Upcoming Performances

March 12, 5:00 pm Eastern
Evensong recitalist, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York, N.Y.

March 26, 3:00 pm Eastern
Inaugural recitalist, Allen organ, Christ Church, Mt. Pleasant, S.C.

March 31, 12:30 pm Eastern
Lenten recital, Corinth Reformed Church, Hickory, N.C.

May 5, 7:30 pm Central
Guest recitalist, First United Methodist Church, Pine Bluff, Ark.

October 15, 4:00 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, First United Methodist Church, Gastonia, N.C.

March 9, 2018, 12:15 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, National City Christian Church, Washington, D.C.

Entries in Memorization (4)


Memorization, Part 4: Crashing and burning

If you’re not used to playing from memory, then a major memory slip can be disastrous to the performance and/or to your willingness to get up off the mat. But if you’re a seasoned traveler down memory lane, then crashing and burning in performance is nearly always salvageable. In any event, it’s how life goes. It happens because we’re human. And yes, I have heard hotshots in the profession nearly derail in performance. They, too, are human. But the rewards from playing from memory outweigh the task of cleaning up a train wreck on the spot when things derail.

I think I get more unnerved listening to someone else get lost than I do when I get lost. I grunt and sweat and fidget along with them, willing them back on track. But that applies only to people I don’t know, oddly enough. I wasn’t concerned when I was listening to a mentor perform the Franck Pièce héroïque. Somewhere in the middle, it turned into what a dear friend of mine later called “Pièce chromatique et traumatique.” But the performer’s extended “save” was fascinating (if a little long). I have heard another mentor pretty much improvise the entire Bach Passacaglia. Not sure what that was about, but it was interesting to listen to. Too bad the program didn’t say “Improvisation on BWV 582.” (I have also heard people sound like they were improvising that piece, with the score on the rack! But that’s for another post.) Finally, when classmates and I would listen to each other perform in studio class, the crashing and burning was expected, but it was also mighty entertaining. We took solace in the fact that it was only studio class, thank goodness.

Well, on to my own crash experiences. They don’t happen very often. Not because I’m a genius but because the way I memorize is so detailed that there is always a familiar safe house not far beyond a crash site. But every now and then, I do have one of those moments where I can’t see ANY refuge ahead, and I just keep going, carrying my guts in my hands and looking for an escape hatch. Three such moments come to mind:

1. In 2002, I improvised the entire transition passage just before the variations of the Duruflé Veni Creator. That passage is notorious anyway, and I was hopelessly lost for at least a page.

2. In 2004, I reduced the fugue of BWV 541 (G major) from four pages to one. One pedal note sent the whole thing spiraling. One hand was ready to follow the pedal, and the other knew better. That was the worst crash of my career to date. And I had been playing that piece from memory for seven years!

3. Just yesterday, November 3, 2013, I nearly crashed and burned in BWV 550 (the other G major). I had allowed myself to be distracted by a sore finger and by the fact that I had forgotten to take the Wind Stabilizer off. Crash, bang, boom. But I kept going and eventually found the station.

There are several morals to this story: 1) Always respect Bach’s ability to derail you, apparently. 2) Don’t play Bach in G major (apparently). 3) Let go of little things like wind stabilizers. 4) Tell organ builders to make wind stabilizers settable on pistons. 5) Get BWV 550 cleaned up before next week’s recital.


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!


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.


Memorization, Part 1: Why memorize?

Three simple reasons why I memorize my recitals:

1) I sound better when I play from memory.
2) I know a memorized piece better.
3) I was taught how to memorize.

Let’s take those in order:

1. Yes, nerves aside, one sounds better if playing from memory. Fewer distractions for organist, fewer for audience. No page turner to screw things up. No music to spread out incorrectly and screw up. No large mass of white paper paste-ups reflecting into the audience’s eyes. No leaning from left to right as your body follows your eyes across a paste-up board. Playing from memory also lends an extra bit of excitement, an “edge,” much like watching trapeze antics without a net. Of course that is impressive. But I sense that audiences seem to be moving away from being impressed by memorized performances to appreciating them for their artistic merit and heightened musical excitement. Check back with me in a few months or years on that one.

2. With memorizing, I get deeper into the music; I learn much more about the ins and outs of a piece. Most exciting of all, I get into the mind of the composer – I get a glimpse of the organization behind every note. Memorizing brings to my attention any patterns in the notes – especially where those patterns don’t match up from statement to statement. (I’m convinced there is a wrong note in the Duruflé Toccata. And I suspect there are quite a few in the Vierne Sixth. Another day.) From there, I get a chance to dig deeper and try to determine why the composer did it that way (assuming it’s not a misprint). Hey, maybe memorization would land me a job as a proofreader for publishers! (And then maybe music prices would actually reflect the reliability of the printing – maybe.) But I digress.

3. Memorization of organ music used to be more a matter of course than it is now. As it has made its comeback in recent years among younger performers, it tends to be treated as a gimmick. But it began as a sort of gimmick when Marcel Dupré became the first person ever to memorize the complete organ works of Bach. However, Dupré quickly realized how much more musical a memorized performance could be, and he certainly discovered how much easier it would be to plan multiple programs on the road when all the music to be played was memorized. But as I say above, I think audiences are now beginning (merely beginning, mind you) to get used to memory as customary rather than exceptional.

But how do people memorize? There is a difference between memorizing and just repeating until automatic. And there is a difference between being told to memorize and being taught how. I am convinced that having discrete methods to the madness makes all the difference. Knowing how to memorize, as opposed to hoping for the best, removes the mystique from it. With solid methods in place, one need not fear memorization nor wonder when a piece will “take.” I’ll not go into the O/C methods I use and was taught for memorizing music. I’ll just say that whenever I am asked, “How do you memorize all those notes?” the answer is, in all truthfulness, “One note at a time.” :)