Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start episode 353, of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast. This question was sent by Jonathan. He writes:
Memorizing a 3-voice piece. I’m not sure how best to do this. I’ve been memorizing a phrase at a time, then gradually stringing them together. Any suggestions?
V: This is seems like a good idea, right?
A: Yes. That’s how I thought, when I was studying at school. That you need memorize two measures, then add next two measures, then two measures. It is actually…
A: But, really memorization is probably the hardest thing for me. And I have struggled with it for many, many years. But now when I’m thinking back, I think that I was just too lazy and didn’t start to memorize things on time. Sort of why I always fell behind the schedule and, right before exam or concert, I would be just faking out.
V: Wait! You said you were too lazy. I thought I was the lazy one.
A: Well, yes. Back at school I was lazy too.
A: Not about everything but about memorization, yes. Somehow I always procrastinated this thing—starting to memorize pieces.
V: Maybe that’s because nobody told you the technique, how to do it.
A: No, I just was too lazy. Because if you would spend enough time with it, you wouldn’t have such a struggle. Of course there are different techniques, but you have also to know your structure of the piece, how it’s put together, and all these things but definitely there is no technique which will teach you to memorize things without putting effort into it.
V: Yet! Maybe later you will have photographic memory, and then you can memorize right away.
A: Well, I think what kind of memory you have since your birth, that’s what you have. And if you don’t have such a memory, photographic memory, you will not develop it. It’s not as easy.
V: Remember how electronic organs sometimes have MIDI capabilities, and sometimes you can play a piece of music and record at the same time. And then push the button and the organ will play, playback for you. You can actually listen from the pews.
A: So, what about…
V: Maybe in the future we will have some kind of memory card inserted in our brains.
A: I hope that not.
V: And then we don’t need to memorize. Everything will be in the cloud.
A: But right now, if you still have to memorize something, I would suggest for you to analyze the piece that you are working on and you have to memorize it. So this is the thing that I didn’t do when I was a child, and I think that’s a big mistake but nobody taught me to do it. So you need to know what form is your piece written in. You need to know the tonal structure of it. And then of course you need to do that memorization thing, and I would do it in phases—learn two measures, then add another two measures, and then another two measures and repeat everything from the beginning. And I think when you actually perform it, you will have no trouble. And when playing you really need to know in which exact spot you are, at the right moment. Because sometimes when we are playing from memory, we just let things happen.
A: And it works sometimes, and it works well sometimes but not always. Because suddenly if you will think about something, you might slip and you might lose the general flow and then you will not have idea where you are and what are you playing. Have you had such experience before, Vidas?
V: Many times.
V: That’s why I started improvising. So that I could play something even though I would forget what’s written on the page.
A: Yes. And I think playing from memory, I still have this nightmare, time after time, that I’m back in the school and I have to play exam and I just don’t remember a thing.
V: My nightmare is that I have to play an exam and I don’t even know the music.
A: Well, I have that with organ recitals, this nightmare, that I’m sitting at the organ bench and I hear that bell towers already ringing…
A: And it means that I have to start my recital to play, and I look at the music rack and I don’t recognize these pieces at all. Or I recognize them and these are like massive organ compositions that I have played either many years ago or haven’t played at all.
A: Yes, Reger, and all these big long compositions.
V: My recent nightmare was that I had missed a piano exam of my student and now I myself have to play that exam.
A: Instead of him?
V: Instead of him.
A: That’s a funny dream. But I guess it wasn’t funny when you dreamed about it.
V: No. Just yesterday, last night, I had a dream that I went to the school and sort of, it was a meeting of piano teachers, and I, in the middle of that dream, I understood that I’m no longer a teacher there.
V: And I told everyone.
A: Excellent. But in general, do you think when talking about organ music and memorization of organ music—do you think it’s a helpful and it’s a good practice to memorize things and to play, to perform from memory or not? What is your opinion?
V: It depends on your goals. If you want to play just a few pieces perfectly, then yes. But if you want to play a lot of pieces, then it really slows down the process. It actually doesn’t help with your sight-reading skills, and you lose that ability to read many musical compositions fluently, if you just memorize things. It’s really good for blind people for example, and I would add actually to Ausra’s ideas about memorization, that Jonathan could try out Dupré’s method, how to memorize. It’s not in two measure phrases but in sentence long excerpts.
A: So that’s four measures.
V: Four measures, but not entirely in four measures. But first you repeat ten times, five times looking at the score and five times without looking at the score—one measure, just one measure. And then the same thing—the second measure, then the third measure and the fourth measure—basically each measure separately. Then the second stage is to do two measure excerpts—one and two, two and three, three and four. Then memorize three measures—one, two three, two, three four. And then finally one, two, three, four—entire sentence together, playing five times from the score, five times from memory. And always starting and finishing on the downbeat of the measure. And that helps to connect different fragments. And after you do that, you can take a break, or continue with the next fragment of four measures. And the next day maybe you start your practice with repeating previously mastered material a few times, and then learning something new again, four measures at a time. It’s very systematic. I’ve done this before, and it then helps me retain this music in my memory for a long time.
A: For how long?
V: For a month. And then after a month I have to repeat the process a little bit to refresh.
A: Well, so it seems that it is much harder to keep your repertoire alive in that way if you memorize everything. Just think how much things you will have to repeat.
V: Mmm-hmm. I guess this is for people who either have extremely good memory, you know, phenomenal memory, or who don’t play a lot of music. Maybe they have two, three hours total of repertoire and that’s it. And they do in cycles—refresh the memory and once they have three hours they’re set and tour the world. That could be done, but it’s not my goal, I mean it’s not interesting to me just to have that kind of music and not to learn anything else. But because it definitely requires…
A: A lot of time.
V: Lot of time and refreshing of memory of old memorized pieces. But I would advise anyone to try it as an exercise. You have to learn a few pieces this way. It’s very helpful, I think.
A: Yes, definitely it is.
V: In order to know what works for you and what not.
A: That’s right.
V: Alright! We hope this was helpful, right Ausra?
V: And please keep sending us your questions. We love helping you grow. And remember, when you practice...
A: Miracles happen!
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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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