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Monday
Oct142013

Memorization, Part 3: You’ve got it backwards

Everyone has his tricks for practicing, memorizing, maximizing practice time, and what/how to think/feel about it all. Much of the written literature on the subject is backed up by research, experience, fieldwork, and brain study. And much more of it is home remedies. If you read it all and try to follow it, you’d never get to the practice room. And you’d go crazy with conflicting opinions playing in your head. Nevertheless, here’s my home remedy for you: memorizing in the cognitive manner, but with a twist: doing it backwards.

First, let’s take care of “cognitive.” It’s the attention paid to every note, taking notice of patterns in melody, patterns in rhythm, disruptions of patterns (very important), fugue subject entries and alterations, harmonic analysis and direction, active comparison of similar-yet-dissimilar passages throughout the piece, fingerings and subsequent alterations to them in similar-yet-dissimilar passages. The list goes on. Cognitive memory is a deliberate attempt to memorize every note and leave nothing to chance. It is much more solid than kinesthetic (motor) memory. I don’t have to ask anyone if they have experienced crashing and burning in performance because the motor memory hiccupped. They have. And we have all witnessed it, too.

So, memorizing every note is the way to go. The twist in my approach is to memorize from the end and work my way to the beginning. I select the final few notes, just enough to make one “bite” to chew on, and I memorize it. Then I back up and selected a similarly-sized or similarly-difficult bite, chew it, then glue it together to the previous one. I do this from end to beginning, bite by bite.

Benefits of working backwards with memorizing:

1. It eliminates the temptation to “perform” for yourself in the practice room. It actually gets work done, rather than feeding the fantasy of playing the piece in public. It makes that fantasy a reality sooner.

2. Most people practice from the beginning each day, which gives the middle and end less practice time, thereby making the piece sound less solid as it goes in performance. My process reverses that. If people are wowed by the beginning, just wait ’til I show ’em the end!

3. It eliminates the coma that ensues when you start at the beginning, try to memorize, and just end up playing through to the end, fumbling along the way and getting nothing done.

4. It eliminates the panic from looking at the whole piece and saying, “O my God, I have to memorize all these notes.”

5. It makes the piece shorter. You focus on a small part better, rather than continuing to look ahead and see all that music you have to memorize.

6. It eliminates the need to continue playing to the end, because you constantly keep finding yourself in familiar territory. No need to go on to the end! Go backwards and bite off another bite.

7. It forces you to look at every detail and select a bite to chew on. Not too big.

8. As with anything I try to do professionally, it makes the piece sound better, which is the whole point of music, isn't it? Hellooooo!

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