Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Starting to Memorize: First steps

When I started to work from memory again, I had to make some strategic decisions. How in the world was I going to do this?! I already had some engagements, and I couldn't just memorize a recital in a few months after being away from the process for so many years.

My initial thought was to learn a piece by heart and then play it on a program in which all of the other repertoire would be with music. But how would the listener perceive this? Would it seem pretentious to pull away the music for a "special" piece? Would it then be confusing to go back to the score for the rest of the program?

My solution, already described here in painful detail, was to play a short Bach work from memory on a program of otherwise non-memorized contemporary music. It didn't work. I quickly learned that my "memory brain" was palpably different from my "reading music brain." How so? It's difficult to describe, but each type of brain use seems to work different muscles.

As you've probably gathered, I don't give up too easily, so I started to explore other avenues. My first decision was to not think too hard about where and when I was going to perform. This decision can be described in one simple word: patience. Even since these first steps, I've had to return to that one word. One can not memorize well through speed and impatience. And if you're going to go to the trouble of memorizing, you might as well do it slowly and carefully so that it sticks. Patience.

My next decision was to think really hard about repertoire. I was starting small, with short works, but--as I now well know--there are plenty of short works by Bach that are really hard to memorize. So, I considered forms that I thought would be fairly simple:

  • rondo (rondeau), also know as refrain forms
  • binary (although, as we've already seen, I had some trouble with my first binary form)
  • theme and variation (again, it depends on the piece/composer)
I decided to settle with a rondeau by Louis Couperin. This simple piece had a short, catchy refrain and a series of episodes (couplets) that lasted only about eight bars each. I knew, quite simply, that if I were to have a lapse in concert, I'd be able to get back to that refrain and them move on to the next couplet with ease. Best of all, the rondeau had a lot of couplets, making it a relatively long piece. Once I got the whole thing going, I had nearly seven minutes of music. Yahoo!

From that rondeau came another rondeau, also by Louis Couperin. I now had twelve minutes of music. And then a miracle happened: I was asked to prepare some recitals with a recorder-playing colleague of mine. The recital wouldn't just be recorder and harpsichord the whole time, so I would have a chance to play my newly memorized pieces. And so I did, to great success each time.

You might wonder how I moved from "reading music brain" to "memory brain" in these performances. It really wasn't that hard, especially since it felt more like moving from "accompanying brain" to "memory brain." I was only playing my solo music from memory, and that made all the difference.