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How Do You Memorize Bach Solos?

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Hi! I'm learning the Corrente from Violin Partita No.2, BWV 1004 by Johann Sebastian Bach. It's like a maze to me! I find it difficult to memorize; how do you guys do it?

 

Thank you

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Hmmm...I have never really had issues with memorizing music.  Luckily for you, the Corrente is not long.

I listen to the pieces that I am preparing at least 5 to 10 times a day depending on length.  

I also do active listening and watch the sheet music while listening to the piece. 

Lastly, I try to hum the piece whenever I can.  I always tell my children and students, if you can hum it from memory, you can likely play it from memory.

I recently memorized the Allegro Assai from Partita 3 and although it isn't as technically difficult, I did it within 2 weeks.  I'm sure you got this!

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It works.  Also, youtube is a fantastic tool because, at least on mobile devices, you can loop fragments and also slow down pieces without compromising tuning.

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Different people seem to have different capacities for memorization and different approaches.

I have a lousy memory. That's why I gave up chemistry and became a physicist. I've played the violin for 80 years and the only things I ever memorized were the two pieces I played in front of an orchestra 30 or 40 years ago. I only memorized them because I practiced them so much and had loved them so long. Even so I performed them with the music in front of me - I just didn't look at it very much during the performance.

I have known musicians who could look at two pages of music and then play them from memory (photographic memory). They had such a leg up when it comes to becoming professional musicians (which they were). It is also a way music teachers can cull their flocks.

I know there is value in committing music to memory but I think the value depends on your goals and how much you have to work at memorizing vs. spending the time and effort on music making. It is a choice one makes and one I made a long time ago and that has allowed me to play so very much music - my music shelves are overloaded and my mind is empty (which it would likely be at my age anyway).

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Two approaches that I've used are:

Play the last bar, then play it from memory. Play the last two bars, then play them from memory. Then the last 3 bars, etc. This takes a lot of concentration, so don't go too long - maybe 20 or 30 minutes at a time.

Then the opposite: start from the beginning, from memory, and play as far as you can, by memory. When you lose your place, find that spot in the music, and play from memory from there. 

I should add, of course, that is is after you've settled your fingerings, bowings, etc. Another thing that helps, like others have said, is to "know where it is going" by listening a lot and having a mental picture of where you want to take the piece. 

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There seems to be two schools of thought...

...to make a long story short, just play it over and over from the music and see if you start needing to actually look at the music less and less.  The most important thing in playing is to get metacognitive about hearing yourself.

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I propose the following challenge:

Think of a popular melody from any musical work that you have NOT previously studied or played.  Hum it.  Then take out your respective instruments and try playing the melody from memory.

Next, try the above with a difficult piece of music specific to your instrument.  For instance, I have never studied the Beethoven violin concerto.  I have listened to it thousands of times.  I can probably hum at least a good 75% of the violin solo part from the first and likely third movements.  Now... obviously that doesn't translate into me playing the piece well, but you give me the music, I can probably make it sound half-decent.

IMHO - memorization has to take place from both conscious and subconscious levels (ie: active and passive listening) .  

My BEST example of this is that 80's song about Jenny's telephone number.  I never actively tried to memorize the number, but I am pretty sure it is something like 867-5309.  :D

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9 minutes ago, Bill Merkel said:

The phone number thing is interesting.  It's sort of what I was typing about until I bored myself too bad... 

Mr. Merkel, your posts/comments/observations/suggestions never bore me.  Always interesting reads!

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You're in the area of Sequential Memory, which is kind of a world unto itself.  That aspect of the mind you're training when you're practicing I used to call the Doggie Brain function.

Many people have found themselves unable to consciously remember what comes next while playing from memory and watching some automatic program in them play the next note and the next note & so on to the end.  

In sequential memory, if you do glitch (sometimes from trying to consciously force memory) or stop because you had a spontaneous insight for a better fingering or whatever, you have to start over from measure one again. It's a one-way street.

FWIW

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not necessarily from measure 1, but from SOME landmark you've used.  I remember being at a master class with Rosand and someone had to start again and had to start way back earlier.  Rosand was nonchalant about it and said so and so famous soloist always had to do the same thing.  So that track of memorization was good with Rosand.

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2 minutes ago, Bill Merkel said:

I remember being at a master class with Rosand and someone had to start again and had to start way back earlier.  

I am SO JEALOUS!

