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.

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