Tuesday, December 9, 2014

By Heart: The Art of Memorizing Music

It's been many months since I've updated this blog, but it's been for a good reason: This blog-to-book project is done, and the book, in both print and Kindle editions, is now available. Click here for Amazon's listing of By Heart: The Art of Memorizing Music.

If you've been following this blog, I can assure you that the final book product is superior to what was written at the blog. If you've just happened upon this blog, check out this blog's Table of Contents to get a general idea of what the book is about.

And now for the push: Please buy the book! I'd also appreciate reviews at the Amazon site.


By Heart: The Art of Memorizing Music
Authored by Paul Cienniwa, Foreword by Larry Thomas Bell FAAR

List Price: $12.95
6" x 9" (15.24 x 22.86 cm) 
Black & White on Cream paper
112 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1496180698
ISBN-10: 1496180690
BISAC: Music / Instruction & Study / Techniques
By Heart: the Art of Memorizing Music takes its readers from personal anecdote to practical skills for becoming a successful memorizing musician. If you are new to memorization, this book will give you the skills and techniques to get started with the process. You will carry those skills and techniques for the rest of your life. Even if you already have a solid memorization practice, this book will inspire some new or different approaches while also reinforcing your own convictions. 
Many of the techniques presented are good for any type of practice, even for the non-memorizing musician. Therefore, this book is also a useful foundational study of how to practice.

Monday, October 28, 2013

We're done for now

Are blogs supposed to end? This one has. Well, not really. This is a blog-to-book project, and, at this point, I've downloaded the content of the blog for the purpose of turning it into a book.

If you're visiting here for the first time, check out the Table of Contents for a sense of the order in which things should be read.

If you've been reading this blog for a while or even if you're new here, you might want to know when the book version of this blog is coming out. If so, please add your email to the "follow by email" box in the right column, and you'll be among the first to know.

I continue to respond to your comments on this blog, so feel free to leave them after any post. Who knows? They might even make it into the book.

In the meantime, thank you for reading, and don't forget to practice!

Friday, October 25, 2013


Those who know me well know that I suffer from an addiction to any Gordon Ramsay show. Don't ask why, because I don't have the answer. During his programs, Ramsay repeatedly refers to chef's passions. If a chef doesn't cook to a high standard, Ramsay will often ask if the chef has "lost his passion."

I've puzzled over this for some time. What is passion? And how does a lousy meal mean that a chef has "lost his passion?" Does Ramsay mean that the chef has lost a commitment to excellence?

The creation of this blog has helped to define my passion. I've always been an avid practicer, but writing about my practice has made me realize the extent of my passion. Even more so, quantifying my daily practice with my online practice log has shown me how much work I put into my passion. If passion is defined by quantity of work, I certainly have a lot of passion!

But this isn't about quantity. It's about quality, and this blog has influenced the quality of my practice time. I went from knowing (and writing about) what is good for me to consistently implementing what is good for me. If I had passion before I started this blog, then it is now tenfold.

We can always do what we do better, and we should always improve what we do. For me, memorization was something that was missing from my performing life, and I knew deep inside that I could do better. Is it "better" to play from memory? I think so, and I believe that audiences think so. 

If you have passion for what you do, you will always refine what you do. Passion has forced me to work even harder at my performing. If you are passionate about what you do as a musician, you must always work harder.

What is your passion, and what are you doing about it?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013


Writing a concluding summary to a blog seems counterintuitive to the dynamic nature of blogs. Likewise, writing a concluding summary to a blog on memorization seems counterintuitive to the dynamic nature of memorization.

Throughout the entire process of writing this blog, I kept coming back to some very basic concepts. Going forward, I can't imagine working without these fundamental elements:

  • practice log
  • timer
  • metronome
  • landmarks.
As I continued to write, I found that, while I had been using these elements consistently, my application of them was in constant need of refinement. I also found that, at times, I was sorely lacking in one of the most discipline-challenging parts of any memorization practice:
  • mental work away from the instrument.
In the coming days, months, and years, I am sure that I will continue to refine my approach to memorization. I don't every think it will get easier, but I do think that I'll get better at it. Will I memorize faster? I hope so, although another main concept of my approach is:
  • patience.
It's not about speed; it's about quality. This becomes especially apparent when returning to pieces that have been put aside for some time.

Above all, it's important to know that you and I will continue to find new memorization techniques along the way. These will be applied to what we're working on at the moment, and they will be applied to works that we're bringing back to life. Just as I improved from my early lapse experiences, we can continue to improve further down the path.

There is always more to learn.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Dr. Liu makes a point

My colleague, baritone James Liu (who also happens to be an MD), made the following point after an earlier post:
It is also interesting, how the process is so similar, and yet so different, for those poor schmoes like me who are trying to memorize operas. On the one hand, the process is structured to provide a framework for gradually memorizing more and digging deeper, and you do get coaches and people who can try to help/cue/rescue you. But on the other hand, you have to master all the dynamics, shadings, texts, and cutoffs. You have to be able to listen for your fellow singers and be flexible enough to be ready to inflect your performance based on what they just did. You have to be able to move on a stage, act and react in a vaguely consistent character. And somewhere along the way, you have to tell a very specific story. Memory lapse stories in the opera world are legion, and just as colon-evacuating as those in the instrumentalist world (though with enough repetition, sometimes you dive into the void and muscle memory takes over ...).
 (James wasn't the only one who picked up on my "restless colons" comment in that post.)

