Thursday, June 27, 2013

Is Memorization Really Necessary?

I love to play the piano. I love the feeling of playing in front of an audience and communicating with them simply through the sounds I draw from the instrument. I HATE playing from memory. I've spent years avoiding public solo performances because I wanted to avoid the memory work. Now I'm asking myself (again) if it's really necessary.

I understand that there are some definite advantages to playing from memory. Memorization removes the necessity of turning pages. It suggests that we are intimately acquainted with the piece and have studied it thoroughly. We are able to lose ourselves in the music when playing from memory.

I am also well acquainted with the negatives of playing from memory. Memory slips are par for the course and can rattle the player's confidence. When that happens, I find myself only thinking about getting off the stage; the joy of sharing the music with an audience is gone! Just because I'm using a score doesn't mean that I am reading every note. It just means that I am more confident with the music in front of me and want to insure that I can play beautifully without stressing out about an unexpected memory slip.

I've planned recitals with the intention of using a score and learned the entire program before canceling at the last minute. I assumed that some in the audience would label me as an inferior musician because I didn't memorize every note. I allowed fear of others' opinions to keep me from doing something I enjoy. That's simply not acceptable.

Perhaps my fear of memorization comes from never developing a good approach. I've tried analyzing chord progressions, sequences, and melodies before memorizing. That is certainly helpful in getting to know the piece, but it doesn't help me with the memory work. I'm just really slow at memorization and get frustrated with myself as I struggle through the process.

I know that the only way to get better is to actually do it. So I've pulled out some scores that are completely new to me (and not terribly complex) and started to learn a couple of new pieces. Now I'm beginning the process of memorizing. I'm approaching the memory work differently with each one and will see which procedure seems to work best for me. At this stage, if I memorize a few measures each day I am considering it a successful session. As I stretch my memory muscles, I am confident that the process will become easier over time.

How do you memorize music? Do you feel it is necessary to memorize the repertoire for a solo recital? I welcome your comments.

PLEASE NOTE - I will not post next Thursday in observation of the July 4 holiday. I will resume blogging the following week.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Managing My Music Library

My music library has been taken over by binders filled with various photocopies of music. I rarely throw copies away because I want to have access to the scores in the future (in theory, at least). If I know I have played the piece before, I am tempted to toss it out, but I rarely do because I know that I cannot easily put my fingers on the music. What was originally meant to be a treasure trove of music quickly grew to an unmanageable mess! I literally have all of the vocal music I played throughout my graduate studies as well as the other random pieces I have encountered since then.

When I began to discuss this issue with other pianists, I found that most kept their music in a single binder. I decided to tackle this Herculean task until I actually counted and realized that I have 21 three-inch binders filled with music! I had to come up with a solution. After several faulty attempts, I finally arrived at a method that works for me.

Since most of my scores are art songs and arias, I separate the music by language. All French repertoire is located in one binder while another houses the English songs. (The separation is only by the text used and not the composer's nationality.) After I separated everything, I alphabetized the songs by composer's last name. This was so academic and beautiful in my mind, but I quickly found out it was not the most useful. Students could easily tell me the title of their repertoire, but didn't always know the composer with the same degree of certainty. After accepting that my library's usefulness was more important than its correctness, I began to alphabetize according to title. (Whether or not to include definite articles such as "der," "die," and "das" in the arrangement is a constant battle for me. At the moment I include definite articles in the alphabetizing.)

A master list of all works filed in the binders can be found at the beginning of each one. The first copy of the list includes only the songs in that volume arranged by title. Three additional copies of the entire catalogue follow, sorted by title, composer, and language respectively. These lists are helpful when trying to construct a set of songs by a single composer or in the same language.

Is there an easier way? Possibly....and I welcome hearing how you organize your amassed photocopies in the comments section below. Now that I have the catalogue begun, it is simple to update it at the end of each semester. I am still in the process of merging the music from the remaining 15 binders of graduate school music, but it's actually not too bad to do. As I organize the music, I'm reminded of wonderful music I have played and rediscover some gems of the repertoire that I had forgotten about.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

What Makes a Masterpiece?

