Grace Notes: Memorising Music

I recently read an article on the BBC News website about the Aurora Orchestra and how they are memorising an entire Beethoven symphony for one of the BBC Proms this summer. The article goes on to talk about the pros and cons of playing from memory, when memorising music in solo concerts became the norm, and why music is resistant to some memory problems. This inspired me to share some of my own views about memorising music.

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According to the article musicians are split on the practice of memorising. I personally feel that it can be a very freeing experience, when the piece is truly ‘within you’. However, if you don’t have it completely welded into your memory, it is terrifying and risky. For instance, last year as part of my end of year exam at Trinity Laban, we had to perform a movement of a classical concerto from memory. Now I had memorised the piece, and so knew it, but I wasn’t so secure I could play it in my sleep. This resulted in me having ‘slips’ and making silly mistakes because the piece wasn’t completely under the fingers. Memorising just because you have to is silly in my opinion. You end up not ‘getting’ the piece and it causes more nerves as you struggle to remember (I always have ‘blank brain’ in exams) and in actual fact kills any expression you tried to put in,

At other times however, being free from the printed page is great. When I was auditioning for conservatoires in 2011 one of the pieces I played was Bloch’s Nigun. It’s a very emotional piece with lots of anguish, and my teacher at the time suggested that I would tap into my emotions more if I played from memory. So I played and played and played until the piece was practically engrained in my bones. I had memorised it about a month before the auditions and then practiced WITHOUT music. This was important because then all of the little nuances I added were practiced in with no associations to the printed page and so when it came to the auditions, the fact I didn’t have music just allowed me to be free. I’m trying to do that for my next exam.

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(I do not own this image)

So far, I have memorised my piece (I’m playing the first movement of Prokofiev’s 2nd violin concerto) and I can sort of play it all the way through (by sort of I mean that all the fast tricky bits are about half speed…..I’m working on that!). My exam is a month yesterday, so the plan is to now not use the music to practice at all and get everything up to tempo and flowing. Hopefully this will work in solidifying my memory of it and my nerves won’t take over and make me forget everything! (I wrote a blog post about my nerves here… I’m still trying to implement these techniques!)

This is my personal opinion on memorising. When used correctly it can be very freeing and allow musicality to shine through, but if the memory isn’t 100% water tight then be prepared for some slips and a very scary performance. I’ll let you know how my end of year exam goes and if the above technique will help me to free up and enjoy the performance of my Prokofiev.

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