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October 2005

Types of Memory

by Jennifer Bogart

Performing a piece is much easier if you decide to either use the music or memorize it. I have been in situations when I did neither fully, and found myself looking away from the music at the key part I did not remember. Or having to stop and start from a familiar place, when playing without the music, and hope that the second time through my conscious brain would disengage until I got to the next familiar place. If you decide to use the music, make sure you keep looking at it! If you decide not to use the music, make sure you have it securely memorized.

Everyone can memorize music by playing through enough times. This is called muscle memory. Unfortunately, it does not always work all the way through the piece when in an unfamiliar setting, or when confronted by nerves. Most people feel fairly secure listening to the piece and playing it through many times. This is a combination of muscle and aural memory, and is sufficient for some people. Then there are the hard core group, in which I include myself, who regularly crash and burn with these two types of memory only.

I stress that these two types of memory are needed. You need to listen to the music so that it sings through your brain while you are out on a walk, or at the grocery store. When you are practicing muscle memory, you need to practice it systematically so that every passage is done a certain number of times a day, or however you choose to practice. But I do not think it is productive to merely play the piece through with your mind on blank. This leads to huge problems when performing for people, because your mind is usually not on blank then.

There are other types of memory practice that are equally important when preparing a concerto, solo Bach, or a recital with Caprices or other works that are typically played from memory. The first is what I call form memorization. My younger students know it as the "thinking places." I study the form of the work I am playing. If you do not know the technical terms of exposition, second theme, etc. you can call the sections A, B or 1, 2 or even Rocky Mountains, Golden Plains, for all I care! Whatever you choose to call it, these are places where you need to know what note you start on, and which direction you go from there.

For example, in solo Bach, where certain sequences are repeated later in the movement, you need to know if you are at the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd time for that sequence of notes, and why it is different from the earlier or later sections that start with the same series of pitches. Otherwise you can find yourself getting to the very end of the Chaconne and repeating back to the beginning with no idea what to do other than to play all the way until the end again! I speak from experience there.

The fourth type of memory work is what I call visual memory. This is very helpful in the clinch. You need to be able to see the notes on the page as if you are looking at the music. The best way to gain this is to write the entire piece you are working on (your part only) down from memory with dynamic markings and accents etc. You don’t need to write the bowings and fingerings unless you really want to. This is tedious, but necessary work. Once or twice is all it takes. Then you find yourself actually seeing the music unfold in front of you when you are humming it.

Another important type of memory work is chordal structure. This relates to formal structure in a way, as it deals with what key you are in where, but it differs from it as well. You need to spend some time figuring out what key you are in roughly. You also need to spend some time with the piano/orchestral score to see where the accompaniment is going to be when you come in. It would be horrible to come in with the second theme in the wrong key in a concerto in a moment of wondering if what you are wearing is turning into a see through outfit under the bright lights.

All of these types of memory will help you get through lapses in attention. If one method is not working all of a sudden, you can switch momentarily to another and then switch back. However none of this will work if you have no experience of performing with distractions. This brings us the last type of memory work. That is playing with the TV or radio on and trying to perform your piece without losing your concentration. Even harder is to have another piece of music playing while you are performing. The hardest of all is having your kid brother or sister annoying the bejabbers out of you and not stopping to tackle them and bring them down.

As in all endeavors, the first time you go through this entire process is the worst. As your brain reprograms itself to organize the material you are performing in these different ways, you will find that all the different types of memory do not need to be done separately . . . they will start to happen as you first begin to learn and memorize a piece.

Happy music-making.

Jennifer Bogart received her Masters, Bachelors and Performers Certificate from Eastman School of Music. She was appointed Assistant Professor of Violin and Viola at Stetson University in DeLand Florida in 1983 where she stayed until she was appointed to the first violin section of the Florida Symphony Orchestra in Orlando in 1989. In 1993 she moved to Virginia to teach at the Renaissance Music Academy and then with her husband moved to Utah in 1994. Since being in Utah she has been a full time violinist in the Utah Symphony Orchestra, a member of the Utah Ballet Orchestra, a featured regular on the Nova, Park City and Contemporary Music chamber ensembles, and a member of a Celtic/Rock band known as Callanish. Jennifer is currently accepting students in Salt Lake City, UT and can be reached through