I’ve been trying to prove wrong those who say we as adults can’t memorize as well as we could when we were children or teen-agers. I’ve spent the last 6 weeks working on memorizing two pieces of music to play for my adult performance class, which I had earlier this week. As I was learning the pieces I had chosen (Brahms Intermezzo opus 118 No.1 and most of the fugal section of the Sinfonia of Bach’s C Minor English suite), I memorized it phrase by phrase, taking Susan Griesdale’s advice to repeat everything ten times.
I put in the time and the effort. I was pretty sure I had my four pages of music completely memorized. We started the class with a discussion about memory – including some points blogged by Wendy Chan on a workshop she had recently attended. While I was memorizing these last two months I was making a conscious effort to figure out which processes I was using out of the standard list (aural, visual, analytical, kinesthetic – both large and small). No surprise – I figured I’ve been using a combination of skills and functions. I’ve always considered myself a strong visual learner, but I don’t actually “see” the notes on a page in my memory. I do see bits and pieces, especially extra fingerings or other markings that I’ve made, that aid me in my memory. Aurally, I can go on auto-pilot for a while, but than the explicit memory that Wendy relays needs to kick in.
I sat down to perform for memory for the second time in 25 years and I did everything wrong. All those bits of coaching that I’ve given I completely ignored. I rushed in to the Bach without taking time to hear it in my head first; I started too fast, and had a slip by the third line. Then I did the unthinkable – I started OVER! – and of course messed up at the same spot. It’s so predictable! At that point one of my students was trying to encourage me through it by giving me the names of the notes – completely useless! This is what I’ve always done with my students, not realizing how utterly unhelpful it actually is. I looked at the music a couple of times and managed to get to the end. By this point I was sweating.
The Brahms went better except for a few bars when I was unsure if I was playing in the correct octave. I was, but I had a few moments of uncertainty wondering how on earth I was going to get back to the “right” spot.
I’m happy to report that my students played well. The benefit of these classes amazes me every time I hold them. There is nothing like a bit of performing pressure to increase the quantity and quality of practice; and each public performance raises the level of the playing and confidence a bit. I trust my whole experience was at least somewhat helpful or motivational for my students.
The Brahms Intermezzo leads beautifully into the lovely A Major intermezzo (no. 2), which is no doubt what he had in mind. It stands less well on its own. So, because I don’t really want to learn No. 2, I’m abandoning No. 1 and will focus on getting more of the Bach memorized for the next performance class, which will be in December.