February 3, 2015
I have never studied or performed Bach’s Sonata in C Minor for Violin and Keyboard, but I thought it would make a lovely opening number for a planned recital this spring. So in the next few days, I began by reading the first movement through, making some preliminary phrasing decisions and then figuring out possible fingerings and bowings. A week or so later, I found myself in a hotel room with time on my hands to practice the Bach, but unfortunately I’d left the music at home. Why not start the movement and see how far you get, I told myself. To my surprise, I managed to play the whole thing through with hardly a mistake. I had somehow committed the movement to memory without even trying.
How did this happen?
I have no idea, at least not in a scientific sense. Certainly, I don’t claim to have anything but an average capacity to memorize music, but happen it does, intentionally or not, for me and for most other musicians.
Students are usually required to memorize works assigned by their teachers, and I was no different. At age seven or eight, at a student recital, I performed by memory two melodies, one from Brahms’s First Symphony and one from the Beethoven Violin Concerto. My teacher must have insisted that I memorize them but I don’t remember doing it. Perhaps memorization took place with the very same brain functions that allowed me to memorize the Bach movement some seventy years later.
Simple melodies gradually gave way to longer, more technically demanding works, and finally to the standard concerto repertoire. As a young teenager, I learned and performed concertos by Mendelssohn, Wieniawski, and Bruch—everything memorized but almost all done on some sort of autopilot—with me blissfully unaware of how it was happening.
There must be many mechanisms contributing to this mysterious procedure called memory—each valuable and each serving like redundant systems in an airplane as a backup when others fail. Aural memory seems the most obvious one. Isn’t that why every one of us can sing “Happy Birthday to You” at Suzy’s birthday party without the music in hand? I never consciously memorized it. Did you? Not only that. Most of us have dozens if not hundreds of songs and melodies stored in our brains and committed to memory without being aware of it: “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” “The Star Spangled Banner,” “Hey Jude.” And in my case, Mendelssohn, Wieniawski, and Bruch concertos as well.
But if the ear is important for memory, so are the hands and fingers. The other day, I began the Gigue of Bach’s D Minor Partita with the best of musical intentions, but, alas, my mind began to wander to subjects completely unrelated as I played. Several minutes later, I arrived at the movement’s end having executed all of Bach’s notes in the right order, the right pitch, and the right rhythm while thinking of such things as the emails I had failed to write and the dry cleaning I would have to pick up later in the day. My fingers had remembered the Gigue all by themselves.
And as long as we’re talking body parts, let’s add the eyes. A few rare individuals have so-called photographic memory. A musician so endowed will read a page of music and immediately be able to store the image in his or her brain for future use. I once heard the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich accompany his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, on the piano in a lieder recital. He played everything, in a program lasting well over an hour, without music. Rostropovich was said to have had that vaunted photographic memory.
I must possess the poor man’s version of this gift, for although I cannot read notes off the back of my brain, I often can vaguely visualize at least which music is on which page. For example, the first page of my Mendelssohn Concerto music ends with an octave passage, the second theme extends from the middle of the second page into the third, and so on.
Fiddling away with only the aid of ear, hand, and a little eye memory got me to my early teenage years, but at some point, I became aware that music, just like the car my parents drove, the house we lived in, the books I read, and most everything else in life, has a structure to it. I noticed that there was a distinct form to, say, the first movement of Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto I was studying. It had an introduction, an exposition with two separate themes, a development section, a recapitulation with the second of the two themes in a different key, a cadenza, and an ending coda. This, of course, is Music 101 for any aspiring musician, but it’s a valuable tool for memorization as well.
The path to a successful performance of that Mozart Concerto—and also to a memorized one—lies not only in infiltrating Mozart’s heart and mind, but also in understanding his music’s structure.
Structure became even more crucial when I performed by memory more complex concertos such as those by Stravinsky and Bartok. In trying to understand those works, I often felt like an architect studying the blueprint of a great cathedral. The questions seemed almost interchangeable for both musician and architect. Whether rooms in a building or movements in a work of music, how were their central sections shaped, what was the organization of their many parts and relationship to one another? What role did the smaller details play and what overall effect was to be achieved? Unbeknownst to me until recently, imagery such as the rooms of a building and the objects in them has often been used as a mnemonic device to memorize an astonishing amount of material in memory contests.
If memorizing complex solo repertoire can be daunting, just imagine what it must be like for a string quartet. The Kolisch Quartet, one of the distinguished string quartets of the first half of the twentieth century, played everything by memory including the most challenging modern works. This was not a circus stunt. Rudolf Kolisch, the quartet’s founder, firmly believed that a work was only truly learned when committed to memory, and as a fringe benefit, the quartet would be able to respond to one another using eye contact without the interference of music stands. Felix Kuhner, the Kolisch Quartet’s second violinist, was once asked how he could memorize such thorny works as Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite, premiered and often performed by the quartet. Kuhner answered, “I played the part I didn’t hear,” implying that he had memorized not just his but all four parts of the Lyric Suite.
Some find memorizing easy, others find it hard, but feats of memory are too commonplace to talk about. Forgetting is the juicier gossip.
