On memorization

About a week ago, I got a text from a friend saying that she was taking up the accordion again.  (If said friend is reading this, I didn’t know you played the accordion!)  Knowing that I have a background as a classical pianist, she asked me my advice on how to memorize music.  I told her I was going to respond in an email with my thoughts, but thinking that those thoughts would also be helpful to others, it became fodder for yet another ‘blog article.

I used to teach IT and mathematics classes part-time for a small business school in Albany.  For most of those classes, I made my exams open-book, open-note.  I cited a number of reasons for doing so — among them, I didn’t want them to suffer exam anxiety, and I wanted them to develop teamwork skills (I told them they were allowed to help each other figure out answers, but were not allowed to give or receive answers).

I also told them that I believed in the ability to research answers, and I didn’t believe in rote memorization.  For one thing, as I told my students, when you’re out in the real world, how many employers are going to tell you to “put all your notes away; you’re going to work on this project completely from memory”?  For another, I believe that rote memorization is ineffective.  I strongly believe it is a horrible way to learn material.  Memorizing facts and buzzwords isn’t the same as knowing how to use them, and it’s definitely not the same as learning the material.  You can memorize an entire dictionary, but unless you know how to put words together to develop sentences, thoughts, and ideas, it isn’t going to do you a lot of good.

Additionally, even if you do try to memorize something, it will never be perfect.  We are human, after all, and our capacity to remember is limited.  I’ve often thought about memories from years ago, thinking that I remember every detail, only to come across a picture of that memory, and realize that it wasn’t as accurate as I remembered.

“Okay,” you might be asking, “but you have music experience.  What about all those classical pieces you’re required to perform note for note?”

Ah, yes.  Let’s talk about that, shall we?

Let’s talk about memorizing music.  First, I am not Lang Lang, or Yo Yo Ma, or Yefim Bronfman.  Despite my significant music background, I am not a professional musician.  So I won’t pretend to know how professional classical concert musicians learn and memorize new pieces of music.  Instead, I’ll talk about how I approach it.

I play the piano in church on Sunday mornings.  There are a number of pieces that I’ve gotten to know so well that I don’t use sheet music for them.  I remember one parish member talking to me about how I would “memorize” those pieces.  However, “memorize” is not an accurate term.  A better way to put it is that I’ve gotten to know the pieces, and am able to use chord progressions and patterns that fit them — in a way, I can “color” them at will.

Let me put this another way.  Most of us know how the song “Happy Birthday” goes.  But did you memorize it?  Most likely, you didn’t.  You recognize it, you remember it, and you can sing it.  But you didn’t memorize it (at least not in the sense that most of us think).  Think about your favorite music artist, or your favorite songs.  You probably know all the words.  You can probably sing (or at least hum) every song down to the last note.  But would you say that you “memorized” them?  You might be able to say you did.  But I don’t think that is the right term here (to be honest, I don’t know what the right term is).  Them same holds true for when I’m playing music.  The difference is, when I’m playing the piano, my output is through my fingers, rather than my voice.

When I’m practicing a piece, I’ll usually learn it a few measures at a time.  I’ll continually practice those few measures until I get them right (or at least something close to it).  Once I have them down to a level to which I’m satisfied, I’ll move onto the next few measures.

When you practice an instrument, it isn’t so much thinking about memorizing music.  It’s more about muscle memory.  Practicing means developing your muscles so that they’re used to it, and you can do it again.

Ask yourself this: when you’re preparing music for performance, does it have to be exactly like the notes on a page?  Unless you’re performing a classical (or a similar type of) piece that requires a great deal of precision and technique, in many cases, the answer is, probably not.

A friend of mine once asked me to accompany a show for which she was the music director.  I wasn’t the first person she asked; she had another accompanist before me.  However, she had to fire him.  My predecessor absolutely insisted on playing every single note as precisely written, and it was slowing down the process of everyone else learning the show.  When she brought me on board, I made it a point to learn the music as best as I could, and ad lib everything, much as a jazz musician would follow a fake book (which, when I’m not learning a classical piece, is pretty much how I approach most music, anyway).  In my approach, I was able to provide a good accompaniment, I was able to help others with their music, and we pulled off a very successful show.

Personally, I find it a lot of fun trying to put my own spin on music.  I take it as a challenge trying to take a piece of music I like and making it sound as close to the original as I can.  It usually doesn’t, but that’s okay; I’m a big believer in not trying to make a piece of music sound exactly like the original.  I’ve often said that what people should really do is take a piece of music and make it theirs.  Every artist is different, and every artist will put their own spin on a piece of music.

