Thoughts on memorization

With the Brooks Music Festival happening 2 weeks ago, I had the chance to talk to a lot of people active and interested in promoting music education in our community, both parents and teachers. One thing that came up repeatedly was memorization. At the Brooks festival, we do not currently require performers to have their selections memorized. However, both for the provincial festival and Royal Conservatory exams, memorization is required. So today, I thought I’d explore why I think all selections should be memorized and even more so, why memorization should be one of the very first steps in the process of learning a new piece.

Why memorize?

If you’ve gone to any music show, be it pop or classical or anything in between, you will find that the lead performer almost always has their music memorized. At a symphony performance, you might even be surprised at how many orchestra members only occasionally glance at their sheet music, and most of the time in my experience that’s to count out rests that can last several measures so we don’t miss our place to jump back in when it’s our turn.

Soloists, however, always have their part memorized. Let’s watch another of my favourite violinists, playing my all-time favourite piece for violin: Anne-Sophie Mutter plays the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64

The why, I believe, is simple. When you are playing the violin, there is a lot going on: bow stroke, fingering, vibrato, intonation and that elusive concept, sound. If on top of all that you’re reading the music off a piece of sheet music, you just can’t concentrate properly on getting that “sound”. When you free yourself from sheet music, you free yourself to pour your heart and sould into the interpretation of the repertoire.

The building blocks

So, having established that memorization is essential, how does it fit into the development of repertoire?

building blocks 2

This pyramid represents how I approach learning a new piece of music.

Sight Reading

The very first step is sight reading. This step is where I figure out where the notes are, get my fingerings correct and start to get a feel for the melody. I might play the piece through a few dozen times with the sheet music and make notes where I experience difficulty with fingering, rhythm or bowing.

Memorization

Once I have a feel for the piece, and that should take no more than a few days, I begin memorization. This is the one step where a lot of the work can be done even without the violin.

My first step in memorizing is to sit down with just the sheet music and hum the melody quietly to myself as I tap out the fingering on my thigh. I often do this while car pooling to work and I can get a movement committed mostly to memory within a day or two.

How does this work? Basically, I use a form of kinesthetic visualization, the use of which is well established in elite sports. I tap my fingers in the rhythm of the music and according to the fingering, using my thumb for open string. I find this method to be most effective. Just humming the music can be helpful, but connecting it to the tapping of my fingers seems to cement the link that much more quickly in my mind.

I start with one or two bars, sight reading and tapping and then repeating it until I have it down. Then the next few bars. Then all 4 or 5 together. And so on until I have whole phrases and before long whole movements memorized.

Now at this stage, memorization won’t be perfect but you’ll be well on your way there for when you pick up your violin. Again, playing from memory as much as possible, play through the piece, section by section, translating the fingering onto the violin, with positions as applicable.

The entire process of memorization can be completed for a short movement in the space of a week. For the 6th movement of the Bach Partita I am playing at the exam, which I showcased in yesterday’s post, I spent 2 days in the car practicing without my violin and another 2 days of practice time (about 10-15 minutes each day) to get it pretty much memorized.

Moving forward

The next steps to perfecting repertoire are outside the scope of this blog post but I will briefly touch on each one so you’ll know what I’m referring to.

Intonation

Up until now, I have not concerned myself with being pitch perfect while practicing my piece. It is still very rough and certain notes may end up being slightly off pitch. The next step is perfecting the intonation. The last thing you want to hear your violin teacher say is: “it’s a bit pitchy”!

Rhythm and Metre

Now that we are pitch perfect, it’s time to pay attention to rhythm and metre. Working with a metronome at this stage is helpful. For faster pieces, it can take some time to get up to the indicated tempo while maintaining proper intonation, so pay particular attention to this step.

Bowing and Dynamics

Now that we know the piece by memory and are playing it in tune and in “time”, we can start putting the finishing touches on. Bowing refers to the use of different bow strokes, which will be a series of posts in itself. Dynamics is the use of varying degrees of “loudness” from pianissimo to fortissimo and everything in between.

“Sound”

Call this what you like. Sound, interpretation, artistry… I like to think of it as making the violin sing the story. This is where you’ll hear the music come alive. To really understand this concept, let’s finish off with Itzhak Perlman playing the Theme from “Schindler’s List”. I don’t know about you, but I think he’s almost crying and his violin definitely is crying plaintively but oh so beautifully. Kind of makes you want to shed a few tears too…

Maintenance

A final note on what I call maintenance. When preparing for an exam or a recital, it’s difficult to predict exactly when we will “peak” as they say in sports. With music, there’s really no downside to peaking early, other than the need for maintenance. What I mean by this is that once the piece is “perfect” to our ears, with all the preceeding elements mastered to our satisfaction, we need to keep practicing it to maintain it in the repertoire. There is no longer a need to practice the piece for 15-20 minutes a day unless things start to slip. A couple of runs 2 or 3 times a week is usually sufficient.

This gives us some breathing space to make room for the rest of the repertoire we need to learn for that exam!! Time to get practicing that Partita!