Once one takes the step of deciding to pursue music at a tertiary level, and then moving into the professional world, the expectations for assessment, competitions, eistedfodds and performances change. One expectation, which can often be a very daunting and scary experience, is being asked to memorise a work. If I were to ask you, no matter what instrument you played, to perform something like: Mary Had a Little Lamb; or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star; from memory, you probably wouldn’t have a problem! But it’s when we start getting into longer works, such as concertos or sonatas, the whole process can sometimes seem impossible, let alone actually performing the work for a concert in front of people!
Throughout my Undergraduate Degree, I didn’t memorise anything. There was no requirement in my recitals, I was comfortable with my music in front of me, and so I didn’t push myself to do it. There were parts of my pieces that I could in fact play from memory, but that’s a very different thing from actually memorising an entire work and performing it. When moving into my Honours degree, memorisation (for at least some works in the performance) was suddenly a requirement. I remember reading through my subject guidelines, and thinking – memorising a 20 minute work and performing it – not possible! The first piece I memorised was the Mozart Flute Concerto in G Major. Personally, I think works that are well structured (Exposition, Development and recapitulation, or Rondo forms), like many works by Mozart, are the easiest type of music to begin with when first memorising.
I think that the actual process when memorising is different for each person. We all have different strengths with memory – some of us have a strong ‘eye’ memory or photographic memory, some of us have a strong aural memory and others strengths lie in our finger memory or muscle memory. No matter which of these is your strength, we use a combination of these types of memory when memorising a work.
When I’m memorising a piece, my first step is to listen to it – A LOT! Initially, I listen without the score to become familiar with the work aurally – this is where I learn about the shapes and contours of the melodies, the tempos and characteristics of sections, and how the piece flows together, and fits together as a whole work. Once I’m satisfied with my aural familiarity, I then listen with the score in front of me – all before I even play through the work. This gives me a visual idea of what is happening throughout the work, and in my opinion, starts to shape my photographic memory.
The piece I have been learning over the past few months is Reinecke’s Flute Concerto in D major – a wonderful piece, and thankfully, a very logically structured (for my brain!) work. I had played this concerto before in second year university, so I had a basic understanding of its melody already, so I was already off to a good start aurally.
I remember at the beginning of this memory journey, I was feeling pretty stressed about memorising the entire concerto, and even though I knew logically how to go about it, it still seemed like such a huge amount of work! Once I felt I was familiar enough with the work as a whole aurally (combining my ‘ear’ and ‘eye’ memory), I broke each movement into their respective sections (Theme A, Theme B, Section A, Section B, etc), and then broke those sections into smaller bar groups. I was generally focussing on between 4-16 bars depending on the difficulty of the passage. Some passages I was able to learn more quickly – generally anything that was slower and very melodic, while others required a little more work. My process of physically learning those small sections, involved spending roughly 5 minutes on the passage, and then going away to a separate piece for another 5 minutes, before returning to my concerto and attempting to play that small section from memory. This was my process throughout the entire concerto. I would also always go back to the previous section and add on my new section several times, as well as starting from the beginning of the movement until I could play smoothly from the beginning to my memorised point. I also made a point not to continue on in the piece, until I could play up to that point correctly – otherwise, I think it’s very possible to get lost or confused as to what material happens next.
I find that my visual and aural memory is mostly used within the slower sections and/or movements, and that my finger and aural memory are my strengths in more technical sections. Having said this, I can visualise how each section of the work starts – for the Reinecke Concerto, it opens the first movement on an F#, the first theme comes in on an A, the second theme a C# etc. It’s also very important for me as a player, and I think anyone who is memorising a work, to feel comfortable starting from just about anywhere in the piece – if you can do this, you should feel pretty confident in how well you’ve memorised the work.
In many ways, memorising is not much different from learning to play a piece – a lot of it is practice, practice, practice – breaking the piece up into smaller sections, playing each section until you really know it, and then putting it all together, with some extra practice on the tricky bits. Memorising is the same thing – starting with a small section and continuing adding sections until you reach the end. Obviously, some people are faster than others at memorising – just as some people are faster at learning. I think as long as you work through a piece slowly, understand it aurally, and are willing to put in the time and effort to really learn it, you’ll find memorising a work can be quite a rewarding experience. And like many things, the more you do it, the less daunting it becomes! Make sure to play it for family members, friends, peers, colleagues, and teachers in preparation for a performance so that you can become as comfortable as possible before performing it live. Play along with as many different recordings as possible so that you are prepared for a number of tempos. Don’t always start with the first movement of a work, or the beginning of piece, start with the second or third movement, or somewhere in the middle of a work – doing all of these things, should help you to feel as confident as possible. Taking away that barrier of a music stand and connecting even more with your audience and your accompanist (orchestral, pianist or chamber) can be an exhilarating experience, so take the leap!
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