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Memorizing, Part I: Three Legs to Stand On

Classical guitarists are part of a small minority of soloists who have a tradition of performing by memory. As a rule, string players have scores on stage. Wind players use scores. Singers often do. Only guitarists and pianists play by memory. Even our cousins, organists and lutanists use scores.

The very notion of performing music by memory is easy to dismiss as ludicrous--if you know how to read music, then what is the purpose of committing it to memory? It takes considerable extra energy and time and can add a layer of anxiety to performance which is wholly avoidable. And yet, traditions being what they are, bucking the trend, particularly as a student, can be difficult. Or impossible: many collegiate programs and nearly all competitions require performance by memory. 

So memorizing looms large in our psyches. It is part of our daily experience: playing by memory, or working towards that end. In this post I'll present some thoughts on the memorizing process and offer suggestions for overcoming common problems associated with memory. 

I like to think of memorized music as analogous to a three-legged stool. Fewer than three legs and it falls over. More than three, and it is even more secure. But three is enough to stand up. Each leg repesents a different type of memory. 

First, and perhaps most obvious and familiar, is physical memory. This is what our hands (our bodies) recall from repetition. We "drill" the music, repeating it over and over. With each reiteration, the movements become more habituated. If you play a piece 100 times, your hands will feel they can play it while your mind is in the next room, otherwise engaged. If you play it 1,000 times... (Of course, if you play it incorrectly all those times, then you master your errors, making them very hard to correct, but that's a topic for another post.)

The next leg of the stool is the analytic mind: it's "knowing" the notes. The more deeply you understand your music, the better it sticks in your memory. This is valuable at all levels: do you know what key it's in, where it modulates and to what new key?  Do you recognize structurally important elements like primary and secondary motives? Are you perfectly clear on the piece's form? Do you understand the voicing-the distinction between melodic elements and accompanimental figures? Do you know the bass lines, the middle voices? Are you sure about each note's duration, about rests? 

If your clarity of mind about all your piece's compositional elements is thorough, then, ideally, you'd be able to reconstruct the entire piece with a pencil and some blank manuscript paper. By memory, with the guitar in the case. 

This is the intellectual memory, what Timothy Greene of "Inner Game of Music" fame would call your "Self 1." It is quite true that we don't want our performances guided primarily by this mechanism. Your understanding of all the various elements of the piece--it's notes, harmonies, rhythms, form, etc., needs to be fully internalized. But it needs to be there. It is the critical second leg. 

The third leg is your aural memory. In my experience, this mechanism is most allied with your emotional experience of the music. You know what it sounds like. You know what "feeling" each phrase and gesture in the piece gives you. This emotional connection to your music is a powerful ally in your efforts to memorize. If you don't feel an emotional response from each moment in the music you play, this is a critical area to explore, as cultivating one will greatly deepen your experience of the music, and give you a firm third leg for your memory. 

If you have played the instrument for a long time, then it is likely a clear sense of the sound of what is coming up as you play will lead your hands to the right place, in an almost intuitive way. But my experience suggests an interpretive, creative, emotional connection to the material is the essence of this "leg."  

A possible fourth mechanism of memory is possible for only a few. This is photographic memory. I have had a few students who rely generously on it: they tell me they can "see" the score in their "mind's eye," and simply read it. I personally can't do this and have found most share my limitations. But if you can tap this, then by all means do it as well!

As you can see, the idea is to have multiple means of recalling the music; to avoid relying too heavily on only one. The most common trap students tend to fall into is relying solely on physical memory. After all, their analytical skills are still being formed and their capacity for developing truly emotionally engaged interpretations is still limited. The trouble is, if the hands make a mistake, they (the hands) have difficulty getting back into the music, leading to the impulse to go back and start over (we have no dedicated mini-brain in our hands!) It's as if the music were a chain, strung across the room. Losing a link in the middle causes the two severed parts to fall away from one another, with reassembly difficult or impossible. Having three legs undergirding your memory is like having the chain interwoven with a steel cable and covered with a plastic sheathing. If one component fails, the others take up the slack. They are a fail safe. 

In real-time, what this might feel like is as follows. 
You are in the middle of a well-worn passage and your physical memory is carrying you comfortably. Because your attention is not fully there, you permit yourself to become distracted, and falter. Instead of stopping cold, you press on, letting your aural memory guide you, but your confidence is shaken and you hesitate. You know perfectly well you are two bars away from a cadence in the key of G. Understanding the style of the music you are playing, you dive into a suitable improvisation, staying carefully in the given meter. You wrap up the phrase safely, having composed part of the cadence on the fly. It sounds fine. Most people won't even notice. The piece continues as if nothing happened. It beats stopping and starting over! Three legs is pretty stable. 

We all experience memory slips from time to time. We are not machines. But performance needs to be reasonably reliable or it is too uncomfortable--both for the player and the listener. Making special effort to be sure your memory is on solid footing, that is, that there are at least three types of memory working in your favor, will guarantee more predictable outcomes. This takes time to cultivate. It is a process. Our relationships to our pieces deepen as we become more experienced. This deepening should manifest itself, in part, as better memorization. 

Memorizing, Part 2 will address some specific strategies for memorization, including the much vaunted "backwards" approach. 

Jonathan Smith's Graduate Solo Recital

Daniel Nitsch's Junior Recital