Sunday, August 19, 2012

Learning Styles II: Musing on Memory and Memorizing

I have a very poor memory. When I was a child I found spelling to be very difficult (I still do). In order to spell a few problematic words I had to figure out rhythmic patterns, which I still remember.

FI-FI-ELD (Mrs. Fifield, my second grade teacher)
CO-CH-IT-UA-TE (the name of the street where I lived)

Using musical tools to remember non musical things (and rhythmic patterns are musical tools) is really helpful, particularly for the musically inclined, but I have always had a problem with using non-musical tools to remember things musical. The only thing that has ever worked for me (and this is not advice because I have a very poor musical memory) has been purely kinesthetic memory, sometimes called "muscle memory," and, to a lesser extent, visual memory.

My weaknesses with musical memory used to be a problem for me, but now that I understand my strengths, I don't fret about it. Here's why:

1. Every musical experience is a new one for me. I cannot replicate the "way" I play a phrase intentionally, nor would I want to. Each subsequent movement of a Bach Suite or a Sonata or Partitia is a new treat, even though I have gone through the cycle of playing one a day (I'm a violist, so I can play both sets) for years.

2. Because I'm not relying on memory when playing with other people, I can allow my mind to expand and hear more of a whole musical picture. With every individual musical experience I have, the whole can sound completely different. And it often does (thank goodness).

3. Now that I am a fully-fledged adult, I never find myself in a position where I must play without music in front of me, unless, of course, I'm improvising or playing by ear.

I can recall only a couple of times when I was called upon to play from memory. Julius Baker had us memorize his set of warm-up pieces: Bach Allegro from the C-major Sonata, the flute solo from A Midsummer Night's Dream, the flute solo from Carnival of the Animals, and some scale patterns from Taffanel and Gaubert. Memorizing those passages meant that I could play them any time without thinking about much of anything. I learned those things kinesthetically and mindlessly, and could still, if handed a flute, play them kinesthetically and mindlessly (though my muscles would probably hurt a bit afterwards).

I have since learned that context is everything. Understanding the context of something is far better than being able to do the thing independently of its context. I am very good, for example, at playing scales and arpeggios in every key on the violin and the viola because I practice them in every key. But when I am confronted with a scale, arpeggio, or double-stop passage in a piece of music, that passage has an entirely different meaning and purpose than it had in my Flesch, Sevick, or Dounis books. I have to practice it in its own context in order for it to "work."

I have come to the realization that practicing scales, arpeggios, and double stops by themselves is great for building strength and to a certain extent for improving intonation, but in a harmonic context that is different from the one set up in the scale book (where you "live" in a key for a while, or you modulate to it from an expected harmonic place), a scale or an arpeggio or a series of double stops can be an entirely new experience. Also, in order to keep music interesting for all involved, I believe that everything should feel like an entirely new experience (even if it isn't really). Sometimes that can really mess you up when you have to "produce" in a high-pressure situation while playing from memory.

In 1980 I participated in an international flute competition in Budapest. Everything had to be memorized, so, for the first time in my life I had to perform from memory. I was young and ambitious, and I prepared as well as possible. It was a wonderful experience to be in a new country, eat new food, hear an odd language, and meet new people. I happened to meet a harpsichordist who wanted to talk with me about new ways of thinking about Baroque music, as well as the ways of the West. From him I learned that some the Bach Flute Sonatas were really Italian in style (something they didn't teach us at Juilliard), and that there was a tradition of playing Italian music that was really nifty when "applied" to Bach. I also met an Italian flutist who played in what I could identify as truly Italian manner, and suddenly I found myself re-thinking everything I was doing with the E-major Sonata I was playing.

I'm not sure what it was that came out when it was my turn to play, but it clearly did not impress the judges as a well-thought-out performance. I didn't advance beyond the first round. Had I been playing from music, I probably would have had a chance to consider what I had learned by using visual cues, but since I was relying on rote memory (the only kind I knew), I didn't have ample time or brain space to "re-learn" something that ended up being a musical revelation to me. I still enjoy that revelation.

I applaud people who can play from memory and learn new things at the same time, and I am totally impressed with people (particularly pianists) who can play in such a way that they totally forget about the notes and even the instrument they are playing, and can still make each musical utterance a new experience. I have come to accept that I am not one of them, and will never be. I have also come to accept the fact that its just fine to contribute what I can to the world of music in the ways I can.


Susan Scheid said...

This is totally off-point (though I am encouraged very much by your thoughts on ability to memorize or not, as I was never able to memorize properly either, and it was so dispiriting), but I have been thinking of you, as I was up at Bard for a concert in which one of the pieces was Lili Boulanger's Psalm 130 (which I am listening to again now). It is astounding, remarkable, every superlative, and to imagine that she heard and set it down in the course of such a short life. This piece, like Pie Jesu, to which you led me, is a marvel. The piece was paired with Florent Schmitt's, for the same orchestration, and I gather that Boulanger heard his piece before she wrote her own. His piece, while of historical interest, had no lasting interest, but hers is for all time (in my humble opinion, at least).

Elaine Fine said...

She was a person of really rare musical genius who had the very best teaching and musical home life that anyone could wish for. We are very lucky that she was recognized and celebrated during her lifetime. I believe that it made being sick for most of her life more bearable.