Violinist Danielle Belen on Building Bulletproof Memorization
"Are there any tips and techniques for ensuring rock-solid memorization of a piece?" We sent the question over to violinist and Associate Professor at the University of Michigan School of Music Danielle Belen for her tips and tricks.
Audiences are used to seeing seasoned professionals perform onstage with no music. However, for many young soloists, memorizing a piece can be a daunting task. VC reader Sarah wanted to know what the best approach is to memorize her music.
How do you memorize a piece? Is there a secret recipe for memorization? Please leave a comment below, we are keen to know your thoughts.
Real Advice from Danielle Belen on memorization
Bulletproof Memory — Do sweat the small stuff.
One of the most frequent post-concert questions I get from audience members is "How on earth do you remember all those notes??" Strangely enough, I know exactly how to answer this, but for many musicians, the answer seems to be "It just sort of happens." Sometimes, musical memory is acquired in a fairly passive way, without even really trying. It's just a matter of time and hours practiced before poof! Almost magically, it is memorized.
But is it bulletproof? Will it stand up under pressure on stage and, even more importantly, is it solid enough that you can let go, trust it and perform "in the moment?"
As a young violinist, I would stay up late at night running through phrases in my head, imagining my fingerings for endless passages, constantly testing myself throughout the day (even while watching a movie on a date!) to see if I could remember what came next. I thought maybe I wasn't really a natural musician, that something was wrong with me if I had to work this hard to do something that should be so easy.
Recently, I realized that I've played the violin for over 75% of my life and practiced something like 30,000 hours. Somewhere along this journey, and after over a decade of teaching professionally, I realized something. Through all the extra effort, mental sweat, struggle and self-doubt about memorizing, I was actually honing skills that, in turn, made me not only a better memorizer, but also a better teacher, a much stronger violinist, and a more confident performer. Once I realized that this "mental sweat" I had forced upon myself was OK, and that it was actually a healthy stress, I began to worry less about memorizing and more about becoming deeply intimate with the music, inside and out.
So how does this all work? Here is a quick rundown of some of the real tools that lead to a confident, bulletproof memory.
Exhaust every passage inside and out by breaking it down to the smallest microscopic parts — don't leave a single measure, or a single note, uncared for.
Play the sequence of notes forwards and backwards, literally. This also solidifies your shifting in difficult passages.
Practice with great core sound and Obsess about your intonation. Yes, I said it. Obsess with a capital O. Pitch and memory are closely related, so spend a great deal of your time on this.
Rehearse with a pianist as often as possible — this is a huge piece of the puzzle that even pros sometimes neglect to follow through with because let's face it, it can be expensive and a pain to coordinate. But it is absolutely worth it.
For solo Bach, or other works notoriously difficult to memorize, write it out by memory on blank manuscript paper.
Make your brain work- make it sweat a little! Spend time practicing without the violin, going through the piece in your head, and listen in a focused way to multiple recordings.
If you feel anxious about your memory, before blaming it on bad genes, first examine if your practicing is really as meticulous and demanding as it could be. There must be a deep bond created between your brain, your heart, and each and every note in the piece you are studying. Just because you have "autopilot" memory in the practice room doesn't mean it is bulletproof in all scenarios. I often make my students start in random spots on the page to strengthen their memory. By trying to throw yourself off as often as possible, you can rest assured that those "freak out," second-guessing-your-memory moments have already happened in the practice room, so there aren't any left by the time you get to the stage! Now you can breathe and enjoy the moment, trust your bulletproof memory, and remember, we are still human and mistakes happen. Put pressure on yourself in the practice room, and keep digging for the most intimate, raw connection to the music, and in return, you'll know it like an old friend.
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A graduate of the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music and the Colburn School, Danielle currently serves an Associate Professorship of Violin at the University of Michigan School of Music, in Ann Arbor. Her famed students include VC Young Artists Simone Porter and Kevin Miura. Winner of the 2008 Sphinx Competition, in 2010, Belen founded Center Stage Strings, a performance festival for young musicians.