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The first thing is relax. Though there are quite a few notes in this piece, it is one of the easier ones to memorize. I am horrible at memorization, but i am ok dividing the piece into as structural map and then trust my sense of melody.


Now we take apart the piece. In this Partita set, everything is in d minor. Structurally, the simplified form is an A A B B, with the first A section being 24 measures. Not too bad. The A section clearly starts in d minor, with the last ten measures of the section working its way to the 2nd to the last measure which is trying to be E7 ( the V7 - dominant 7th of A major ) resolving... to A major.

The time signature is 3/4. This is broken down in to 9/8 and 12/16. Complete measures 1 and 2 have a sub-pulse feel of 9/8. Measurese 3 and 4 have a sub-pulse feel of 12/8. An important distinction if you want to have fun, beyond the academic reasons of playing what is on the page.

Strategy for the A section: Start memorizing from measure 16, most students find starting up bow ok until they want to further take it apart. How? This is a long up bow, a completely descending figure. From there, it is a rollercoaster ride, starting with two measures with a unique bow figure. That bowing is repeated 3 measures from the double bar. This measure is important as the greatest string crossing from g- to e- strings, a dramatic idea, is present before the harmony into A major.

Then, memorize the opening in pairs, as they match up thematically to measure 6 - study three pairs of two measures. Be distinct in the rhythms as this is the joy of this dance. The start of the rollercoaster ride starts at measure 7, where these long full measure lines should be ascended smoothly to the highest point of musical potential energy. It is a Bb. The ride begins there. If you notice, the long slurred passage count is 3, 2, 1, divided by the rhythmic figure,-dotted 1/8th and 1/16th ( at measure 10. )

When working with students, this sort of breakdown helps. Not everyone likes this non-academic breakdown of phrases, but this piece is mostly a horizontal melodic line. With the exception of the distinct chords at the beginning of each section, it mostly flows - a pianist would most likely look at this problem diffrently. The bite size sections relieves the mind of long stretches of memorizing and the contours of the melodic lines are grouped where we rely on the melodic idea to take us to the next section. Each one of these pieces in the unaccompanied pieces has an approach, the Ciaccone being the most difficult for some ( me. ) 

That is the first section. Section B is like so much of these Bach A A B B structures stays in the new key ( A major ) for the smallest time before swirling into an emotional and harmonic journey. This can be discussed later.

Simplified, a) start at measure 16, b) learn the first three pairs of measures ( 1-6, ) then c) ride the rollercoaster from the measure 7.

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19 hours ago, GoPractice said:

Now we take apart the piece.

That is remarkable. Has anybody published this approach for the other sections?

I usually memorize line-by-line and measure-by-measure.

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Memorising, with Bach, I find easier than with other composers- Bach’s music has a logical approach, with use of sequences. It’s easier to memorise the “formula” for one step of a sequence, then ascend/descend until the sequence finishes. 

Take the chaconne, for instance. It’s a repetition of the same harmonies, elaborated on each time. One needs only to remember the beginning of every cycle, and the rest falls into place. (I am not quite chaconne level, but have listened to it and noticed these things, as have others doubtless) 

I do listen to music in my workshop, until I get sick of one cd, then I switch. Very good for memorising large amounts of information. Perhaps also good to do in the car etc.

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16 hours ago, GeorgeH said:

That is remarkable. Has anybody published this approach for the other sections?

I usually memorize line-by-line and measure-by-measure.

Not that i know of, as an entire volume. But there are many interpretations that are available of individual movements within books of violin study.

It takes time to learn the unaccompanied works, but starting a movement in the 3rd Partitia in E major, is a solid accessible start. The last Giga is nice piece. I have had more than a half a dozen teachers offer instruction as to performing a movement or two or a whole set. This is not meant to be a boast but the dilemma in that there are so many ways to play these pieces. The E major is clearly meant to be played - in my mind anyway - with joy, beauty and brilliance. And though there may be individual technical difficulties, the musical goal for most of us would likely be the same. The other sets are not quite that approachable.

The one forgiving advice that most of the instructors offered, was that it was ok to work on any part of the book even if it were only a measure long. Only one instructor required that i start and complete an entire Sonata as an assignment. Most others believed that any area of study in the book, if well-examined, was a worthy study for another part of the book. For those curious, as very few of us use specific studies for Bach, the works of Heinrich Biber ( who pre-dates J.S.Bach ) provides substantial cross-training material.

For myself, the Ciaccona ( still ) has a nightmare-ish scary opening. It was daunting to start so i avoided it for a long time. A good instructor suggested that i start practice at measure 34 ( to where the double-stops start again ) for 2 months, any time i felt like it, not as part of regular practice. Then to start from measure 29 ( to introduce the - stretched - 4th finger double stop. ) Finally, start practice from part III, the returning d minor,  to the end of the piece for what was the remainder of the academic year. The opening is certainly recapped, but it was not as scary to attempt, as it was in the opening of the piece no matter how irrational that may be. 

Remember: "No pressure." Don't over play, don't squeeze with either hand*, don't play fast, use plenty of bow, roll the bow when playing multiple stops to clearly hear each pitch, and work with fine posture. These were words repeated every week.

The study of the D major section, a bright and optimistic section near the middle of the piece, was suggested as over the summer practice, and that would prepare me to finish the entire piece the next year. The D major section had the raised f# and c# making thirds easier to play in the lower positions. After developing an ear for the major 3rds, the minor 3rds in the outer sections were easier to tune. Two years to complete any work is a long time, but without the stress, the hands can work more expressively. What a gift. The piece is still difficult and not all intervals are comfortable, bur with greater respect - for the piece - and patience for myself, it is playable. Do all the notes of a chord have to be played? no. Do all the measures have to be played? no. Not for the general public. There are some cuts that are wiser than others... but since the goal was to methodically learn the piece without injury and without developing bad habits, these sub-section studies were an excellent and kind - if not merciful - suggestions.

* At first, when one has to, or does, squeeze, learn to squeeze gently with both hands. Then work to relax each hand as the tone will improve. 

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Thanks so much for this. It is fascinating. I started the D-minor partitia by just cranking through and memorizing line-by-line. I have made it to starting the Chaccone now. I am going to try your suggestions!

I wish you'd written a book on how to memorize each section. Great stuff!

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There's a lot of over-thinking in this, IMHO.

Play it through. Next day, ditto. By the end of the second week of that it will be harder to not have it in memory than memorizing it seems to be now.

When you learn a language (or music, or anything) a little at a time, it tends to stick with you (gradual decay rate). Crash course memorization evaporates quickly.

My last teacher insisted I learn the Katchaturian concerto, so I did. In two weeks, to get it over with -- all the while disliking it. Unlike the many slowly-absorbed old favorite concerti which I can still play (in imagination) 35 years after putting the fiddle away, I can recall maybe 30 seconds of the Katchaturian. 1st & 3rd mvt. themes, and that's all.

Time is key. 10 minutes 20 times accomplishes more than 200 minutes, once.

FWIW

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Some are more gifted than others in different areas of performance. Those who memorize languages well, also do well with melodies. I am less sure that "anything" can be memorized with time. But when some have difficulty with memorization, i have to believe them as i am a part of that group.

Stress and a heavy workload make it difficult to remember a long linear thought, like reciting poetry or something as short as a shopping list. For some, the stress is so severe that it becomes more an anxiety. At that point, the individual will focus only on that anxiety. But if having musical or visual landmarks along the "journey" helps, they are useful for those of us with noisy brains. One useful Memory Path technique is where the end of the piece becomes the "home" and one works their way home. As many sculptors including Rodin have paraphrased, the task is in removing the material so that art exposes itself from within the stone. Some composers also work their way to the conclusion and that is possible to hear as one plays the work. 

But clearly, you have shown that you are gifted in memorizing a concerto in two weeks. 

There was a time when i loved symphonies so much that i could play Beethoven's 4th and 5th, Mozart's 40th, Tchaikovsky's 4th and 5th from memory, playing along with LPs or CDs. But that was also obsessive work trying to mimic phrasing and dynamics. The Beethoven's 5th has a huge issue with a conductor starting ( and playing with an LP ) as the opening motiv can not be managed by a stick. It can only be triggered by a stick unless you've got a trick most other's have not mastered. Eventually, the LP developed a scratch, so i could time the opening just right, after the snap and crackle of the scratch.

 

1 hour ago, A432 said:

 ( ... )

Time is key. 10 minutes 20 times accomplishes more than 200 minutes, once.

FWIW

 I do mostly agree with this. Managing time and experience is essential. As i grow older, memorization is distinctly harder but i will have my memory points established if necessary and that requires a lot of thinking. Actually, as my vision starts to get worse, i do have to memorize entire passages if the music is not intuitive and sight-reading new commissions or recording sessions are mostly frustrating without the right glasses or desk time. 

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