HOW DO YOU MEMORIZE!! July 22, 2020

I can’t tell you how many times people have come up to me after a concert and said, “And you don’t use music!!” They are amazed that solo musicians actually memorize the works they are performing. Given the choice of performing a work with or without music, I would always choose to perform without using the score (or using an I-pad.) Personally, it would be a distraction to have to put on my glasses to read the music; that is what I do only when I am beginning to learn a new composition. And more importantly it would make me feel inhibited at the piano, not as free to focus completely on the music. I strongly believe that any performer who chooses to get on the stage and share with an audience has the responsibility to know the work inside and out, to understand how the composer put it together and be committed to a personal conception of the work. Without that, how could the pianist convince the listener that it is worth his time to listen! To master the notes is not enough; that is only the starting point. So to answer these folks, I always say, memorization is just one of the many elements that goes into preparing a piece for concert performance. There are so many more obstacles to overcome before one is ready to walk out on stage and perform. 

But let’s get back to the problem of memorization. How does one memorize? Recently a friend of mine who just went back to study the piano in her retirement years told me that she just could not memorize. I do not agree with her; I believe that the problem she encountered was that she was trying to memorize too soon— before she truly was acquainted with the music. She had not mastered its technical problems, had not analyzed how the piece was put together and was trying to memorize measure by measure using a rote technique—that never works. It’s also a tedious and boring way of practicing! What that method brings with it is fear— the fear of forgetting and the fear of failure when the time comes to perform. Memorization should only take place when the piece is ready to be memorized—when all of its problems have been mastered. 

I believe that the most important element for memorization and performance is focus and concentration. One cannot perform at the highest level if you are thinking about what you are going to cook for dinner that evening. The focus must be on the music and where you are at that precise moment in the musical journey. The bigger picture must be analyzed and grasped—the total structure. We’ve all heard the saying: “Seeing the forest for the trees.” In performance that applies; it doesn’t work the other way around. Seeing only the trees translates to hearing only the details and not understanding how these details contribute to shaping the entire composition. The artist needs to comprehend how the composer conceived the work and try to get closer to his spirit and character at that very moment of creation. The true artist keeps striving to capture that magical moment of conception. And our work is never finished!! 

Focus and concentration are essential tools of the trade. Some people do breathing exercises; others do yoga or meditation to help them to focus and rid themselves of all the extra chatter. I know some artists who sit and do crossword puzzles before a concert to cope with their nervous energy. Whatever works to calm oneself down and helps with the adrenalin buildup that accompanies any performance is a valid tool. And we do need that flow of adrenalin; we need that extra element of excitement—being in the moment. Getting on the stage takes boldness and courage—it is a special event. Without that extra burst of energy, most of us would play like automatons. So, we need to make adrenalin our friend and not our foe.  We must learn how to deal with adrenalin and also understand how it can make our bodies react to the stress. Accept the fact that most people do get nervous before they are walking out on stage to “do their thing.” That is a healthy reaction. Use the techniques I have mentioned to remain as calm as possible and to get “in the zone” where you will not be distracted by anything extraneous. Build that invisible wall of protection between yourself and the audience. Residing within this sacred space, there is only you and the music. And frankly the focus should not be on you but on the composer and his masterpiece that you have the privilege of performing. And what a privilege and opportunity has been given to you to share! And quite a responsibility as well! That is the attitude necessary to make the magic of music happen and to touch the hearts of listeners. 

However, before this point is reached, we need to do our homework—technically and musically. If we don’t master every technical problem these difficulties will definitely return to haunt us during the performance and most likely affect our memory as well. You can count on that!! Also we need to analyze the composition—know its form and the structure and understand its key relationships. We need to discover secure structural marking points, places that can be relied upon should an unexpected “detour” occur. Let me give you an example. You are playing a concert; you are definitely in the zone; everything is going so well, and suddenly, someone’s cell phone goes off— it’s the most beautiful moment in the adagio and you as well as the audience are jolted out of that special place and you are dangerously close to losing your concentration and memory. What do you do? You can’t stop the performance—you must go on. It is at moments like this that you need to have in your mind exactly where you are in the total structure, a marking point that you can jump to just in case it is needed. Accept the fact that none of us are perfect; we are human and we are not machines. Nor do we want to play the piano like machines!  The goal of performance should not be about perfection. It is about sharing the glory of this wonderful music with others—raising the bar so that music can inspire and nurture the souls of those who listen. 

And after all the work has been done and you feel ready to go out there and share this music with the public, then you must practice performing. If you don’t prepare yourself in performance mode, you might be surprised how differently you will feel that first time you walk out on stage when adrenalin kicks in. Trust me, it’s a very different feeling than just playing for yourself in your living room. The issues of control and freedom also need to be addressed. How much freedom can you exercise without losing control and how much control do you need without losing your freedom of expression. Being too cautious can be boring but going the other way can turn into a disaster!  And the answer to these questions comes with the experience of getting out there every time and doing it—always with focus and concentration. And trust me, no performance is ever the same. These techniques of concentration and focus must be practiced and learned so they become second nature; they need to become part of your DNA. Actually you should not practice the piano without having the necessary focus and concentration to do so.  Lots of time will be saved that way!! 

Playing the piano is a life-long challenge and a wonderful addiction— the need to make glorious music and to share it. Rachmaninoff was right: Music is enough for a lifetime but a lifetime is not enough for music. And so we keep trying and we keep chipping away at it! 

It provides a bit of sanity in our crazy world!! 


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