Memorization : Internalization

by Joshua Roman

I write this post as I head towards a concert in an unusual situation. I might actually use the sheet music.


This is very rare for me. I was brought up to not use music – in fact, it was not allowed in lessons at all. Memorization was not another step, it was simply part of “learning the piece”, and if you had learned the piece, you wouldn’t be using the music. It seemed simple enough, so that’s what I did for the first ten years of my musical life – never having the sheet music in front of me at a lesson, unless my teacher wanted to show me a rhythm or note I’d misread.

I do believe that as an approach, when coupled with the right techniques for internalizing music, this is the most effective method. It makes memorization a natural part of the process instead of something to be feared. Also, many of my friends growing up would save memorization for last, and in my experience, the thing saved for last is always the one that carries the most anxiety. This is as much to do with the placement in the order of things as it is to do with the actual task itself.

In order to make memorization part of the learning process, I like to start getting away from the music as early as possible. Even after the first reading, one should play through what you remember. Don’t worry if it’s not much at all. Over time, you’ll begin to remember more. Draw upon whatever senses help you. Visualizing the page, hearing when the theme returns, or similar (or unusual) sounds occur, the feeling in your hands in passagework, the emotional effect of the structure, etc., these are all useful. The main thing is to get an overview. Then, go back and use the music again, or even just look to see what you missed.

This is a very effective way of internalizing the piece, which goes beyond memorization. It’s not just about overview, though. As you continue your practicing beyond the initial reading of a new piece, continue avoiding looking at the music whenever possible, while playing. In fact, I like to study the music before touching the cello – hear it in my head, mark things down, make a plan – and then practice. Even if the plan gets tossed out the window, the practicing is almost always more effective.

You can come up with your own analogy of what the notes, dynamics, and other markings on the page are, but in the end they are just the beginning, the road map. One must follow them to the letter, but the map is there to send you on a journey, to take you off of the page into a 3D world full of valleys and mountain ranges, oceans and rivers. It’s a shame when I hear a performance stuck on the page because someone is afraid to let go. For me, switching the mentality from memorization to internalization is very helpful.

Another exercise: As you have a passage you need to practice, run it in your head while looking at the music. Be careful to note all of the expressive markings and dynamics, and to have a strong sense of the phrasing and character. Then, close your eyes and play. Go as deep into the character as possible, and don’t worry if you miss a few notes. Rinse and repeat. If you are truly immersing yourself in the musical aspects and not just the technical (caveat: you must have a good technical foundation, and be going slow enough that the technique of the passage is not an issue), you’ll find it etched deep into your performative brain and easy to recall later.

People ask me a lot if I have a photographic memory. I don’t- I just like to use as many kinds of memory as possible. At any given moment, it’s nice to have backups. But really, a well rounded memory bank of a piece is the natural result of a curious exploration of the work from all angles. As you study the score, you develop the visual memory. As you are aware of your body while you play, the motor memory kicks in. With the characters and emotional content come the structure of the piece, and as you listen in your head or sing out loud, the purely aural memory strengthens as well. Sometimes, stories, colors, shapes or other imaginative ideas become a part of the mashup. With all of these at play, it’s hard to forget something you learned well even years ago.

Our descent is about to start, and I’m going to review the Pärt as we go down. I stepped in on last minute notice for this recital, and while we’ve made plenty of time to rehearse, I haven’t had as much time on my own to practice. I’ve been feeling under the weather lately and the doctor gave me some wild medication which made me pretty useless yesterday, but today is better. I’m happy I even made it to the end of this post, and have gone through it several times to make sure sentence order is not reversed. Conversations have been full of backwards syllables, so I’m not sure Fratres is the best piece to internalize in this state…

(Joshua and Andrius Zlabys performing at Town Hall in April, 2014)

71iGqKjzYALIf you want to know more about memory outside of music, my pianist Andrius Zlabys recommends reading Moonwalking with Albert Einstein. I’ve been seeing the effects of the process as his lovely daughter puts it into practice and it’s quite impressive.

