Thursday, September 06, 2018

Thoughts about Memory

When I was a child I had a good memory. I could play lots of things by memory on the violin and the recorder. I even have visual musical memories from that time. I can visualize the pages of the "A Tune A Day" book that I first learned from. I remember the wallpaper in the room of the blue house (soldiers on a blue background) on 4 Post Road that we rented in Lenox, Mass during the Tanglewood season. I remember being really happy that I finally had arms long enough to play the 1/2-size violin that someone was kind enough to bring along for the summer. I don't remember asking for it, but I must have. I had just turned seven.

Anyway, this post is supposed to be about memory and not memories, so I will leave the blue house, and jump ahead to when I started playing flute a couple of years after I had abandoned the violin. I do remember that the last childhood piece I played on the violin with the first movement of the Seitz 5th Pupil's Concerto.

I started playing flute casually in the seventh grade, and started taking it VERY seriously in eighth grade. I had to practice really diligently to make up for lost time in order to keep up with my peers. I was very competitive, so my goal was to play better than my peers.

I practiced constantly, and found that I could play just about everything I learned by memory. I liked practicing outside (it was good for building up the sound production), so it was also practical. I never actually memorized, because it wasn't necessary. With the flute all the notes are always in the same places on the instrument, so playing from memory was essentially playing by ear. I never thought about the names of the notes I was playing. I never paid attention to what keys I was playing while running through my daily hour of scales and arpeggios. The tune was always the same. My fingers obeyed my ear without any necessary intervention by my brain.

I did occasionally marvel at the fact that I could play all kinds of patterns of notes without thinking about anything except for my sound production. I could probably play my whole set of scales and the excerpts that Julius Baker had his students play as part of a daily routine right now. All the orchestral excerpts I practiced for all the auditions I took are still hard-wired, but I couldn't for the life of me tell you what key any one of them is in without having a flute in my hands.

In 1980 I participated in an international competition in Budapest where everything had to be memorized. I worked all summer on my repertoire, playing it from memory on the streets of Graz just about every day. I arrived in Budapest in September and discovered that there were people from all over the world who had unusual and enticing ways of playing that were very different from the "Baker" way of playing I had "cloned."

I met a Hungarian harpsichord player who was eager to share his (then revolutionary) ideas about playing Bach. It was so exciting and interesting to learn that some of the Bach Flute Sonatas were modeled on Italian ideas, and that some were modeled on German ideas. I started listening for the differences. I remember hearing a flutist from Italy named Massimo (he was really tall--so tall that he couldn't stay in the dormitory with the other flutists because he too tall for the beds that they had) play the C major Bach Sonata in a way that sounded so beautifully Italian. I discovered that the E-major Sonata I was planning to play was also Italianate, but I discovered it too late to "inform" my interpretation. I had memorized the piece, and couldn't incorporate what my heart wanted to do with it. I didn't make any mistakes, but I didn't make the kind of music I had wanted to make.

I didn't make it into the finals. The person who won the competition was not one of the musically-interesting flutists I had heard. Oh well.

I keep thinking that I could have been far freer with my interpretation if I had the music to play from. Using the written notes and articulation as a starting point rather than an ending point is something that I have always found liberating. I hated playing from memory in such a setting. Where other people feel musically free without music in front of them, I felt (and still feel) musically confined.

I might have performed "Syrinx" from memory a few times after that, but otherwise I don't think I have ever performed from memory again.

When I started playing the violin in my early 30s I realized that I could not play the instrument properly without thinking about the notes I was playing. I could play passages and even occasionally pages without looking at music, but I no longer had the skill to memorize. Having to remember not only the notes and rhythms, but also what position the left hand needed to be in, and what direction my bow was supposed to go was too much for me.

My recurring phrase for my memory was "mind like a sieve." But with such an attitude every musical experience can be unique. Every trip around the fish bowl is a new experience. I can play pieces that I have played every day for years (really) and experience them in new ways if I open my mind up to musical possibilities (phrasing, organization of phrases, colors, dynamics, inner rhythms). It is almost exactly the opposite of my musical experience as a flutist.

From time to time I still try to play pieces from memory. A few years ago I tried to memorize the Gavotte en Rondeau from the Bach E-major Partita (in A major on the viola). I figured the repetitive structure might be one I could work with. It was a very difficult proposition. I don't know if I succeeded, but I do know that I tried.

Last week I decided to try the later movements of the G Major Cello Suite, and I somehow succeeded at being able to play the Courante, the Minuets, and the Gigue from memory. I tried my hand at the D minor Suite this morning. I can play some of it by ear, but not by memory. I found the process of "stapling" down my interpretation and "imprinting" it into my brain is not something I want to do with this endlessly-fascinating piece that I want to still be "new" every time I play it.

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