So in all honesty, I believe that memorization isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.  Just work on it as best as you can, reproduce it as best as you can, and enjoy your own interpretation of it.  You might find that what you produce is much more rewarding.

What music taught me about being a professional

They say learning music improves cognitive skills, and I definitely understand the correlation.  I’ve been playing music my entire life.  Reading a score is like a computer reading a program; there are notes (that correlate to instructions), dynamics (attributes), repeats and D.S./D.C. instructions (loops), and so on.  (If you want to take the programming analogy further, you could say that each movement in a suite is either a function or an object.)

However, that is likely another article for another time.  What I want to talk about is my involvement in music, and some of the lessons learned throughout my life.  Granted, not everyone is a musician.  For the purposes of this article, I could easily replace the word “music” with “sports.”  These lessons aren’t necessarily about the science of music; rather, it’s how my experience in music shaped my life and, eventually, my professional development.   It’s about being a part of something bigger than myself, and how I’ve been able to contribute.  Many other people likely had these same experiences playing sports; it just so happens that my experience was in music instead of sports.

Anyway, for the context of this article, some personal history about my musical background is in order.  I started learning the piano when I was 7, and I picked up the clarinet when I was 8.

In my school district, second graders were offered the chance to learn an instrument, which was determined by your skill in recorder lessons.  You had your first and second choices of instruments.  The saxophone was actually my first choice; the clarinet was second.  I don’t remember why, but they wouldn’t let me take up the saxophone, so I ended up on clarinet.  As it turned out, I became pretty good at the clarinet — good enough that it provided me with opportunities later down the road.

Lesson learned: just because your first choice doesn’t work out doesn’t mean opportunity doesn’t exist.


I ended up learning how to play saxophone years later, when I was in high school.  I actually discovered that it was easier for a clarinetist to learn saxophone than it was for a sax player to learn clarinet.

Lesson learned: sometimes, things happen for a reason.

Like just about any typical kid, I hated to practice.  (Admittedly, I still do!)  But as time went on, I realized that the only way I was going to get better was to work on it on my own time.  So I worked at it, and got better.

Lessons learned: practice makes perfect, and preparation is everything.

As a kid growing up, my piano teacher lived next door.  To get to my lessons, all I had to do was climb over the bluestone fence that separated our properties.  Every year, we had an end-of-year recital at our local community college.  (I remember looking forward to the post-recital reception — hey, cookies! — the most.)  Every year, I felt nervous about getting on stage to perform — a feeling that lessened each year.  I suppose it was a sign of my growing confidence in something that I enjoyed and was able to do fairly well.

By my senior year in high school (and my final recital), my fellow seniors asked me to present our piano teacher with flowers as a “thank you for putting up with us everything you did.”  (I told them I wouldn’t do it unless they were on stage with me; they obliged.)

To this day, I’m not entirely sure why my fellow seniors picked me to be the spokesperson, but they saw something in me that I didn’t.  By that time, I’d gotten comfortable with performing on stage, but I felt pretty nervous when my friends appointed me to make that presentation.

Lesson learned: to be successful, you need to step out of your comfort zone.

My school’s marching band had built quite a reputation.  In 1973 (?), they were selected to perform halftime at a New York Jets game.  The Jets still played at old Shea Stadium, and the weather that day was, to put it mildly, not nice.  Despite the weather, the band took the field at halftime.  The play-by-play man said on national TV, “this is probably the bravest marching band in all of America” (or something to that effect — they actually showed halftime shows on TV back then)  In 1976, they were selected to perform at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  In 1980, they were featured in a commercial for Pepsi-Cola.  I remember watching that commercial as a wide-eyed kid and proclaiming, “I’m going to be in that band.”

Lesson learned: sometimes, you need a dream — or a goal.


I was supposed to play clarinet in my high school band, but my freshman year, the band got a brand new set of marching bells.  Because I played the piano, I was one of the few people in the band who knew his way around a keyboard.  So guess who got the job of playing the new set of bells?  I was already getting praise for my musical prowess, but somehow, playing the bells gave me a whole new prominence with the rest of the band.  Had I stayed on clarinet, I would’ve been just another face among about a dozen other clarinet players.  I played the bells for three years before I switched back to clarinet.  But the bells gave me new experience that I was able to parlay into mallet percussion opportunities later in future groups.

Lesson learned: if an opportunity arises, jump on it.  You never know where it might lead.

