Getting To Grips With Memorising Music

As wrote about a couple of posts ago, I’ve picked up a piece again recently that I had been “resting” (like resting a lovely piece of roast beef and letting the juices letting the juices flow prior to eating!).

In picking up this particular piece again I’ve decided to commit it to memory, and I’ve decided to really actively do this in a very methodical manner. And I’m doing so in a manner that’s somewhat of a tester of a slightly different technique for me. Sure I’ve gone about memorising things before, but in a way that’s left a few holes and potential for the stitching to come apart in live performance situations (which I’ve mostly managed to stitch together on the spot with material not necessarily belonging to that particular part of the music! Hah hah!).

This time, and after having read Daniel Goleman’s book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence (which I posted about last time) I decided to really get to grips with really embedding this wonderful music into my brain and muscles.

Soundhole B&W

I’ve put my money where my mouth is and am literally breaking the music down into approximately 4 bar sections, or similar sized phrases if that makes sense musically to that particular section. In breaking things down in this way, I’m now re-examining what is going on across a number of elements and asking myself a number of questions.

I’m re-examining what is going on:

(a) Musically – do I know where the melody is? Where it has come from? Where it is going? Which voice is most important? What are the leading and landing notes in this particular phrase or section? Do I know what’s happening with the harmony? What are the chords?

(b) “Geographically” – do I know where my left hand is? Do I know where it has come from and where it’s going to? Do I know how it’s moving? Do I know what the fingering is? Do I know the fretboard locations I’m playing in? Are there alternatives that could work musically and technically/ In going through this exercise I’m also breaking down some of the bad habits that had started to form and becoming automatic, examining and questioning what I’m doing. By listening to what I’m playing I’m making transitions smoother in the process and tightening up things like trills. I’m essentially relearning small sections and “reprogramming” the automatic playing in a more informed manner.

(c) With my right hand – this is the hand that produces the sound (obviously!) and so I’m asking myself questions like which fingers am I playing melody lines with? Am I being efficient with my right hand fingering? Which fingers am I playing chords with and could I finger them differently? Do I definitely know which strings I’m playing with various chords? I’m also asking questions like do I like the sound quality produced? How does it sound? Is it consistent? What is the timbre I’m producing? What do I want to produce – a tasto, a ponticello, a good robust standard sound?

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So in asking these various questions of myself whilst going through this process of memorisation you can perhaps understand why I feel it’s important to break it down into very small portions! Once gone through this range of questions for a particular 4 bar, or similar, section I will repeat a number of times to begin embedding it. I will then stitch it into preceeding material that I’ve worked on in previous sessions.

Now, I’m not saying here you have to memorise. I’ve played both with and without music for a number of years. I do find though that you can really get to the heart of the music and almost free yourself to really get into the music having gone through the process of memorisation.

I’ll let you know how my little experiment goes!

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Want To Play Spanish Classical Guitar? Listen To This….

In my practice recently I’ve picked up La Maja de Goya again recently, to start burnishing it up, committing it to a secure, multi-dimensional memory (i.e. left and right hand kinesthetic, theoretical, etc) and really understanding, listening to and feeling how I want to play this fantastic piece.

And part of this process now involves listening to not necessarily the piece as played by others, but other similar pieces. Similar works played in their original formats. With a lot of what we call standard guitar repertoire these days, from Spanish composers such as the likes of Albeniz, Granados, de Falla, was originally written for the piano rather than the guitar.

I find this activity gives some great musical insight and inspiration. Rather than just being limited by the guitar and its sounds, it brings a different, more purely musical perspective – how is the pianist, the musician, playing this line, this phrase? How are they treating these chords? You notice things when listening to other musicians, non-guitarists, playing things that perhaps you hadn’t noticed before.

Perhaps somethings have been missed or mistranslated even with transcriptions from piano to guitar that you like in the original and want to reinstate in your interpretation. Perhaps there are different techniques not outlined in the transcription you’re using that you wish to apply in creating a sound, or idea of a sound, that has been revealed to you in listening to the piano original. Perhaps you then create a mix of transcribed piece in front of you and elements you want to include or alter from that transcription.

Those of you who read the blog regularly will know that I travel around a fair bit. All this time sitting in airport lounges, aeroplanes and hotel rooms gives me plenty of time to listen to lots, and lots, and lots of music. Which is great from the point of view of exploring sources of inspiration. So today I thought I’d share with you some of the listening I’ve been doing recently in relation to developing my interpretation of La Maja (and, believe it or not, this doesn’t involve Julian Bream!).

I’d heard from many quarters (including a number of the folks I’ve interviewed on this blog) that the playing of Spanish pianist, Alicia Delarrocha (1923 – 2009), was most definitely worth checking out. On listening it’s easy to understand why – Delarrocha was clearly a musician of incredible ability and plays the music of Albeniz, Granados and the like to stunning effect.

As I said above, listening to some of this playing, for me, really brings a different dimension to the pieces I’ve listened to countless times played by many wonderful guitarists. There’s a real clarity to the lines, the feel, the textures and so on. Lots of food for musical thought with this wonderful woman.

But don’t just take my word for it…..

Here’s a clip of Ms Delarrocha playing Albeniz’s Granada from Suite Espagnola. The clip has a follow-along copy of the score too, which is interesting to see and hear left hand/ right hand treatments in the piano:

And Asturias (Leyenda) also, of course from Albeniz’s Suite Espagnola. It’s so interesting to hear these so very guitaristic pieces in their original setting:

I have absolutely fallen in love with her rendition of Granados’ Danzas Espangolas – I just love the Minueto and Oriental in particular. Here’s a clip of the full 12 from her 1954 Decca recording:

And to round this off here’s Granados’ La Maja de Goya for you: