The Memory Quest Begins!
Updated: May 14
Have you ever wondered how classical musicians memorize an entire program of music, and why?
Playing from memory can be an awesome experience for the performer and the audience. Personally, I just feel like I’m a little bit more free. I love performing from memory, but man… it takes a lot of work to keep things in my brain. I’ve heard lore about certain performers being particularly good at this skill.
I’ve heard it said that Camille Saint-Saëns took audience requests for Beethoven Piano Sonatas – you’d have to have around 12 hours of music memorized in order to pull this off, and that’s on top of everything else you have memorized. Daniel Barenboim, at the age of eighteen performed the complete cycle of the Beethoven Sonatas. Pieter Wispelway, a Dutch cellist, is well known for performing the complete Cello Suites by J.S. Bach in a single day, and he’s not the only one.
Here it is: I want to be one of these people who have a crazy amount of music in my head. To get started in my goal to memorize a ton of music, I’ve set a goal of memorizing the Sonatas and Partitas by JS Bach. I’ve heard that Pablo Casals would play a different cello suite for the each day of the week (repeating the 6th on Sundays). It would be so great to start each day with Bach.
I started playing music in my mid-teens so technically I started late, but I have put in enough hours to play at a professional level. I already have a number of what I feel are effective memorizing techniques, but it still takes me about a week to memorize a new intermediate to advanced piece at what I consider to be a professional level. I’d like to reduce that time frame drastically. Also, I’d like to have a vast repertoire at my fingertips at all times.
If this was my only goal in life, I believe I could accomplish this from where I currently am within a year. However I have to make a living in a new town gigging and teaching. Given the other things in life I need to contend with, I’m setting a goal of memorizing these pieces within two years.
To help me on my journey I’m going to start with one book, Memory Power by Scott Hagwood. Scott is a memory champion with a powerful life story. I’m going to check in with this blog at least once a month to let you all know how things are going. I’m going to try to contact Scott to get advice and coaching. I’m curious to know if he’s accessible and open to conversation. Regardless, I’m going to follow the instructions in his book to a ’T’ for one year. We’ll see where I land.
I find it funny that memory champions memorize such seemingly trivial information such as the digits after Pi or multiple decks of cards. Well I guess memorizing music could be viewed in the same way…
Since it seems like these folks have a monopoly on this info I think I’m going to go to their well in order to apply it to music.
Please leave comments, questions, and suggestions below!