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Studio Tips

When I was growing up, schools in the United States put little emphasis on memorization. Things may be changing now, but students then were rarely expected to memorize poetry, famous quotations, or paragraphs from novels. On the other hand my father, who grew up in Germany in the 1920s, had memorized so much literature as a child, that 40 years later he could still quote huge passages of Goethes Faust or entire poems by Heine at the dinner table. This wasnt just a nice party trick it was a wonderful training of his mind that added dimension to his abilities for critical and analytical thinking, provided depth and color to his opinions, and helped keep his brain active throughout his life. I never memorized any music until I entered the conservatory, where my teacher made it a regular expectation. It was difficult at first to learn how to memorize music, but I found techniques which enabled me to bring in memorized etudes every week, in addition to the major literature. Some people are blessed with an easy ability to memorize words, numbers, things they see, or music. This article is designed for the rest of us who have more average starting abilities in these areas. The point is that we can train our brains to improve our abilities from whatever starting point we have. One thing is clear: developing a good memory is possible for everyone. According to Chase and Ericsson, There is apparently no limit to improvements in memory skill with practice. And according to Colvin, a person of average general abilities could nonetheless extend one of those abilities to levels that would seem unimaginable. It is simply your choice as to whether or not this is important for you and your students, and whether it is worth working at it. In a sense, the brain is like a muscle that needs to be exercised. With constant work it will improve its functioning. But as with a muscle, one must start slowly and build up strength and endurance in a
94 | American String Teacher | November 2009

by Robert Jesselson

Tips for Memorizing Music, Part One


healthy and consequential manner. Our brains are all wired in slightly different ways, and some students will have no problem with memorizing music. However, others will need help in figuring out how best to memorize, and how to use memorization to their advantage in performance. Here are a few key points for helping your students (and yourself ) with memorization: * Memorize some music every day, whether it is a measure or a phrase or a line of music or an entire page the brain needs daily exercising and massaging. * Expect your students to play something from memory in every lesson. This will require some self-discipline: for you as a teacher (you must show that this is important by being consistent from week to week) and for the student (day to day). * Even your youngest or least advanced student can memorize something every week. This is also a good reality check about the level of practicing that is going on during the week. It is impossible to fake good memorization. * For the students who say they cant memorize, it takes just a short demonstration to show that it is not only possible, but can be done easily. Start small by asking them to play a few notes from their current piece, using the music. Then tell them that they can use the music one more time, before playing the passage from memory. When you then take the music away, they may or may not get it right. Give them another chance to just look at the music (mental practice, or as I say mentalize this passage). Then have them play it with the music one more time. Finally, take the music away and let them try it again from memory. You may need to repeat these steps once more, but depending on the difficulty of the passage, they should be able to play it. If not, perhaps the passage was too long or too complicated. * Dont jump into memorizing a big piece: start small with the basic building blocks of music: scales and arpeggios. * Next, perhaps, use a short theme that will be repeated with variations e.g. bowing exercises like Feuillard #32, which will be repeated in various ways over the course of several weeks or months. Students will get into the habit of starting to memorize more exercises and eventually etudes. * Memorize all the details carefully. It should be done note by note, phrase by phrase, and include bowings and fingerings, as well as all the expressive indications of the composer. I sometimes will test my students to see if they know the tempo marking in the score, or if they are aware of a particular accent or articulation. I dont ask students to memorize their pieces until we have all the bowings and fingerings set for the section that they are memorizing. Otherwise it is frustrating and time-consuming to unlearn these tasks and re-learn them from memory. * Use a left brain approach to memorization, memorizing every detail consciously; dont just let the memorization seep in by having played a piece for a long time. That sort of memory is insecure under pressure. * Since most musicians tend to be very right-brained, one of the most important goals for me as a teacher is to help my students build their left brains - one neuron at a time! * Children who start memorizing music aurally while very young (i.e. using principles developed by Suzuki) will often have honed excellent abilities to memorize music this way. They can listen to something and copy it easily. This memory may have been achieved largely by using the right brain. However, if they try memorizing music from the written page it may be more difficult they may need to adapt and learn a different way to train their brains. * There are many different memory techniques that you can use. For example:

Rote this is the most basic type of memorization, using constant repetition. It is valuable, but often takes more time and is less secure than other techniques. If you happen to stumble in the middle, you may not know where you are and how to continue without starting over Aural try singing your piece, or playing it on another instrument; try solfeging a passage Kinesthetic (physical) imagine the music you are playing in terms of the physical motions that are involved. Identify the name of the left-hand position you are playing in (e.g. first position, sixth extended position); think about the string crossings and whether you are making a circle or a figure-eight in the air; use muscle memory. Visual most people have rudimentary photographic memory, but this can be developed and improved with great success. See if you can visualize your latest piece of music. Can you see whether it is on the left side of the page? Can you visualize what the typeface of the title? What is the dynamic marking at the beginning? From there, look closer at the music and see the outline of the phrase. Conductors often use photographic memory to see the score and the instrumentation. Analyticalknowing the form of the movement, recognizing how a particular passage differs in the recap from the exposition, understanding the key changes, or knowing the road map of the piece * Dont rely on just one of these memorization techniques: the more different parts of the brain that are engaged in the memory process, the more secure the memory. Redundancy is good for security of memory. * Try writing out the music to check on how well it is stored in this particular area of the brain; I am often amused when I ask students to write out the first phrase and find out that they dont even know what the meter of their piece is, or how the rhythm is actually notated. * Memorize at a slower tempo than you can play it with the music; this will help to insure accuracy, and it will help avoid training in blips or stutters. * Move the music stand away from the

students when they are playing from memory, so that they do not have the psychological sensation of hiding behind the stand; rather, they are exposed and out in the open. * One great advantage of playing from memory is that you are forced to listen to yourself. When we play with the music, we often look at a note on the page, recognize that we are playing that note, and then move on, satisfied. By playing from memory, we listen to ourselves in a different way. Memorization requires a deeper understanding of the meaning of a particular note, and how it relates to the surrounding notes in a phrase. *Memorization takes constant work and review; I take a cue from Casals and play an entire Bach suite every day, in part for the mental and physical exercise involved, and in part for solidifying my memory. * Dont be surprised if something new that you memorized yesterday has slipped; you will find that if you review it today, it will take less time than when you first started memorizing it yesterday, and it will stick longer. The learning curve in memorization ebbs and flows, but there is clearly an improvement from day to day if you are consistently working at it. Dont expect too much too soon with memorization: be patient and enjoy the process. You will learn a lot about how your own brain works by putting yourself through this daily routine, and in the process you will learn a lot about how to teach this to your students.
Chase W.G. & Ericsson K.A. Acquisition of Memory Skill. Science 208 (1980): 1181-82. Colvin, Geoff. Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else, 2008, p. 38.

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Robert Jesselson is Carolina Distinguished Professor at the University of South Carolina. He was the national president of ASTA from 2000-2002. As a cellist, Jesselson has performed in recital and with orchestras in Europe, Asia, South America, and throughout the United States. He has also taught and had residencies at Sookmyung University in Korea, Sun Yat Sen University in Taiwan, University of Auckland in New Zealand, and at the Royal College of Music in London.

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