Nelita True delivers lecture concerning music and memory

Memorizing a piece is often considered the pinnacle of musical performance. It shows one’s mastery of the work, since it implies that the musician knows the music so well that he or she no longer needs to look at a piece of paper to be reminded of what the notes are, where his or her fingers go or what dynamics to play. Memorization, however, can be a tricky thing to master, particularly when it comes to music.

Even though science has found little evidence to prove that the human brain’s capacity for memory is limited, ask any musician who has performed memorized pieces in his or her lifetime, and they almost certainly will tell you that he or she has had experiences with memory slips. As a musician, it is guaranteed that despite all of the hours spent carefully memorizing something, one will make mistakes at some point when it comes time to perform the memorized material.

On Saturday, Jan. 23, world-renowned pianist and current Eastman School of Music Professor of Piano Nelita True chose to give a lecture on this very topic: reliable memory. True postulates that memorizing a piece perfectly starts with learning a piece correctly the first time, and learning a piece correctly the first time begins with doing your research.

True recommended that every musician learn as much as he or she can about a piece before playing through it. Just by looking over the piece, one can quickly determine where the high points are, what the loudest dynamic is and what the overall tone of the music seems to be. Additionally, one can do some research about the composer and the work to provide an extra layer of meaning with background information. Beyond that, True advocated that one be familiar with the sound, harmony and form of the piece.

After one has completed all of the aforementioned steps, True said that then and only then can he or she begin to focus upon the four facets of memorization: tactile—the physical memory of one’s fingers and hands, blueprint—the memory of the image of the music written on the page, aural—the memory of the sound of the piece and, the most important, analytical—the memory of the piece’s form and progression of the harmony. At this point, one can begin memorizing the piece in chunks of multiple measures. True particularly recommended memorizing a piece from the end to the beginning so that one can feel more confident as they progress through the piece rather than the other way around.

Of course, True admitted that a truly reliable memory is quite frankly impossible. Humans are prone to making mistakes, particularly when they are nervous and under pressure before a performance. Often, this nervousness becomes even more heightened when one performs from memory because, she remarked, “Nothing makes us more nervous than forgetting.” Therefore, True also shared a few tips on what to do about memory slips.

Since getting stuck is a frequent problem, True first advised that every musician should practice what to do in the event of a memory slip in order to get back on and play the rest of the piece. One can practice the piece with his or her fingers in the wrong position, playing through the piece starting from a random place in the middle or playing the memorized piece through before warming up. All of these practice techniques help prepare one for the worst possible scenario should it occur onstage.

Most importantly, True claimed that the best thing that one can do before a memorized performance is harness his or her nervous energy and use it to his or her advantage; accept the nervousness for what it is, and then let it go. She also commented that if memorization becomes a serious problem for a musician and begins to negatively affect his or her performance, it is also perfectly acceptable to just use the music onstage. However, she concluded that memorization does help one develop a stronger relationship with the piece he or she is playing and allows one to be freer when he or she is performing it.

Above all, True emphasized that it is the musician’s duty to know what is going on in the piece that he or she is playing and to be aware of the composer’s possible intent. Learning all about a piece can become a thrilling game of discovery, which is good, because “just learning a bunch of black and white notes on a page is boring,” she said, “and we want to make it interesting.”