This summer, I am fortunate to have the opportunity to teach a group of inquisitive students in my music appreciation class. As we began our survey of music history, I mentioned that we will be looking at masterpieces of the repertoire together. A question must be raised: What determines which piece will be a masterpiece? It's an interesting question that my students and I are exploring this week. I don't know that there's a definite answer, but here are some of the things that have come to my mind.

A masterpiece is timeless. Although the work may introduce new sounds and compositional techniques, they are not used as cliches. The sounds are thoroughly explored and somehow manage to remain fresh with each repeated hearing.

A masterpiece communicates universally. The composition's power extends beyond national, religious, and economic boundaries. It speaks to our humanity and focuses on our commonality.

A masterpiece is often revolutionary. As mentioned earlier, those pieces that we tend to appreciate the most challenged the establishment. The music leapt beyond the confines of the accepted and safe to bring us something exciting. Regardless of whether we're talking about Machaut's Notre Dame Mass or Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, change was in the air.....and change is exciting!

As the week comes to a close, I'll be updating this post with the criteria my students provide for a masterpiece. I think it will be interesting to see what these non-musicians have to say on the topic. As a further exercise, I asked them to consider which piece composed during their lifetime will be discussed in 200 years. I expect that most of their answers will come from the realm of popular music...and rightfully so!

As I thought about the piece from the past 40 years that will be discussed two centuries from now, I kept coming back to "We Are the World." I think this song will be discussed as a landmark that began a new level of collaboration between artists that was rarely seen prior to the work. Additionally, "We Are the World" was certainly a global message that revolutionized the music industry. Genre and racial boundaries were forgotten as the musicians sang the message of hope in an effort to help those less fortunate. Touching lives through music is the ultimate goal of every performer, after all.

What do you think? What criteria would you add to my list? Which song from your lifetime do you think will be discussed as a masterpiece in 200 years? Join the discussion in the comment section of this blog below.

6/13/13 UPDATE:  Here are the songs submitted by my students thus far that they think will have "masterpiece" status in 200 years.

  • Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen)
  • I Believe I Can Fly (R. Kelly)
  • The Cost of Living (Ronnie Dunn)
  • Can't Touch This (MC Hammer)
  • Stairway to Heaven (Led Zeppelin)
  • Gangnam Style (PSY)
  • I'll Be There (Michael Jackson)

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Getting Back to Basics

Summer is finally here and life is a little more relaxed. Most of my performance responsibilities are on hold until the fall. My teaching load is significantly lighter and I'm feeling rested after the busyness that comes with the spring. With some extra time on my hands, I'm finding that this is the perfect time to get back to the basics.

Regardless of our current duties as musicians, everything we do is based in our mastery of certain basic skills. Even though we use these skills on a regular basis, it's a good idea to revisit them from time to time and give them some direct attention. If your situation is like mine, you might find that there are several sets of "basics" that you need to revisit. Summer may be the perfect time for you to take care of this.

First and foremost, I am a pianist. As the school year gets moving faster and faster, I find that I have less time to devote to sight-reading and adding new literature to my repertoire list. Since I don't have repertoire that needs to be mastered at this time, I'm using the summer as a chance to read through Schumann's lieder (low key) as well as The Messiah. Even though I'm familiar with a lot of this material, I've not performed much of it and can't claim to have it under hand. Sight-reading -- even at a slow tempo -- will prove valuable when I encounter the music in the future.

I'm not just looking at vocal music though. I know that solo repertoire is the best prescription for improving technique. I'm working my way through volume one of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. I'm in no hurry; I simply want to master the music and enjoy the sounds. I started by sight-reading the preludes before settling in to begin working. At the moment, I'm exploring the preludes in C# major and C# minor.

Teaching is the other main part of my career. My music appreciation class is adopting a new edition of our textbook this fall. I'm using the summer to revise my lectures, looking for portions that need to be expanded, clarified, added, or removed. I'm truly enjoying looking at my lectures from a critical point of view. In my private piano studio, I've realized that I am not familiar with music written for children by major composers. Right now, I'm looking at Dello Joio's Lyric Pieces for the Young, Schubert's Album for the Young and Chick Corea's Children's Songs. I may not be able to use much of it in my current situation, but it's important to know what's available.

What are you doing this summer to make sure you're ready for the challenges that will come when school starts again? I'd love to hear from you in the comment section below.