Monthly Archives: March 2017

The Case For Memorization, or Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater

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Recently I read a thought-provoking blog post on* where the author questions the use of requiring our students to play recital pieces from memory and suggests that we should teach them to learn to read music immediately to avoid problems with stage fright and fear of memory lapses.

“What is sacrificed by putting off reading music and requiring memorization for all recital performances? The child spends too much energy worrying about having a memory slip during a performance, rather than experiencing the full benefits of absorbing and expressing the music. If only a tiny percentage of soloists must memorize concerti and solo pieces, why would it be necessary to inflict such a requirement on someone performing during the their first year of lessons?”

What is sacrificed by not putting off note reading? The possibility of playing music as soon as possible in the easiest possible way. Learning to play first from memory before reading is better because:

  1. Students have the chance to concentrate on the technical difficulties of holding the instrument and bow.
  2. They learn music like a language – children speak their mother tongue for a long time before they learn to read it, thus their focus is always on listening and reproducing before reading.
  3. It is easier for them to learn to listen to themselves (something I hold to be one of the most difficult things to learn or to teach a student) when they don’t have to concentrate on the notes on the printed page.
  4. They develop muscle memory early on, a kind of memory quite different from what you develop using your eyes, and learn to trust it, thus making sure it is well in place before students start using their eyes as a crutch for their memories. I have found that once they start reading music, usually after years of memory work, some of my students don’t want to memorize anymore (they get lazy), but they know how and have no trouble doing it.
  5. They develop different types of memory from a photographic or visual one. And all kinds of memory are useful in life.

I can tell you what I would do if I were to have a non-reading beginner with stage fright and fear of memory slips. I would have him play something so easy that it would not be possible to mess it up, even “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” when he is at minuet level. The idea is to get students to feel at ease in front of the public and to trust themselves. The fact that you put off reading music does not necessarily mean that playing from memory at recitals is mandatory either. In extreme cases of stage fright you can always put some kind musical notation in front of your students who don’t read notes yet. I have found, however, that if non-readers are used to playing from memory at the lesson and for home “concerts,” they rarely make a fuss about playing from memory in recitals. Once my students understand that making mistakes of any kind is something all violinists do, that the important thing is to recover and play on and that I’ll be there where they can see me in case of a blip, there is little drama left in the situation..

The above author is right that very few violinists ever have to play solo pieces from memory. But go look at the audition requirements for most major and minor conservatories and music schools – many require audition pieces to be from memory and others merely “encourage” it. So if you want to beat out the competition, you had better have some, if not all, of your pieces memorized and be comfortable playing from memory which, I can tell you from personal and professional experience, is easier if you train the memory (the ear and the body) before the eye. You may say, “Well, most violin students are never going to go to any university violin program.” True, but can you tell who they are when they first start their studies?

“Children have a better chance of being musically well rounded if they learn music like they learn to read. School teachers don’t ask them to memorize a book, because it’s not necessary. Just as it is a natural process to teach a child to read the words that correspond to things he knows, the correlation to music is similar. Most children readily absorb simple melodies, so reading notes is the next obvious step.”

Music and schoolwork are not the same thing even though school teachers do ask students to memorize lots of things. I think we can all agree that music and language are much more similar to each other and that we have to do a lot of listening to either if we want reproduce their sounds. The problem with music is that there is an added step – the physicality of it which is really the next logical step between absorbing simple melodies and reading notes. Holding a violin and a bow is an extremely complicated endeavor. So is making a good tone. Anything that distracts the student from concentrating on these things at the beginning of his studies can be detrimental to the happiness of the student. And what makes a happy student? Making a good sound and expressing himself. Reading notes is an adjunct to this, to be added after the student has some proficiency in making music, whatever the age he or she starts. Students who make a good sound also tend to like practicing more. Those who don’t either quit or, worse, stop listening to themselves. Over the years, I have had many students who had been learning from other teachers in the the “traditional” fashion (reading notes from the beginning) and every single one of them had problems with violin and bow hold, tone production, phrasing and intonation. Why? Several reasons:

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28 March 2017

Group Lessons or Why I Love Vivaldi

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Sometimes people ask me what composers I would like to meet. My answer is Vivaldi and Bach. Why? Other than their obvious talents as composers and musicians, it’s because they were fabulous teachers.

They are quite present every week when I give my group lessons. I usually get a pretty good turnout for these lessons, especially when my students start having fun. And we all know that if students have fun, they are more inclined to practice. I start the beginners playing up to the first eight songs in the Suzuki books with the more advanced students who play these songs in any position up to fifth, using whole bows, playing at the frog, the tip or balzato according to my whim of the moment. The beginners love playing with the advanced students, who get in a bit of extra technical work with this system, and they benefit greatly from playing with those who have a more mature sound, intonation and bow arm, not to mention participating in a great big noise (that’s how they see it at first). I have found that it’s much easier to teach a good bow arm and left hand position to students who have seen them on others not far from their own age.

The next step for beginners is playing rounds, usually starting out with “Frére Jacques” or something else simple. I form groups with more experienced players surrounded by the newbies who are instructed to watch the appointed head of the group, always putting the rank beginners in the first group as they often have a hard time coming in at the right time with the right notes in rounds if I put them in the second, third or fourth voice. After they get farther along there are other pieces, such as the Italian national anthem which I have arranged for various violin parts, the newer players playing basso continuo (transcribed). There are also other pieces written or arranged especially for students and sometimes I transcribe the cello parts for the beginners, if they are easy enough.

But my secret weapon is Vivaldi. Many teachers may not have (or think they have) a studio big
enough to form a string orchestra to play some of concertos he wrote for students. In fact, I wonder if most teachers realize that he wrote a method for learning the violin. I don’t know if anyone has noticed but neither he nor Bach (who had his wives give birth to a small orchestra whose members he surely all taught to play himself) had the violas play much on the C string, at least in the orchestral pieces I have transcribed. I think I know why. Continue reading

9 March 2017