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Thomas J. West Music

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Using Focused Proprioception To Learn And Memorize Music

Posted on March 24, 2011 at 8:35 PM

memorizing music

Recently, I have been taking about 15-20 minutes each morning when I first arrive to school to work on material from the Alfred Adult Piano Series. I gave up piano lessons in 2nd grade and regret that decision to this day. Even after my lab piano classes in my undergrad days, I am still not satisfied with my proficiency on the piano. Through my busy first decade as a music teacher, the thought in the back of my mind has been, "Someday, when I have more time, I want to be able to sight-read and play proficiently." Someday never comes - you have to make time for things like this if it is ever going to happen. As a clarinetist, studying piano brings a heightened sense of the skills needed to learn music of any kind.


As I have written in other posts, piano requires more successful repetitions to become proficient (or even to be able to play in time at all), than most other instruments. This is because of the fact that the brain must coordinate the movements of two arms, one foot, and all ten fingers simultaneously. The higher the number of independent fine motor skill events required, the more "programming time" a performer must spend to develop even the most basic skills.


Why Pianists Often Play From Memory (And Without Eyesight)


In order to develop even the most basic proficiency on the piano, a performer must repeat the motions of the music a large amount of times. Sight-reading on the piano is especially difficult, because you not only have the typical challenges of interpreting the written note, but you also have to have built enough proficiency that your brain has rehearsed common intervals, chords, and fingerings to the point of sub-conscious memory. To get to this point, pianists often repeat the motions so many times that they no longer require the printed music in front of them in order to perform it. (For more on building neuronets to the point of sub-conscious recall, see this article).


Because of this need to repeat to the point of sub-conscious recall, piano is an instrument that lends itself well to the visually impaired or blind performer. Most of us in American culture are familiar with legendary blues musician Ray Charles and the incomparable Stevie Wonder. They demonstrate this ability in spades. They have not only mastered the sub-conscious skills of the piano, but have enough autonomy that they are able to sing stunning vocal performances at the same time.


The Gap Between Proficiency And Mastery


This semester, I have been speaking to my students a lot about the difference between proficiency and mastery. Our working definitions are that proficiency implies enough experience with a set of skills to be able to perform accurately when presented with new material. Mastery is maximizing skill sets to perform at the highest possible level. In my instrumental classes, it is understood that we are working long-term (as in years) on building proficiency on their primary instrument, and they are gaining that proficiency by mastering the assigned performance repertoire.


One of the things I have done with my strings students this year is provide them with short pieces from the Suzuki series to memorize. Memorization of a piece of music inherently creates mastery, because the performer has to internally audiate all the sounds of the music (including articulation, phrasing, and dynamics) and also rehearse the playing technique to the point of sub-conscious recall. When every aspect of the music is memorized, the performer has truly mastered the music and has room in their conscious thought left over for expressive performing and being "in the moment" with their performance.


The more complex the fine motor skills that are required for an instrument's performance, the smaller the gap is between attaining proficiency on a piece of music and attaining mastery of that same piece. Pianists often memorize because the additional effort to master the music is not far removed from the effort needed to simply achieve proficiency. For other instruments that require less fine motor skill control, it is possible to achieve proficiency on a piece with a significantly less amount of successful repetition. Therefore, the amount of additional effort to memorize and therefore master the music is much greater.


On any musical instrument, including the voice, total mastery of the repertoire is demonstrated to us by those performers who have not only mastered the performance of the repertoire and the control of their instrument, but who have internalized the music completely and no longer require visual reinforcement from the written page. We see this demonstrated regularly by professional solo performers of concerti such as Yo Yo Ma or by entire ensembles, particularly choral groups and those amazing high-achieving Japanese bands and orchestras.


Memorizing Music By Focused Proprioception

As I study piano on my own time now with the knowledge I have collected to this point in my music teaching career, I am finding that I move away from the printed page much more quickly and focusing my attention on the way my hands "feel" when they take the shape necessary to play the various intervals, chords, and arpeggios that the repertoire contains. The mind's ability to sense the space that the body's parts are occupying is called proprioception. The layman's term might be "body awareness". I certainly have an advantage in this regard in that I am well-versed in music theory and can recognize the various patterns on the page. Even without this knowledge, however, focusing on the feeling of the fingers as they play in a block five-finger position or as they stretch to play a sixth or an octave is a part of the skill of playing the piano. There are no word to describe the individual "shapes" the fingers take to perform a piece on the piano correctly - one simply repeats the motions enough times that the brain can reproduce the movements accurately without conscious thought.


Proprioception is how we learned to sit up, to walk, and to tie our shoes. Proprioception along with our ability to hear and mentally organize sound is how we learned to speak, sing, and play an instrument. Focusing your attention on how your hands "feel" as they perform the passages of the repertoire is what takes you away from the tyranny of the "little black dots" on the printed page.


Some Tips For Using Focused Proprioception To Learn And Memorize Music


1. Begin with simple melodies - something that is fairly easy to gain proficiency on with a light amount of repetition.


2. As soon as possible, begin to look away from the printed music, or turn it over. Focus on the way your fingers, hands, arms, upper body, and the rest of you feel as you play. You are focusing the mind on programming the brain to send the correct signals to all parts of the body, particularly those that are directly involved with the performance.


3. Stop and address places in the repertoire that you have difficulty "remembering". Memorization is 50% audiating the music in the "mind's ear" and 50% programming the fingers. If you can't remember what the next part sounds like, return to the printed page and play that passage a few times while reading. Listening to recordings of the piece can also be helpful in building your internal "recording" of the music - just be sure that you are focused in your listening, particularly at passages that are less familiar. Singing it to yourself is highly encouraged!


4. Once internazlization of the music has occurred, parts that you can't play from memory are the result of a lack of sufficient neuronet mapping. Focus on the specific intervals that are causing the problem, isolate, and practice the transitions in and out of those interval changes. Focus on what it "feels like" for the fingers and hands to move in that way. Take the written note out of the picture - even close your eyes.


5. Work through longer pieces in stages. Select a logical place to segment the music, such as a rehearsal number, a page turn, or a harmony change. Work on memorizing only that section during the current practice session, then put it back in context and read the entire piece. This can be a very eye-opening experience - you will find your performance quality goes up significantly and quickly when you go back to reading the section on the printed page.


The goal of memorizing a piece is to move the motor skills required to perform the piece completely into sub-conscious recall without any external stimulus from the written page. When you reach that level of study with the music, you leave the conscious mind open to focus on expressive performance and connecting with your audience. Lots of musicians perform with sheet music in front of them, of course, and the more complex the piece, the greater the amount of time and effort is required to move a piece into sub-conscious recall. It takes an even greater commitment to move past memorizing a written work to internalizing the technique of an instrument and spontaneously compose on the spot in an improvisation. To be able to take the mind's ability to audiate musical sounds and channel those thoughts through a musical instrument is the ultimate expression of oneness with the music you are performing. Improvisation is not reserved solely for the jazz musician, and every musician, including vocalists, should be exposed to an organized approach to improvisation.

This article (c) 2011 Thomas J. West. All content on ThomasJWestMusic dot com is licensed under a Creative Contributions Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 License. Please contact the author before publishing on or off-line.

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