By Heart (book review)

ByHeartEarlier this year, I received a copy of “By Heart: the Art of Memorising Music” by harpsichordist and blogger Paul Cienniwa. Published in 2014, this little gem is exactly the kind of book I had been searching for when I started this blog back at the start of 2013!

The book provides some clear guidance as to how to approach the daunting task of memorising a piece, from nothing to performance. Cienniwa’s personal perspective on this topic is fascinating – he  stopped memorising in college, when he switched from piano to harpsichord, and actively decided to start again nearly 20 years later. This experience has resulted some very clear and sensible recommendations for memorisation:

  • Mental practice away from the instrument is hugely valuable, and should account for perhaps as much as half of a musician’s practice time.
  • Create musical landmarks in a piece that can act as personal rehearsal marks. Memorising and practicing starting from any of these ‘chunks’ is crucial for accurate and efficient memorising that is robust to little slips in performance.
  • Use a practice log and timer to plan your work and make most efficient use of time. This includes time spent on different pieces, specific slow practice or memorising goals, as well as time spent at or away from the instrument.
  • Be patient! Memorising a piece securely takes time, and is a fruitless activity if rushed.

The book is very short and can be read in under an hour, which is great for those wishing to get straight into memorising, though I would have like to have read more about the scientific side of memorisation (surprise, surprise!). But that’s not really what the book’s about. Cienniwa touches on different types of memory – tactile, visual and aural – and although he mentions the value of understanding the form and harmonic structure of a piece, cognitive memory is not specifically included on the list. For me, this type of fact-based, logical memory (harmonic progressions, for example) is important for having a mental framework upon which to hang the other types of memory, and for dealing with memory slips. But ultimately it is the layering of different types of memory that is probably most important.

Like me, Cienniwa believes that “if a piece is not memorised, it is not learned.” He takes a hard-line approach to memorisation, stating that “I should be able to write out every memorised piece away from the instrument”. This is really a very high bar to set! I have tried this approach before, but I doubt many memorisers could make this claim for most of the pieces they play from memory. But the idea is laudable, and highlights the point that true memorisation is not just about getting a piece “in the fingers”, but about really knowing every note, every phrase, every dynamic and every section of a piece inside out. Only when this goal is realised can we be confident that a piece is secure enough to perform from memory.

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About Caroline Wright

pianist, composer, scientist
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