This story describes how our anxiety about having a memory lapse in performance can be overcome by cultivating our natural coordination and our natural responsiveness to sound
“I was the kid who sat at the piano for three hours playing and singing every day when I was 10.“
When Laura said this at her lesson last week, it all made sense. She had just knocked me out by how brilliantly she sang the left hand line while playing the right hand line in a Mozart Sonata. She loved reveling in the beautiful music she was hearing.
But she also told me that day that during her years at music school in college, she lost her joy at the piano. She got caught up in the pressure of preparing for juries every semester, and of the competition all around her.
Laura’s experience is unfortunately a common one.
Then last year, at 33, she came to the Art of Practicing Institute summer program, and everything changed. She began to regain her joy in exploring music in her own natural way. Since then, in her private online study with me, after focusing a lot on continuing to free up her energy by using her body more efficiently, she is now getting into in-depth listening work. Her playing and teaching are both ascending to a completely new level. “I want to go all the way with this!” she said excitedly.
During that lesson Laura also described how anxious she used to get about getting pieces memorized. Haven’t most of us freaked out about memorization? Sometimes as if it were the primary gauge of our worth as performers?
And yet as Laura described last week, she now understands that memorization comes naturally when you connect in a full and satisfying way with your body, the sounds, the rhythmic flow, and your heart.
When Laura took time to really feel the visceral impact from singing one line while playing another—from fully connecting with and enjoying every vertical sound—she developed an intimacy with the music for which there is no substitute.
This intimacy is different from having concepts in our head about how a phrase should go, how we should shape it. Instead of concepts, this is a pure, raw, full-bodied experience of music.
As I said to Laura, “Memorization is not the same as intimacy.“
Sure, if our technique is basically solid, we can develop a good muscle memory of a piece. And if we practice it a lot, we can “know it“ pretty well. But intimacy is more than that.
Intimacy happens when you commit to relating to every sound on the page deeply and directly. To hearing things you didn’t know were there. To constantly discovering new things in a piece of music you thought you already knew. It happens because you love the music so much that you’re willing to be stretched by it, and to keep listening for more in it and to keep growing as an artist.
Can we really say that we’ve fully and deeply listened to a Beethoven sonata? That we’ve let our body feel the full impact of that huge range of sounds and emotions, all happening so quickly one after the other? Can we say honestly that we’ve taken the time to listen closely to the brilliant succession of harmonies and rhythmic changes?
Do we really feel like we’ve gotten as close to the piece as we can? That we‘ve let it into our system so thoroughly that its spirit lives within us?
Of course, this process of getting close to a piece of music never ends. But at the same time, we can celebrate our incredible opportunity to get intimate with the heart and mind of a great composer as he or she has revealed themselves to us in a particular piece. We can fully absorb every sound so that the music takes up residence in our body and flows out naturally when we perform it.
I read once that a true musician is someone who’s in love with the raw materials of music. The intervals. The harmonies. The rhythms. The individual sounds. We do ourselves an injustice when we don’t take the time to enjoy these raw materials from moment to moment in our practicing.
We’re so fortunate to be gifted with an intense response to music. If we honor that gift every day in relating to the music we love with curiosity and devotion, it will give back to us like few things can. And our love will only get bigger.
I invite you to come to this year’s Art of Practicing Institute summer program, and discover how you too, like Laura, can join a group of amazing, like-minded musicians and completely open up your musical life. If you’re ready to jump in, we’d love to have you with us!
Here’s to more expressive freedom in your performances!