Becoming an Artist, Part 6: Memorizing Hard Stuff

Memory has always been the hardest part of piano playing for me. I can sight read much of the repertoire comfortably (I'm not speaking about Faure or Ravel, haha!) but memorizing has always been a challenge. Case in point, I have been working on Ginastera's Suite de Danzas Criollas for about a year now and had memorized it in its entirety for a performance last spring...except for the third movement, for which I shamelessly used the score. But since I am including this suite of dances on my new CD project, I decided at the beginning of the summer to buckle down and memorize it. And I did it! It took me four solid months of procrastinating, whining, analyzing, and just sitting down and forcing myself to do it, and I finally have success! 

This particular movement contains a canon between the right and left hand: five itty bitty little measures that seem easy at first glance, but are filled with unexpected intervals, hemiolas, and unique pedaling challenges. I recorded a video of this canon this morning revealing some of my thinking behind memorizing this tricky section: 

If you're taking notes, you might notice me talk about these strategies:  

1. Analyze the shape of each phrase  

1a. Isolate the themes  

1b. Consider the harmonies  

1c. Check interval relationships  

2. Analyze chord types (major, minor, diminished, augmented)  

3. Watch the relationships between intervals (both on the page and physically at the keyboard)  

4. Notice when elements of the form repeat  

5. Compare sections to find similarities and detect differences  

6. Learn the last part first!  

Ginastera is a genius in how he strategically weaves notes together, similarly in thinking to Bach, in my opinion. The more you analyze his work, the more you see how the pieces fit together logically, even though when first hearing/playing you notice some disparate elements (like each hand being in a different key/mode). Taking the time to analyze a piece's form and doing a bit of harmonic analysis often helps me to solidify the physical memory my fingers have done and the aural memory my ears have accomplished. In fact, sometimes I start with the analysis and then move on to mastering the technique and expression. The more ways to secure this music in my mind and body, the better my performances tend to be!

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