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I am in week three of my Masters’ of Fine Arts degree in composition with the University of Birmingham’s distance learning program. I just finished my third Skype lesson with composer Dr. Michael Zev Gordon.
In the course of the past 2.5 weeks, I have studied half a dozen or more works by Chopin, Mahler, Debussy, Stravinsky, and Berio – a somewhat varied collection of composers that only promises to grow more eclectic and modern as we move through the program. I also have written three short pieces totaling somewhere between 7 and 8 minutes in length. Even though these works will be revised, and they each are for solo instruments, the productivity is very good when I consider that I am working in new territory, and I usually write at most 30 minutes of music in a year.
So, I was surprised when, in the middle of last week, I experienced some quiet echoes of the self-doubt that had paralyzed me as a composer more than 15 years ago.
In my studio, the new year marks the beginning of composing season, during which each of my students will write at least one composition. A couple of my students typically will write one or more pieces on their own, but most of my students need some level of guidance and encouragement to get them from the beginning of the piece to the end. Some of my youngest students will take only a couple of lessons to complete a short piece. Usually at least one student hates everything he or she writes. In this case, the process reminds me of one of those made for TV movies I saw as a kid, where I am the farmer blindfolding the panicking horse so that I might lead it out of a burning barn. But most of my students enjoy the process and are quite proud of the end result.
I require my students to compose for several reasons:
- I am an active compose partly because one of my early piano teachers encouraged creativity beyond what was written on the page. I may not have pursued this passion if that door hadn’t been opened for me by that teacher. Hence, I believe it is important to crack this door open for every student, at least to offer a glimpse of one potential creative passion a student might embrace.
- I want my students to know that music is not written only by dead white men or far-away, glamorous rock stars. It can be written here and now, by anybody, including a five-year old beginning piano student.
- Writing music offers great opportunities to dive deeply into music analysis. My younger students write to conform to basic musical forms, while my older students analyze works that they have enjoyed playing and write music modeled after that.
In my last post, I mentioned the four types of music memory:
- Kinesthetic Memory, where the fingers “know” what to play;
- Aural Memory, where the performer knows how the piece sounds and can hear the music ahead of the performance;
- Mental Memory: where the performer can reconstruct the work from a mental understanding of the elements of the work;
- Photographic Memory: where through genetic luck or extremely hard work, the performer has a visual image of the sheet music in the imagination.
I try to help my students develop only the first three types of music memory. Developing a photographic memory of a single work requires not only a depth of understanding and musicianship that extends well beyond that of most high school students, it also requires a patience and focus that not even I choose to apply.
Here are some music memory tricks I teach my students:
I am aware of four types of music memory that can be used in performance of a piece of music by memory:
Kinesthetic Memory is where the fingers “know” what to play based upon habit. This is the weakest kind of memory, and it is most prone to break when performance conditions change. Yet, it is also the most common and frequently the only form of memory used in performance. A change in instrument (teacher’s piano versus home piano versus stage piano) can throw kinesthetic memory off. The piano keys feel different, and the physical cues that trigger the kinesthetic memory change. When the performer is nervous, or even playing at a different time of day, the body behaves differently, and the kinesthetic memory can again be broken.
Kinesthetic memory also tends to be sequential, in that the memory of a note depends upon the correct performance of the previous note. If a note is played incorrectly, then the sequence is broken, and the body does not remember what comes next. From a performance point of view, kinesthetic memory tends to be passive, and the performer in effect is letting the body do the work instead of intentionally creating an experience that will move both the performer and the audience.
For these reasons, I always encourage students to develop other kinds of memory.