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