On That Note: Memorizing Music

Sep 6, 2017

Each month, cellist Robert Cohen joins Lake Effect to talk about the life of a professional classical musician. Our On That Note series has tackled everything from traveling with an extremely rare and valuable instrument too large for the overhead bin to what it’s like to perform with musicians who were once your students.

This month, memory steps into the spotlight. Memorizing music is a vital part of performing, and any soloist worth his or her salt will not take the stage without knowing their solo part backwards. But how do you get 30, 40, or even more minutes of music into your brain, and body?

Cohen says that we all naturally remember an incredible amount of information, including music that we haven't actually listened to in some time. He says he personally feels more free and without the mini barrier of a music stand when he plays from memory on stage.

"When (musicians) play from memory, there's this sense that everything comes and we're freer to interpret spontaneously in a way and we just feel better," Cohen explains. "However, there are people who suffer terribly because the process of memorizing is difficult. And when they get on the platform, that's one of their biggest anxieties is that they're actually going to forget what they have to play."

A good indication of needing practice, he says, is whether you know the music without touching your instrument. "If you don't remember how the sound of it goes as though you were singing in your head without hesitation from beginning to end, then you're never going to be able to play it from memory."

Cohen has developed a system for music, breaking the memorization down into five sections:

  • Be able to sing/hear the piece in your head without hesitation from beginning to end without a problem
  • Know how it physically feels to play the music (aka what Cohen describes as playing "air cello")
  • Psychological visualization: imagine yourself playing the piece on the instrument without physically moving
  • Have a visual memory of the sheet music and where you are on the page
  • Know your interpretation and feel of the music in the smallest of details - from breathing to the composer's notes

While one musician's method of memorization will not work for all, he encourages testing yourself and finding tools that work best for your personal learning style. Whether it's by color coding your sheet music or challenging yourself by jumping in and out of sections, "if you have all of that in your subconscious and ready to be used at any one time, you do feel so much more confident and able to manage the situation because you have this multifaceted memory."