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Thoughts on memorising music

© Richard Beauchamp — October, 2018

All learning is memory. Whether you intend to play a piece with or without the score in front of you, memory work will speed up your learning and improve your confidence to a very great degree.

Should we play from memory?

You should play from memory only if you play better that way. If you play better when using the score, then that is the right way for you. If, on the other hand, playing from the score makes you feel as though you are an actor reading from the script, then it is worth taking the trouble to develop your memory. If it comes to a choice between an inspired, passionate and meaningful rendering which has a few memory lapses and a ‘safe’ but uninspiring performance which is note-perfect, there is, in my view, no competition. The only thing at risk is the performer’s pride should he/she have been foolish enough to invest in such a commodity.

Solos and concertos can both be performed from memory. Romantic concertos which are part of the ‘heroic’ tradition work well that way. It can be hard to look like a hero if you are seen to be reading how to do it! On the other hand Baroque concertos are often more like chamber music in that the featured instrument does not have the only important line. This could be said of many classical concertos also. Concertos such as those by Brahms are like big chamber music with many people per part, but the ‘solo’ instrument is still featured in such a way that playing from memory is appropriate. Works such as Beethoven’s 4th Concerto, where the featured instrument is very much integrated into the score, can work well either way.

Chamber music, duos sonatas and songs should be performed from memory only if all the other members of your ensemble are also playing from memory — otherwise it looks as though you consider yourself the ‘soloist’ and that everyone else is accompanying you.

The various kinds of musical memory

There are many kinds of musical memory you can use and I would recommend taking advantage of all of them, so that, if one kind of memory fails you, the others will save the situation. A bit like a platform which is supported by several legs. If one falls down, the others will keep you safe. I can recall a moment when I forgot where I was in a piece and watched with amazement (and terror) as my fingers went on playing, guided by muscle memory and aural memory, until I regained full control. The following is a list of the kinds of memory which will help you to perform with confidence.

Aural memory

This is about how the piece sounds. It is the most powerful form of musical memory and breathes life and certainty into all the other kinds of memory - after all music is sound. Learn to hear not only the general sound or the melody of the piece, but the bass line, all the other parts - their voice leading etc, and the harmony. Become familiar with the colour and character of each chord so that you can recognise it as you would one of your best friends. In concertos and chamber music it is very important to learn the complete sound picture and mentally hear it in your head with all the instruments while you are practising alone. Practise singing the other instrumental parts or the vocal line if working with a singer. This will not only make you a better ensemble player but may also make it possible for you to become a conductor! It is no surprise that the greatest musicians have all developed their musical hearing to a very high degree. Those who are hearing impaired, e.g. Beethoven or Evelyn Glennie, have developed their inner hearing possibly to an even higher degree than many of those who have a perfect audial response.

Body, or ‘muscle’ memory

Your body is able to learn the coordination and feel of difficult passages so that you can play without even thinking about them. This is very important for fast playing and complex rhythmic coordination. It requires much repetition and, sadly, the emphasis on this over the other forms of memory has been one of the major causes of overuse injury (besides much unmusical playing). If you rely exclusively on body memory you will need to play over and over passages for many hours. The aural memory must be in place before and during all of this training - and actually helps the body memory to develop more quickly.

Analytical memory

These are all extremely important aspects of musical memory and contribute to a secure performance nearly as much as aural memory does. Young students tend to find them them difficult and often try to avoid mastering them, but they should be helped to realise that analysis can be done in a way that they can understand at their own level - without having to know technical names for chords and progressions. They will still be able to see patterns, where voices lead, and can recognise simple diatonic chords. Work on this must always be related to the sound. Ten minutes of analysis - even if painful - will be more productive than several hours of repetitive practice. As someone said (maybe it was Leschetitzky?), “Think ten times and play once. — Sadly, many players do the opposite.“

Visual memory

This appllies both to the score and to the keyboard. Some people naturally have a good visual memory. Even if you think you don’t, you can still cultivate one. If you can recognise other people, read books and remember paintings, then you already have a good working visual memory. Memorise the patterns the notes make on the page, even if you cannot ‘see’ the individual notes in your mind. If you study the patterns of black and white notes on the keyboard, some really helpful and sometimes surprising things can emerge e.g. mirror images, groups of white or black notes, alternating black and whites notes etc.

Other techniques to aid memory

I realise that an article like this could be a tad daunting for those who have a concert coming up in a few days and need some last minute help or encouragement, so here is the ‘quick fix’: Apparently Heifetz used to play through (or even just whistle) the piece with the score lying flat nearby - but so that he couldn’t see it whilst playing. When he made a mistake, he would go to the score and work out why he went wrong. When he could play through without any mistakes he was ready for the concert. Obviously, the better you are at figuring out why things went wrong, the better your fix will be.

We are all different (to quote my favourite line from Life of Brian); so if none of this makes sense to you and you have found something else that does, go with it — and let me know what it is!

©Richard Beauchamp, 13 October, 2018
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