Total Recall

New Era, May 2007[This article was published in the May 2007 issue of the Qatar-based feature magazine ‘New Era’. View as PDF.]

“My memory is shot” you mutter to yourself despondently, as you try to retrieve a speck of information from the dark recesses of your mind. And it’s not the first time you’ve experienced this mental blackout.

You’re trying to play from memory a solo piano work comprising sixty-four A3-sized pages – covering thirty minutes of performance time. But why bother to go through the arduous task of putting to memory something you’re better off simply reading? Here are a few reasons: It is protocol at some music competitions & festivals to perform without a score. If you ever arrive at a social event, and someone invites you to perform, you can do so, even you don’t have the score on hand. Besides you’ll be guaranteed to impress your audience, as there seems to be a false assumption by listeners and critics that if a piece is not memorized, it is not being played to it’s fullest potential.

Oh well, I’m happy to break the rules since I’m hardly the convention-bound teacher. I’m not in any way demeaning the practice of memorization; in fact a fair amount of my classical repertoire had been put to memory in my younger days. Some pieces require total virtuosic treatment – where the body is physically almost one with the instrument. I recall playing some etudes by Karol Szymanowski, (involving bi-tonality and plenty of crashing dissonant chords) in which the notes traveled at lightening speed, the performance wrapped up before I even knew I hit the last chord. I certainly couldn’t read and execute these pieces simultaneously. In this case, memorization totally facilitated my performance.

The works I found difficult to put to memory were invariably those of a lengthy nature, in particular, weaving contrapuntal compositions by Bach for example. I’d experience many incidents of brain freeze, terror knots in my tummy and sweaty hands. Sigh. It was no fun playing by heart. The problem was that there was no heart in it.

Bright enough to realize that I didn’t have the prowess to memorize extensive pieces of music, I unconsciously resorted to building my own vault of tricks by memorizing technically demanding passages, sections requiring page- turns or a progression of chords that were way too demanding in an improvisational setup to read and improvise on at the same time. This as you can see was born out of necessity. But I also realized that when I had the score in front of me, I was not reading the page note for note. It was more of a top-to-bottom sweep with the eye, often in a descending ‘diagonal’ path. Akin to techniques taught in speed reading, although in this case, comprehension wasn’t an issue since I’d practiced the piece an excruciating number of times ensuring its execution and interpretation was flawless. Developing musicianship skills and understanding the way the music was constructed helped me no end. It allowed me a passport into the composer’s thought process – I became familiar with the movement of harmonies, shifting keys, pet phrases and motifs. Singing the music in my head, or aloud while practicing, helped me understand the organic structure of the composition. I could breathe musical phrases. Eventually it was almost liberating to have the score in front of me… the familiarity of the pages – with little comments  penciled in, the re-assuring view of upcoming bars of music that allowed me foresight and mental preparedness of the future even while being the present. I felt relaxed. And I believe this allowed me to do justice to the composer’s music and play my best.

I’m often asked by my students if I consider memorization a significant aspect in a child’s musical development. For those gifted with this skill, I encourage them use it.  Shorter tunes are easier to tackle and as an exercise I encourage the student to memorize them but this is completely voluntary. I’d rather concentrate on development in areas such as rhythm, sight reading, musical interpretation and the art of listening rather than have them stress out over their inability to churn out a zillion notes from memory. The last thing I want to see happen is a student give up on music because of a performance crash at the annual recital! In some cases, I see memorization being used as a crutch to support low sight reading skills. Sooner or later, the student is going to have to come to terms with this deficiency (it is a language deficiency, and can be improved!) and will work at it.

Let’s face it though; there are those amongst us with a memory like a sieve. You’d like to retain information – it’s an asset for sure – perhaps you feel it will help you play better. This is quite understandable, especially if the tunes are short in length. There are many jazz performers who subscribe to this and memorize tunes (head and chord changes) because they feel it allows them a greater freedom while improvising. So besides consuming ginkgo and nuts, here are a few tips:

1. Get an overview of the tune first. Understand its harmonic structure. Observe where the music is ‘rising’ or ‘falling’. Look for repeated patterns, arpeggios, scalic passages or changes in tempo. If possible listen to a recording of the work, but not obsessively.

2. While practicing separate hands, (hopefully you are paying attention to fingerings) listen to what you play. Sometimes singing along with the music, helps you to record it to memory. Haven’t you noticed that it is easier to sing a melody from memory than play it?  This simply helps your voice-ear-hand connection and co-ordination.

3. After you practice the piece in segments, and you find yourself getting better at executing it technically, begin memorizing. Be conscious of shapes or movement flows on your instrument, like the broad strokes of paint on a canvas.

4. Often students feel the need to go back to the beginning of the piece in order to complete the performance. To prevent this time-consuming habit, work backwards during practice – start with the last page and retrace sections – I believe this helps you to carry on with a performance in case of a memory lapse breakdown in the middle of a piece.

5. Visually recording the location of music passages on the page is also helpful. If you have the slightest hint that a breakdown is going to occur, you can recover by panning your focus right to bar you are currently in.

6. Something I learnt later in life – play the piece VERY slowly. Play it separate hands even if you can play the piece hands together. This is quite meditative actually.

7. Perform the music in space, away from your instrument. This is not only fun (ever watched someone play air guitar or drums?) it becomes a kind of game within yourself.

Memorizing music is a great asset, but if playing in public without a score sends you to the torture chamber, don’t sweat. Eventually the music needs to speak for itself, and if you score with audience, paper or no paper, who can argue about it?

Ramona Borthwick is a jazz pianist who was classically trained. Her latest CD ‘A New Leaf’ received critical acclaim in the US. She lives in Boston, MA where she performs and teaches. Visit her on the web at:

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