Monday, March 8, 2010

Starting Points

There was a time when performing from memory scared me to death. I’m still not a person who “memorizes naturally”, but I’ve found a way to do it that works for me, and I feel comfortable with it. 
Having “Starting points” throughout the piece plays a major role in the system. Having to start over from the beginning if something throws you off ( and possibly getting stuck at the same place again) is a nightmare you don’t want to live through on stage. If you can start at your starting points in random order, you really know the piece- that’s what I always assumed and aimed for. 
Of course, you need to practice that, and it’s time consuming, but it’s also a way to explore the underlying structure of a piece. For me, it is a kind of “practical analysis”, and I also use it to draw “maps” and structural outlines of pieces. (For ideas on "maps" of pieces, check out "Mapping Music" by Rebecca Shockley) 
While this works for me, it doesn’t necessarily work for everybody. I learnt that recently at a seminar on memorization. Apparently, it can be very confusing for people who do not have visual memory and rely on their hearing only. I can well imagine that it is much easier to get lost if you don’t have the image of the score or a “map” in front of your mind’s eye.
There were a lot of inspiring ideas, but when I went back to my practice routine at home, I suddenly realized that my next recital is only three weeks away. I have tryouts before that, and there’s still work to do. This may not be the best time to change a plan that’s served me well so far. 
Somehow, exchanging ideas about memorization with other people had conjured up demons. Things started to happen that have never happened before, just because someone else had talked about them - losing your hearing while you play. Verbal thoughts intruding - I’ve had my share of that, and I can let go of them if I focus on my hearing, but “Story Lines” ( a story you make up to help you remember the music) don’t work for me. To tell the truth, they drive me nuts.
I’ve had students, though, who found them helpful. Emily Marsh, my former student in Concord once invented a story to help her remember a Ragtime, and she even drew a delightful cartoon to go with it.
I don’t find it so difficult to remember the sequence of the piece, but I can’t always trust my motor memory. Occasionally, I forget motions - I can hear the music in my mind and I know exactly where I am, but my hands have forgotten what to do. For this reason, I need special awareness of everything my hands are doing, learn hand divisions, the feeling of motions, the hand positions of chords. 
I also have a history of forgotten endings - of phrases as well as of pieces. That’s why I start learning and memorizing a piece in small sections from the end. It probably doesn’t work for everybody.
The one thing everybody seems to agree upon is that having starting points throughout the piece is very useful, unless you have every reason to trust that you always play perfectly.  Since you can’t rely on anything on stage that you haven’t practiced before, you have to PRACTICE starting at your starting points. I have found that many students are not aware of this. They think it’s enough to KNOW where the starting points are, but KNOWING is mental, and PLAYING is physical - occasionally, I tend to forget that myself. By the way, you also need starting points when you play with the music.
Beyond starting points, it seems to me that memorizing is a highly individual process. In my opinion, you have to experiment and rely on whatever works for you. Who is to say that in order to prove that you have learnt your piece perfectly you have to be able to write it down from memory, play it on the tabletop or see every note on the page in your mind’s eye?  The fact that some highly skilled and gifted musicians can actually do that does not imply that it is the ultimate and only way to memorize.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Birgit,
    Your thoughts are spot on. Your comment about "forgotten endings" reminded me of a quote that my former piano teacher, Bruce Adami used to make. "90% of amateur performance errors occur in the last 4 measures of the piece (you think you have "made it" and stop concentrating) or in the measure AFTER the piece's most challenging phrase (again, you stop concentrating because you "nailed it"!!). As an intractable amateur, I can't tell you how many times that statement has proven itself to be true!