eye contact, a very important element of music making, said conductor always had his head in the score, even though the score was in his head.  That situation did not work out well.

Myself, I use a combination of what I called direct and muscle memory.  I am very, very lucky in that for me memorization is usually not a problem.  Through a combination of analysis and cognitive thought I tend to memorize music directly, quickly, and easily.  Muscle memory, though, has bailed me out on more than one occassion.  A few years ago I had a rather terrifying three days where I had to relearn the Ravel G Major concerto.  I had played it many times, yet on this occassion the music looked totally foreign and I had to rely on my muscles to remember what to play.  This made me very nervous, as I was not quite sure what was going to happen from one moment to the next.

And here is the crux of the situation – I know from personal experience that if I have a piece memorized I know it better than if I do not.  Even more importantly, if a piece is memorized I can concentrate on other musical elements of a performance rather than worrying about what notes come next.  I am no longer using part of my brain to input and process written information.  Instead, I can concentrate on making music.  That is a fancy way of saying that the notes are not important!

When playing an instrument such as the piano, a very physical instrument where all ten fingers are involved and the hands tend to move over a large physical space, it really, really helps to be able to look at the physicality involved.  Worrying about the notes can be very distracting.  Personal experience again – there was a huge difference between the first and second times I played the Rachmaninov sonata for ‘Cello and Piano.  The second time it was about 90% memorized, and I found the piece to be physically much easier to play.  I could look at my hands and concentrate on the music without being intimidated by the gazillion notes up on the page.

I realize that I may have a different experience than, say, a flautist or a tuba player. On those instruments the hands tend to stay in one place, and they generally only have to play one line of music.  With the piano that is almost never the case.  Playing Goyescas of Granados really demands that it be memorized.  There are very, very few people on earth who could really process all those notes going by and still concentrate on the musical elements.

But even beyond that, there is the decoupling from the score that is important.  Music is a language, and like every language it is imprecise.  Every language between humans has started in an oral form and only later developed a written nomenclature. In other words, languages are meant to be heard, not seen.  Inflection is a tremendously important aspect of any language.  To say a sentence out loud is fundamentally different from reading it.  There are so many different emphases a person can bring to a spoken sentence that no amount of bold, underline, or italics can bring out.  The written form of that same spoken sentence does not inherently have those personal emphases.

The same can be said for the language music.  Musical notation is notoriously imprecise, despite the anal-retentiveness of composers like Stravinsky and Schoeberg.  The music exists somewhere between the notes, not in the notes themselves.  It is only when one stops concentrating on the notes and starts concentrating on everything inbetween the notes that music happens.  This does not mean that you should start improvising in the middle of a Beethoven sonata and still call it Beethoven.  It means that you are taking the leap from perceiving music as a written language to an aural language.  And that is where real music is made.

So, if you don’t mind, I will continue to memorize a lot of the music I perform, and I will continue to advocate for other musicians to do that as well.  I’m not doing this out of sadism (though I am a conductor, and technically that’s part of my perview, eh?).   Rather, I want to be able to make music unencumbered by the written language.  I want the music to be part of my DNA.

Hmmm……. I’m going to go practice some Brahms.  The G Major sonata for Piano and Violin.  It’s almost memorized and I’m ready to make that leap off the musical cliff.  Like Thelma and Louise…. or the 112th Congress.

Yikes.  Maybe that last one is a bad analogy.

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