Every musician who has spent a significant amount of time performing from memory can attest to the many benefits of such a pursuit. Some of these surface-level benefits are clear and easy to observe by all musicians and there are other benefits that are more difficult to articulate. In recent years, memory requirements for competitions have become less common, whereas non-memorized concerto performances by wind players have begun to become the norm. There is a growing contingency of musicians who are skeptical about the relevance of memory work in today’s world, many of whom have never had to memorize beyond Suzuki training or marching band, and have written off the possibility of such a huge payoff for something that they may view as little more than a parlor trick.
This blog is designed to encourage the skeptic to consider the many benefits that lay under the surface and to provide some techniques to developing this skill. Whether you are preparing for a competition, audition, or you wish to enrich your practice sessions, keep in mind that once you understand that (like many other elements of practicing) it is a skill, that means that through intelligent work, you can get better at it.
Do I have to?First, let’s discuss the why of memorizing. The act of playing by memory is commonly referred to as “playing by heart”. This endearing term elucidates the purpose of memory work better than any scientific study. To memorize music is to love music so much that you choose to carry it with you everywhere you go! In a recent essay in the New York Times, author Jim Holt discussed the benefits and process to memorizing poetry. In the article, Holt said “The process of memorizing a poem is fairly mechanical at first. You cling to the meter and rhyme scheme (if there is one), declaiming the lines in a sort of sing-songy way without worrying too much about what they mean. But then something organic starts to happen. Mere memorization gives way to performance. You begin to feel the tension between the abstract meter of the poem — the “duh DA duh DA duh DA duh DA duh DA” of iambic pentameter, say — and the rhythms arising from the actual sense of the words.” It is the transformation from tedious mechanical practice to an organic performance that musicians achieve when committing a piece of music to memory.
The development of pattern-based thinking is unavoidable in memory work. Memory work is a form of ear training. When a musician puts a piece to memory, patterns emerge, both visually and aurally. We begin to make broad connections and learn to speak the language of the composer. We develop an understanding of the nuances of a composition, seeing repetition and deviation in melodic and harmonic devices. We see the shape of the piece, and in understanding how the form unfolds in time, we can more easily understand how to execute the individual phrases. The joy of memorizing is the joy of unfolding a paper and discovering a beautiful piece of art underneath the creases. Learning to hear the larger framework of a composition gives balance to technical practice, which requires us to isolate a very limited number of notes.
Removing ObstaclesPerforming without a music stand in front of you allows you to connect directly with your audience. What an exhilarating and terrifying opportunity to share music at a deeper level than before! In the concert hall, this allows the audience direct visual access to the performer. In an ensemble performance, it allows you to keep your eye on the conductor and musicians around you. When you open yourself up to better visual communication while performing and rehearsing you ensure a richer, unrestrained performance. In the practice room, it allows the performer direct visual access to his or herself. The performer can practice in front of the mirror without the hindrance of the music stand. Practicing in front of the mirror teaches the flutist how to be his or her own best teacher. We have an innate understanding of efficient body mechanics and through conscientious self-observation, we will naturally develop posture and hand position that leads to efficient technique.
Memorizing develops concentration. One of the biggest challenges of being a performing musician is learning to deal with distraction. Distraction has origins in both internal and external forms. External distraction, whether it appears as a ringing cell phone, coughing audience members, or a mosquito buzzing at your face, is par for the course. We can’t control it, so we must learn to accept it as part of performing. Internal distraction, an inner narrative, can be much more distracting than any external situation. The mind is a powerful force, but one can overcome the hindrance of the inner monologue through memory work. The internal distraction is much like a stubborn toddler, the best way to deal with it is to keep it busy. The mind gets bored easily, and if you give yourself a challenge, you can learn to overcome internal distraction.
flutist, writer, traveler, teacher