I played in my high school band for four years, and ended up doing quite a bit with them.  I marched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in 1981 (yes, I am visible in the video link; you can see me in the percussion section playing the bells at 0:22).  We performed halftime for a couple of New York Giants games.  We were in the stands for the infamous snow plow game (the Patriots would not let us on the field because of the snow; we performed The Star Spangled Banner from the stands and left the game before halftime, so we never got to see the field goal).  We played pregame for a couple of Yankee games (I remember standing in center field, playing my music, and thinking to myself, “wow, I am playing in center field in Yankee Stadium!”).

My last game as a member of my high school marching band was a Giants game.  I remember thinking that it would be the last time I’d step on a football field with a marching band.  Little did I know at the time that I would end up attending a college that had a marching band.


College was a whole new experience (as it usually is for any kid coming out of high school).  Here I was, a small town kid going to a large university that happened to play NCAA Division I sports.  And as is often the case of most major college football schools, the school had a marching band.

When you’re in high school, and you become really good at something, you tend to think you’re hot stuff.  You’re a big fish in a small pond.  But for me, in going to a large school like Syracuse University, the pond suddenly got a heck of a lot bigger.  Suddenly, here were a bunch of people who could do the same things that I could — sometimes, even better.  For me, however, it set the bar higher.  I was determined to do well in a band of over two hundred people.  And for four years, I felt proud to be part of that team.

Lessons learned: you get better by setting the bar higher.  Be a team player; your contributions make a difference.

Even after I graduated from Syracuse and moved to the Albany area, I continued to play my music (and I still do).  More opportunities came up.  I joined a few large ensembles.  I became an accompanist for a church.  I’ve written songs and created some demos.  I got paid to play for weddings.  I found a bar in downtown Albany where I could play for a few extra bucks.  I was asked to accompany students, instrumentalists, and show productions.  And through all these opportunities, I still continue to improve and grow as a musician, as a professional, and as a person.  I continue to enjoy what I do.  And I intend to keep playing for a long time to come.

Lessons learned: never stop doing what you love.  You’re never too old.  Share what you love with the world.

Play on!

Support your local user group

I’m involved with a number of local groups.  I participate regularly with my local SQL Server user group and my local Albany UX group.  I occasionally attend events held by my local college alumni group.  And I hold a leadership position within the local community symphonic band with which I play.  Additionally, there are several other local groups with which I would like to be involved; only lack of time keeps me from getting involved with more of them.

Why is it important to get involved with local user groups?  There are many good reasons.

  1. It’s a free resource for learning.  Both my SQL and UX groups regularly include a presentation about some topic at their meetings.  These presentations provide me with an opportunity to learn something new.
  2. It’s an opportunity for you to get involved and to give back to the community.  I am a musician in my spare time.  My involvement with music groups give me a chance to share my talents with the rest of the world.  Likewise, I’ve become a presenter with my SQL group (more on that in a minute).  Through my user group, I have an opportunity to share my knowledge and my thoughts.
  3. It’s an opportunity to grow.  Years ago, I started attending SQL Saturday, a series of SQL-centric technical conferences that are held at various locations.  I wanted to contribute to these conferences, but I wasn’t sure how.  I gave some presentations at my local SQL group.  I took those presentations, submitted them to SQL Saturday conferences, and was accepted.  I now regularly submit to and speak at SQL Saturdays around the Northeast United States.
  4. It’s a chance to network and make new friends.  I have made a significant number of friends through my involvement with user groups.  These are people with whom I feel comfortable getting together, having dinner, inviting to parties, playing games, going to ballgames, and so on.  From a professional perspective, it’s also a great opportunity to network.  It’s entirely possible that user group involvement could lead to professional opportunities and job leads.  You never know.  Speaking of professional opportunities and job leads…
  5. It looks good on a resume.  Getting involved with user groups demonstrates that you are genuinely interested in something.  That’s something that might appeal to potential employers.
  6. You become involved with something bigger than yourself.  Doesn’t it feel good to be part of a team?  When you’re involved with a user group, you can point to it and proudly say, “I’m a part of that!”
  7. It’s fun!  I’ve often told my wife that band practice “isn’t just a hobby; it’s therapy.”  I’ve often gone to rehearsal angry about something, and by the end of rehearsal, I’ll completely forget about what it is that upset me.  These user groups are something I enjoy, and it makes for great therapy.

These are some of the reasons.  Are there any others?  Feel free to add by commenting!

So go out there, find a user group that interests you, and get involved.  Chances are that it might lead to something.  You never know!