Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Memorizing music

I don't seem to have written about a book I discovered last year called By Heart: the art of memorizing music, by Paul Cienniwa. (Memorizing the spelling of his name is a bit of an achievement in itself!)

This has been the most helpful book I've come across in a long time, in terms not only of memorising music but also of memorising text such as poems and sections of Scripture, something I've done for a long time.

I've memorised music in the past - a long time ago, in fact - but nothing ever seemed to stick for long. With the help of this book, I've been able not only to memorise several pieces (none of them long, but that's not the point; you need to start somewhere), but also retain them. Yes, you have to do a bit of revising when you come back to them after a month or three, but you have to do this with text as well, at least until it's so embedded in your brain that you'll never forget it.

I've just revisited the pieces I learned this year, three by Christopher Norton from his Rock Preludes book, and three Preludes by Bach, ones that I've known for decades, since I first learned any Bach, but have never memorised. I had to start from scratch on each of them, because even though I could play them fairly well, I had no real idea of what notes I was playing. Which is the case for many musicians who rely on sightreading to get themselves through the day.

One of the Bach Preludes, number XV from the first set of 24, has always delighted me. I don't know what it is about it, but there a some bars that just feel like a taste of heaven - to me. No doubt there are bars in other Preludes that do the same for other pianists. Anyway, having revised this today to the point where I could comfortably play it again, I played it with my eyes shut. I have a feeling that I read in Cienniwa's book that he doesn't recommend this, but I can't find a reference to it. He does say that printed music gets in the way of your communication with your audience. I remember that.

However, I played through the piece, eyes shut, and found that instead of seeing notes on the page, I was visualising where I was on the piano and what my fingers were doing. This may not be unusual, and in fact, when I've gone back to the printed music after having learned a piece the notes often seem not quite where they are in my head anymore. It's the same with text. Once it's learned it becomes part of something in your head, and you visualise it differently in the brain.

At my advanced age it's great to be able to sit down and play something without the music in front of me. It's an achievement after all these years of feeling that I just couldn't memorise, and an encouragement to go on and memorise other music. I began one of Prokofiev's sonatas a few months back, but struggled greatly with it. I think I got about two pages into it before I had to give up. However, I've begun a work that's just as long in the last couple of weeks: Moussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Though it appears simple at first sight, he seldom does the same thing twice: harmonies change on repeats, and not only do the time signatures shift, but even within those time signatures, there are shifts of the main beats.

I've got the first section mostly under my belt, the one where the main theme is introduced, and have begun the second. It might take all of next year, but I'd like to get it so that I can play it from memory, even if it's only for my own satisfaction.

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