Friday, September 27, 2013

Remember, Remember

To hop back on the Word Writing Wagon I wanted to tip my hat to a great blog post by Adam Sliwinski of SO Percussion on a topic that's been on my mind a lot lately: memorizing music. Committing music to memory has been big for me lately, so his writing on the subject was especially timely. I urge you to read Adam's blog about it, and then stick around for a couple anecdotes.

I used to memorize music all the time. I think it was necessary since I wasn't very good at reading notes on a page so I defaulted to muscle memory and rote learning. Somewhere along the way I stopped memorizing music. Maybe as I improved at reading music I relied more on that skill, or maybe I was taking on too much music at one time to store in my brain. In any case, this Summer (which is now actually Fall) has seen a personal boom of memorizing music. And the funny thing is it was by accident. Well, not entirely, but I'll explain. I had a couple big projects to work on. The first was learning Timber, Michael Gordon's hour-long work for amplified simantras (in this case, that's a fancy word for 2x4's). I had joined the percussion sextet Mantra and performing Timber is a large part of what they (we) do. The second was preparing music written for Concert Black by Robert Honstein for an Email Songs recording session.

With Timber I was well aware that Mantra performs the piece from memory. Daunting. However, early in the rehearsal process the guys made it clear that no one actually expected me to memorize an hour of complex polyrhythmic music for my first performance. Boy was I relieved. But, the music was so dang hard I wound up learning it better than I had anticipated in order to play it at all. With nasty rhythms played in unison by six people there is no room for inaccuracy—the music had to be learned cold. In fact, at rehearsal the night before my first performance of Timber I realized that I didn't need to look at the score or my cheat sheet after all*. I could play it from memory simply because I knew it well enough. Believe me, I was the most surprised of all.

With Robert's Email Songs, memorization again came into play as a byproduct of learning something so thoroughly that it couldn't help but work it's way into my brain. The percussion part is devilishly tricky, with 20 instruments doubled or in off-kilter counterpoint with a glockenspiel. This cluttered array of small objects (small targets) makes the piece nearly impossible to read anyway, so making certain one is actually hitting the correct bottle/bell/etc. takes the slow, methodical process that memorization naturally follows. For now, the music is still a work in memorizing progress, but I'm continually surprised by the large swathes I can play without the score.
Instrument key for one of Robert Honstein’s Email Songs

The difficulty of reading complex multiple percussion music favors and promotes memorization, a phenomenon discussed in Steven Schick's book (mentioned here before), The Percussionist's Art:
In trying to understand the practical side of learning and memorizing music, I have drawn widely on personal experience. For the past thirty years I have made a practice of learning all solo works from memory. My process involves memorizing as the very first step in the learning process. I never play a piece from the score and then gradually concert it to memory. I never sight-read ahead to see what things will sound like (in very complex music by Xenakis, Ferneyhough, and James Dillon, for example, sight-reading is not an option anyway).  
Duh, just as I've always known, he memorizes everything because of this simple truth and here I am, finally getting around to it. Better late to the party than never, I suppose. It's just funny that for years I thought I didn't have the time to memorize music, but if you take away that safety net of a music stand you might be surprised at what you can RECALL.

*ok, I had a tiny slip of paper with a couple of extra tricky rhythms notated, but that's it!

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