The pianist Arthur Schnabel is said to have once walked out on the stage of Carnegie Hall, bowed, sat down at the piano, and then found himself unable to remember the very first notes of his piano recital. As he adjusted his piano seat, a solution to the problem suddenly presented itself. Schnabel stood up abruptly, complained angrily about the seat’s mechanism, stormed off the stage, and while the stagehands rushed about trying to correct the problem, Schnabel quietly stole a look at those first notes in his dressing room.
Jascha Heifetz’s blunder was more noticeable, however. “Heifetz Forgets” was front-page news in Dallas, Texas, when the Sibelius Violin Concerto Heifetz was performing suddenly came to a halt. Heifetz inexplicably had a memory lapse in a work he had performed innumerable times. The great violinist was forced to look at the conductor’s score before he could continue.
So far, I have involved the ear, the hand, the eye, and the brain in this suspiciously unscientific analysis of memory, but in my opinion there is yet another essential body part missing: the heart.
Did I play the Bartok Second Violin Concerto by memory? Or, as we say in the English language, did I play it by heart? And if I played it by heart, might that not also infer that I played it with heart?
That would be the best reason and the best place I can think of to store Bartok’s Violin Concerto and every other piece of music in my memory forever.
Sign up to receive new stories straight to your inbox!
Beautiful stuff. I was a serious student of cello but am now an adult amatuer. When studying a college I found it next to impossible to memorize music, mainly because I was trying to memorize music — like attempting to memorize Moby Dick as a series of letters: C-a-l-l-m-e-I-s-h-m-a-l-e…. As an adult — and perhaps without the performance or jury or competition looming large in my head, I find memorizing an easier task, moreso at 50 than 15! A lot of this improvement comes from better, much better, practice technique, but yes, I find if I ‘know’ that this is the d minor theme, or that is the A major, or here is the counter theme to the piano, I do much better. Not just slow practice (what Starker called “movement memory”) but a firm understanding of the roadmap. I now frequently play more or less from memory, even with the nots before me, I have finally, indeed leared to play from the heart. Thank you for your wiriting. Lovely work.
I enjoy your monthly column. In today’s you didn’t mention the tempo memory you undoubtedly have. Mine isn’t perfect but is handy to have sometimes. Another thing I like about having played for many years is the ability to somehow sense when the other fellow is going to start or stop a note. Even if he’s sitting behind me. I admit to the feeling we’re somehow occupying the same space (I hope that doesn’t sound too “far out”). On another subject-am I right in thinking a spring concert here in Corvallis will feature a relative of yours? Also I must mention how wonderful were all the times we heard the Guarneri Quartet at the Coleman series in Pasadena. Thank you for all the great music.
The hardest thing for me when it comes to memorizing is that once I do and I’m playing, in the zone so to speak and suddenly my brain kicks in and I second guess myself or over think it. Has this happened to you? How do I overcome that? I want to find the music in my heart without my brain chiming in! :)
The science of memory will probably be explored indefinitely. My favorite Schnabel story on the subject involves a Beethoven concert at Carnegie in which he sat mute for a long moment,then turned to the audience and asked sweetly, “Does anybody have a score?” Upon which at least a dozen people leapt up and ran to the stage, bearing his edition. He looked briefly at the first to arrive, thanked the owner, and after the audience settled down resumed his recital.
It has always seemed to me that the demand for memorized performance is arbitrary and not always a good thing. Personally it’s never been an obstacle but many fine artists are fear-ridden by the requirement. Despite Rudi Kolisch’s wonderful example, most chambermusic performances are given using the score. For them, memorizing the Schoenberg quartets was the best way to access the ‘insides’ of the works. It was also a tour de force and great performance. Yet one cannot help wondering how many potentially fine performances go unheard because of this expectation of playing from memory. I wish that audiences could be more accepting of ideas presented playing from the music, as chamber music still traditionally is played. Regardless of whether we need to see the notes or not, a kind of etiquette that extends also to Brahms Double, Beethoven Triple, etc requires one to play from score. Why can a soloist not play a concerto in this manner if he or she desires? Are we acrobats or artists? It appears to be universally acceptable at present only for newly commissioned works.
I do wish I could have heard your Bach Sonata!
Martha Potter Kim
I read (in the biography by Elizabeth Wilson) that Rostropovich in fact used the mnemonic technique you describe of imagining a building with rooms containing certain objects, and then mapping the things he needed to memorize onto those objects; that is, a more active process than photographic memory as I understand it.
great piece – Arturo Toscanini was perhaps the first conductor to conduct by memory. It started a rush by other conductors to prove they could conduct without a score as well, but Toscanini said he had to conduct by memory because he had very poor eyesight and couldn’t bring the score up to his eyes during a concert.
Later, OItto Klemperer, when he was challenged to explain why he still used a score answered that he didn’t need to memorize – because he could read music.
A fascinating and essential subject dealt with in your usual masterly way. May I just add that when you do learn something by heart, it is good and important to go back to the score now and again. Otherwise, we stray too far from it, especially when it comes to dynamics and rall., acc., etc.
Leave a Comment*/