In the winter of every year, thousands of high school students across Texas begin preparation for UIL Solo and Ensemble auditions. Those ambitious among them are playing Class I solos, and the truly adventurous prepare their solos memorized.
Clara Schumann almost single-handedly made memorization a standard practice among pianists. But why? And how hard is it to memorize?
First off, the “why” of memorization. When you know a piece so well that you can play it at will, you develop a freedom of expression in the piece that is hard to develop when you are slave to the notes on the page. And, you don’t need a page turner to nod to while playing the piano. Since your hands are already busy, turning pages on your own is often out of the question. This is true for almost every instrumentalist out there.
Now, the “how” of memorization. Rote memorization is how musicians start out memorizing their music, but this technique has some serious pitfalls. First off, particularly for pianists, you develop what we call “muscle memory”. And, in a stress-free environment, muscle memory is fairly reliable. But, the minute you add stress to the mix, such as performing for an audience or a judge, muscle memory becomes your mortal enemy. You find yourself skipping pages of music, repeating music, or just completely lost as to where you are. Just ask anyone who has ever been stumped by Bach Prelude, Fugue, Invention or Sinfonia. What was so reliable during their practice fails them completely.
When muscle memory fails, you have to resort to actually knowing the tune. It’s all too easy to be completed overwhelmed by the nerves of the performance situation, and you find yourself thinking about the guy who coughed in the second row, how nice your hands look in the reflection of the keyboard cover, that itch that just crept up on your foot, and gee, I wish I had practiced this section a little more, maybe Vegas for vacation this year, and … holy cow… where am I???? Here’s where knowing the tune like the back of your hand comes in. But, you protest, I already know the tune! How can I be playing it in public if I don’t? Trust me, I know what you mean. But, I’m willing to bet that, if pressed, you might find that there are substantial sections of your piece (I’m looking at you, pianists) that you know more by the way they feel to you than you do by the way they sound.
The solution is to SING YOUR MUSIC! Yes, SING IT. Don’t play it while singing, just simply sing it. You don’t have to sing it well. Find where the tune is, no matter how avant garde the tune may seem to you. Get to know the melodic lines. Those are going to be the anchor for you, and also keep you from losing place in a performance to all the flotsam and jetsam that go on in your head when you’re stressed. Glenn Gould became rather famous for his focus on the melody, perhaps too famous. He was known to incessantly sing the melodies while he was playing. So much so that many of his recordings also include him humming along. I don’t recommend literally humming along as you play, but you get the idea. If you can sing the tune, you can play it, and muscle memory will not be failing you since you are so grounded in the music. If you’re thinking about the tune, internally humming that tune, the brain farts can’t happen.
Then, there’s the purely mechanical approaches to learning your music. My favorite is to take small phrases, 4 to 6 bars at most. Read through those. Then look away from the music and play it. Do this after you’ve been through the initial learning-the-notes phase. You’ll find that you know the individual phrases better than you think you do. Keep doing this throughout the piece until you can make it through all of the piece just glancing at those 4 bar phrases. Then starting grouping those into larger groups, doing the same thing. Eventually, the entire piece is memorized. The process is kind of similar to learning to spell. Learn the building blocks, and then put them all together. The 4-bar phrases are the building blocks.
Whether you are aiming for a concert career, or just playing for friends and family, the hard work of memorization pays off every time you sit down at a piano in a hotel lobby, and you have an entire recital at your finger tips, even though you left your music at home.