Saturday, May 16, 2009

Memory Lane

Or should it be memor-Elaine?

I have always been told that there are various components involved in playing music from memory. There is a visual component, an aural component, a kinetic component, and an intellectual component. I seem to lack significant amounts of all four. Seriously. Trying to play from memory has been as frustrating for me as trying to develop perfect pitch (and I have tried and tried for years and years), drawing the face of a person I am not looking at, or reaching the top shelf in the kitchen without a step stool.

I have been trying my memory skills with the Bach E major Partita (there's a nasty page turn half way through the first movement that I would love not to have to worry about), but at assorted crucial moments I find myself in the wrong key, in the wrong place on either the bow or the fiddle, and unsure exactly where I'm going, or of how to get there. The idea of being "one" with the music flies out the window when I'm trying to play from memory, and the idea of anything spontaneous happening gets squashed by insecurity. The notes take over, and my constant worry about what is coming next makes the process of playing music an exercise in survival. Any physical connection I have with my instrument, which comes only as a result of a lot of rote repetition, is dubious. If bad habits get practiced in they do not seem to want to leave once they have taken root, especially during moments of panic.

Sure. I can play by ear, but when I improvise I have absolutely no memory of what I did, and usually have no idea what notes I am playing, or even, occasionally, what key I am in. The experience usually flies through my instrument, and out into the world--never to be retrieved again. It is a problem for me as a composer, because I always feel like my best ideas fly away before they can be captured. That's why I carry note cards with me.

I remember talking to my father once about feeling inferior because I didn't have perfect pitch (another kind of musical memory). He said (maybe it was just to help me feel better) something to the effect that in place of perfect pitch I had something else. Perhaps not having perfect pitch or a musical memory I can depend on makes room for other aspects of music making, like freedom of interpretation, the ability to take musical risks, and the ability to have easy communication with other musicians. Perhaps it helps me to be more sensitive listener, because my preconceptions recede into the background, and the performance at hand takes the largest part of my attention.

I guess it takes all kinds in the world of music.

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