James reminds me of my conversation with violinist Rachel Barton Pine, in which she talked about conductors who memorize. She said that, when the performance came around, it was common for those conductors to forget what was discussed in rehearsal. She also said, rightfully so, that in chamber music performance there are so many interpretive changes from ensemble to ensemble that there's really no point in attempting to memorize the music. In both cases, memorization gets in the way of the performance.

From my perspective as an instrumentalist, I would think that operatic staging would make the process somewhat easier. Does the physical stage movement becomes a type of mnemonic? In my limited opera conducting experiences, I came to feel that the stage direction took away from the music. James' comments seem to confirm my feeling, although eliminating opera in the name of better music-making is not a solution!

Singers, I'd appreciate your comments about your either staged or unstaged experiences with memorization. Do the words make the process easier or harder? Does the language make a difference? What are some of your lapse anecdotes? Do you have any singer-specific advice on memorization techniques?

Friday, October 18, 2013

Hands apart

Who needs metaphors when you have reality?
Much earlier in this blog, I commented on the practice of "learning" a piece before committing it to memory. This practice creates a foundation of tactile memory while also confusing the fact that "learned" should also mean "memorized."

In this blog post, the author discusses a technique that I'd forgotten about since my piano years: memorizing hands separately. That, to me, is even more unmusical than memorizing individual voices in a fugue

I'll ask again as I've asked numerous times in this blog: What is the ultimate goal of your memorization work? For many memorizing musicians, there is a strong degree of impatience with the process, especially with a conservatory mentality that's not always working in the best interest of the music.

If one is memorizing hands separately, one is truly establishing tactile memory. It can't really be aural memory, because one isn't actually hearing how the piece will sound. It can't be visual memory, because one is presumably not working with the score away from the instrument. Ultimately, this type of memory will fail, if not in performance then in the amount of time it takes to bring a piece back to memory.

As the parable says, a house built on sand will fall under stress. If you're going to make the effort to memorize your music, you really should do it in a way that ensures lasting quality.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Memorizing Bach and his fugues

Along with some music of the 20th and 21st centuries, there's not much music more difficult to memorize than that of J.S. Bach. As a keyboardist, I write from experience, and I know that other instrumentalists and singers also find Bach to be among the most difficult music to memorize. I don't want to speculate too much on why this is, but, as a case in point, I can honestly write that it takes me about twice as long to memorize a Bach movement than it takes me to memorize, say, Handel or Couperin. And it easily takes me about four times as long to memorize a Bach fugue.

In conservatory, I was taught to memorize Bach fugues by memorizing each voice separately. I remember doing this. It was absolutely nuts. I also vaguely remember bringing two voices together, then three, in all manners of possibilities. This was a long and arduous process, and, today, I really question the musicality and practicality of this approach.

Today, I memorize Bach fugues just as I memorize other works. I use my landmarks, metronome, practice log, mental work away from the instrument--you know, all those good habits. This entire process is intensified by the fact that Bach, unlike so many contrapuntal composers, accounts for every single fugal voice with striking regularity. (Handel's fugues, in contrast, are much more informal, with dropped lines and voices that don't follow through from their starting points.) In this memorization process, one doesn't just memorize notes or chords. For Bach, each note is part of a line that is carried throughout the entire composition; each line is a living entity that is co-dependent upon the other voices in the fugue. That, my friends, is the highest level of contrapuntal writing!

When I performed Bach fugues from score, the learning process did not require me to know what each voice was doing. I intellectually understood that I should be aware of the voice leading, but, since I wasn't memorizing the music, really understanding and committing to the counterpoint wasn't essential. At that time, I played fugues with a certain level of indifference to the compositional process.

Memorization has forced a new respect for Bach's fugues. The number of voices has become paramount to the learning process, something that wasn't so much the case when working from score. Once memorized, there are always new discoveries in the relationships between the voices. This can be a distraction on stage, especially when hearing something differently for the first time...in front of a live audience! For this and for so many other reasons, I consider Bach fugues to be the hardest things to memorize and, once memorized, perform.

Aside from the techniques already described, there's not much advice I can give to learning fugues any quicker than the very slow route. I do advise, however, thinking of the appearance of fugue subjects and answers as landmarks and mnemonics. Along with larger phrases, fugal entrances can make good landmarks. At the very least, the performer should know the placement of each and every one. 

Fugue subjects and answers can also be thought of as mnemonics behind the foreground of other material that's developing. In my earlier Wikipedia quote, mnemonics are used when "the human mind more easily remembers spatial, personal, surprising, physical, sexual, humorous, or otherwise 'relatable' information, rather than more abstract or impersonal forms of information." If we think of a fugue subject or answer as a spatial or physical element, we can concentrate more on the activity around it, thus aiding the memorization process.

I know, these are tough thoughts to consider. But, I assure you, memorizing Bach fugues is much harder! Good luck.