Upcoming Performances

May 13, 5:00 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, First Presbyterian Church, Wilmington, N.C.

June 10
Guest recitalist, Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church, Rochester, Minn.

September 23, 4:00 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, Schantz organ 40th anniversary, Culpeper Baptist Church, Culpeper, Va.

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Memorization, Part 2: Hoping vs. Having a Plan

The topic of memorization of organ music comes around every few years. And it’s back now. Those who memorize swear by it. Those who don’t memorize preach its evil qualities. I have just read the latest fire & brimstone in an organist magazine. That writer apparently had a VERY abusive past with memorizing.

He says in reference to an organ audition that required partial memorization: “I was unaccustomed to memorizing, and I worked very hard at it.” He says about a later recital memorization requirement: “I had no idea how I would manage to cope with that requirement. Either I would work very hard at it and hope that it went well…or I would hope for some sort of miracle.”

He also says, “…it would be hypocritical of me to believe that we teachers ought to expect – let alone force – our students to memorize.”

He goes on to say plenty other things.

Well, my poor abused friend, the scenarios you describe are indeed barbaric, nerve-wracking, and unnecessary. They are also indicative of a lapse of good teaching. Your comments on having no idea how you’d survive give away the fact that your teacher/s must have given you absolutely no guidance on memorizing, other than probably to say, “Memorize this.” That is indeed barbaric and unhelpful. For that kind of teaching, you could have stayed home and saved the tuition.

I’ve said before that there is a big difference between being told to memorize and being taught how. There are many difficult tasks in life that we are taught and allowed to practice to perfection. And I dare say that there are many athletes, lawyers, scientists, and doctors who are taught and THEN expected to do things that are far more difficult than memorizing a few notes and muscle movements to play them. So, organ music memorizers are not at full liberty to complain about our lot in life!

I know of only one teacher in higher education who taught memorizing as a discrete, step-by-step process. Fortunately, I studied with him. His processes served me well and still do. And I teach them, too. When I am asked, “Do you make your students memorize?” my answer is, “Yes, right after I teach them HOW.” I should add that practicing what I preach is a great seducer – my students witness my playing a recital from memory every semester; and they are practically begging to learn how to do that.

Memorizing eliminates at least 90% of unnecessary motions. When you have only your body to look at, you quickly learn the virtue of cleaning up your act, literally. Putting a free hand in your lap is no longer useful. “Skating” back and forth on the pedals is no longer useful (and was never pretty to watch in the first place). Figuring out elegant ways to punch pistons without sacrificing notes and rhythms can only help, and it will remove much of the element of panic from the sound. One of the most dramatic proofs that memorization serves the music shows up when I sit down to memorize a piece I had been playing with score for years. Immediately, I notice note patterns I had never noticed before. And I discover far more serviceable fingerings/pedalings. Discovery of the composer’s finer details is life-changing, and thanks to the discrete training I had in it, it is not scary. And it is not rocket science. It is merely Having A Plan.

Yes, memorizing is time-consuming. But over the long haul, a memorized piece will “come back” to you much more quickly, and it will come back at a higher quality level than a non-memorized piece. Yes, it does slow you down for amassing repertoire, but is repertoire haphazardly learned and constantly stabbed at really worth listening to? The most useful product of memorizing is that the music sounds better. When you eliminate unnecessary motion, fix the sloppy playing, and demonstrate a deeper understanding of every note, then the music just sounds better. And since it’s music, I’ll take Sounding Better any day over Playing More Pieces.

Memorization is your friend, and I will allow that it is not for everyone. But when employed, it must be taught, not merely commanded. You will be authorized to say it’s useless and that you hate it only after you have thoroughly learned how to do it with a Plan and not just a Hope.

Unfortunately, I can’t offer you a Plan in a blog; you’d need to come have some lessons.

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