Welcome to the second installment of The Perfect Player. Today I would like to discuss a very important facet of your musical identity, one that musicians too often overlook: memory
What we are interested in is, of course, memory's implications with the process of learning and performing in music. One of the first performers to make extensive use of memory was Niccolo Paganini. In his times (1782-1840), classical music was very standardized, and the different schools, such as the German, the French, and the Italian, all followed quite strict rules; Paganini, despite of his worldwide fame, was often criticized for his unhortodox approach to music. He would play entire concerts on only one string, imitate animals with his violin, and very often go on stage without a music stand, and perform his music perfectly. Of course, we are talking about a genius who could count on a perfect ear and a total mastery of improvisation, but nonetheless his musical memory was nothing short of phenomenal.
Though I would never even think of comparing myself to such genius, I will admit to have been blessed with very good memory, as far as music is concerned. On the other hand, I forget a lot of things in my everyday life. But who cares about that, right?
I never really thought about my musical memory until I started teaching, and realized that most students couldn't easily remember what they were supposed to. So I did the only thing any good teacher would do: I blamed it on them! But I also realized that not all of us can count on a good musical memory, and started to look for ways to improve it. By the time I came up with a solution to the "memory problem," all my students had run away and I had nobody left to teach...
So I held on to my ideas for a while, and here they are for you to work on. Hopefully this will improve your memory and help you become a better player:
- Read installment 1 of the Perfect Player series. Muscular and musical memories are strictly related, and installment 1 discusses the first in detail.
- Listen. The arrangement of a song, and its dynamic and melodic content, are invaluable reference points. Your role in a song is only a part of a broader and more complex picture, so make sure you can see this picture and interact with it.
- Sing. Singing the music you play will help you in many ways, and is one of the best favors you can do to yourself. For now I will just say that singing will help you integrate muscular memory with the musical concept you are trying to express. I could sit here all night and write down what singing will do for you, but all you need to do is try it for yourself. Next time you pick up your guitar (or whatever your instrument might be), sing as you play, and you will experience a drastic change in your musical perspective and insight. With time the notes will become alive, they will sing for and with you, and become meaningful. And you already know that it is easier to remember things that have meaning.
- Repetition. Unfortunately, this is necessary. Trust me on this one, if you can't play through a piece in your room, don't try it onstage. It's just not going to happen. I tell you this by experience. If you have to perform the piece live, rehearse it! Play it over and over until you can play it in your sleep, and when you wake up start playing it again! This might not sound as romantic and inspiring as the singing thing, but it is at least as important.
The amount of work you will need to put into this will vary, but you will start seeing the first results right away. If you think remembering your own songs onstage is easy, learn songs by others. I think classical pieces are maybe the most demanding, because they incorporate dynamics, tempo changes, 'mordenti', and dozens of other devices that bring the music to life but are harder to remember. Experiment, have fun, be one with your instrument.