Last note: performance practice has changed in the last century, and it is more common now for music to be used. I’m not suggesting this is a bad thing, although I prefer not to use it myself. I find that if I’m able to internalize the music and remove the physical stand and sheet music from the stage, it’s one less barrier between the emotions in the music and the audience.

Concerto Grosso No. 1 – Schnittke (Gidon Kremer et al.)
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – David Bowie
David Bowie Narrates Peter and the Wolf – Prokofiev

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Anja Lechner and François Couturier’s Moderato Cantabile

by Maggie Molloy


“I believe that the music belongs to the true interpreter, the true artist,” said 20th century Spanish composer and pianist Federico Mompou. “Here is the music. What does it suggest to you?”

German cellist Anja Lechner and French pianist François Couturier took that challenge head-on in their new album, “Moderato cantabile.”

In addition to featuring compositions by Mompou, the album also includes works by two other influential 20th century scholars and composers: the Armenian priest, singer, musicologist, and composer Komitas and the Greco-Armenian philosopher and spiritual teacher George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff. The spiritual implications of these treasured works are counterbalanced by three of Couturier’s own new compositions which also appear on the album.


Though “Moderato cantabile” is Lechner and Couturier’s first recording as a duo, they have worked together over the past 10 years in music projects such as the Tarkovsky Quartet, created to celebrate the works of Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, and “Il Pergolese,” in which they reimagined the music of Neapolitan composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi as improvisational works.

For their first album together, the two carefully selected a rich palette of pieces featuring elements of folk melodies, Eastern music, spiritualism, minimalism, improvisation, and even jazz. It’s unusual to come across an album with such a vast range of musical inspirations, yet “Moderato cantabile” spins them together seamlessly.

The album showcases both the individual musicianship of each performer as well as their complex musical understanding of each other. Together they bring out the warmth, sincerity, and vibrant colors of each piece.

Mompou’s compositions show an Impressionist influence, softly blending melodies into sparkling mystical images. His “Canción y danza” begins with delicately shimmering piano motifs which later give way to a lyrical cello melody. The piece then transitions into a folk dance, adopting a lively and spirited cello part over a percussive piano backdrop.

Lechner and Couturier also bring to life Mompou’s “Música Callada,” a gentle meditation on the interplay between sound and silence. A simple but thoughtful piano part gently supports the delicate, introspective cello melody. The piece is slow but deliberate; each note is patient and perfectly-crafted, enchanting the listener with each and every melodic gesture.

The duo’s performance of Komitas’s “Chinar es” again toys with elements of folk melodies. Komitas was one of the first music scholars to notate secular Armenian folk songs, and “Chinar es” was one of them. The piece switches back and forth from repetitive piano motifs glimmering above a rhythmic cello bass part to gorgeously resonant cello melodies singing over top of a textured piano backdrop. The result is a timeless and captivating glance into the Armenian folk music tradition.

Gurdjieff’s featured compositions give the album a slightly Eastern sound. Gurdjieff was not a formally trained musician; most of his music was composed of central Asian folk melodies he hummed from memory to composer Thomas de Hartmann, who then transcribed and harmonized them.

His “Sayyid chant” showcases an ethereal, Eastern lyricism woven together with glistening piano phrases and rich, graceful cello melodies, while his “Hymn No. 8 Night Procession” features elegant piano melodies circling around deep, growling cello phrases to create a dark and dramatic ambience.

The album’s more historic works are balanced by a few of Couturier’s own contemporary compositions. The pieces showcase his studies in both classical and jazz, as well as his ear for improvisation. Couturier’s “Voyage,” features warm, ringing cello melodies over softly pedaled piano harmonies.

By contrast, his rhythmic “Soleil Rouge” experiments with elements of dissonance and jazz, while “Papillons” abandons conventional cello techniques in favor of an airy, hollow sound and sparse piano texture. The soft melodies and unique timbres flirt with silence throughout the piece, giving it an unmistakably modern sound.

Lechner’s and Couturier’s interpretation of all the works on the album show a deliberate emphasis on melody and lyricism. The two truly took their time with each piece, their patience and attention to detail ensuring that each and every note echoes with perfect resonance.