Playing for ballet class tips #11: Play from memory

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Playing for class without music on the stand is a totally different experience to working from a score. Only when you put the music away do you realise how much of your brain is taken up with the act of reading, even if you know the music well.  Playing from memory liberates you to join in the class in a quite different way.

In practical terms,  you can maintain constant eye contact with the teacher, ‘read’ the room as you play because your head’s not buried in the score.  Symbolically you then become part of the class in a different way, because you then, like the dancers, are doing something that requires skill and concentration, but you are maintaining your social relationship with the group while you do it.  Playing from a score is a bit like looking at your phone or texting while you’re talking to someone. To be able to play one piece in a totally engaged and committed way with the class is better, in my mind, than to be able to read ten different ones from a book.

If you’re thinking ‘I can’t memorize’, then take heart. I’d always considered that I was bad at memorizing until I started to commit to working without scores. Then I found that it was simply that I didn’t direct any effort into memorizing, because with a score there I didn’t have to. I’ll still take music in if I’m learning new stuff, but I commit myself to taking the score away, because without that commitment, I wouldn’t do the right kind of work with the music.

There is ‘memory work’ that I have to do every time I play certain pieces – the thirds in the second phrase of the Fauré Pavane are a third higher than you’d think they would be (i.e. a fifth higher than the tune, not a third); the middle eight of Dream a little dream of me starts a minor 6th above the tonic; Suo Gan returns to the tonic so many times, you think you’ve played it twice when you’ve only played it once, so you have to count the repeats consciously, and so on.  On the other hand, I also found that I knew a lot more from memory than I gave myself credit for. Until you present yourself with the challenge, you’ll never find out.  But it’s worth every brain cell you expend on the effort, because it frees you up to join in the class.

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6 thoughts on “Playing for ballet class tips #11: Play from memory

  1. Jessica Tweedie

    I hope you are well during this time!
    I have been playing for company class for 3 years now, and have been realizing more and more that I need to memorize my music. I was curious, how do you review all of the music you have memorized? I know that I have occasionally memorized a piece for ballet, not played it for a couple months, and then forgotten it when I need it?
    Thanks!

    Reply
    1. Jonathan Still Post author

      Good question! Do you mean you’ve forgotten how it goes, or forgotten that you knew it? I keep a spreadsheet in Google Drive of all the jazz standards etc. that I know, which I got by going through all the contents pages of books on my shelves, and adding them to the list. It was a good exercise in finding out what I knew, nearly knew, didn’t know but wanted to know, and didn’t know but didn’t want to know. When I remember (ha!) I look at that list, to see if there are any things that I’ve forgotten I know. For some reason, the only one that regularly slips my memory is Deep Purple (the song, not the band).

      It was quite useful, and didn’t take me that long in the end, but then I found that it didn’t account for all the things that I knew by ear, or off CDs, or the radio, or which were extracts from classics or whatever. Years ago, I started keeping record cards, with songs arranged by theme. To be honest, neither of those schemes seem to work that well. I know other people who have one big masterlist of what they know, and keep it on their phone, or prepare a list at the beginning of a season/term that contains a kind of setlist that they’ll use, and rotate it the next term. I’m not that organized, but that’s probably because I don’t do the number of classes that they do. What I used to do in company class sometimes was to work on a theme—like countries of the world, so I’d think of all the French, Spanish, Italian, Russian etc. songs or tunes. Or an alphabet: things beginning with B, like Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Bagatelle, Barcarolle, Balanchine, Brighouse and Rastrick Colliery Band etc. etc. It’s not necessarily productive in the moment, but it does kind of unsettle the sediment, so to speak.

      With actual memorization, I find that some pieces stick for ever—to the extent that on occasion, my hands have just fallen into playing something that I haven’t played for years, and I can’t even remember what it was. Others seem to resist memorization altogether, or I have to occasionally go back to check a middle eight or something.

      I was actually thinking of things to blog about at a time when none of us are probably playing for class, and this is a really good topic!

      Reply
  2. Jessica Tweedie

    Thank you so much, that was so helpful! I don’t have a lot of music memorized (it doesn’t come as naturally to me), but I’m excited to work on it over the break!

    Reply
    1. Jonathan Still Post author

      One more thing—I have found that anything I typeset/arrange in Sibelius sticks really quickly. I guess it’s partly just the effort that you put into it, but from what I remember of music psychology lectures, the more ways in which you approach the same thing (i.e. playing, listening, typesetting, analysing, playing in public, playing with different sounds maybe?) the greater the chance of it sticking. For me there’s a difference in the process between the very precise fingery learning that you have to do to learn a piece for a classical performance, and the “good enough” memorization that you can use for class.

      Reply
  3. Z

    Hi Jonathan I have enjoyed the articles that I have read so far from this and your 52 play cards advent calendar! Thank you!

    How much of improvisation improvisation ( the type that you actually make up a random tune on the spot) do you do? How is it seen by dancers/teacher and other ballet pianists?

    An other question about memorising is that, what about on the spot I can only remember the tune but not the harmony? The other day in a slow 6/8 exercise, I thought the second movement of Tchaikovsky piano concerto no.1 would work perfectly, but just could not remember how those juicy harmony goes (anyways in the real piece the harmonic rhythm is so slow and ambiguous), I gave up using it, to avoid making up some ‘cheap’ harmony for it…..Thank you!

    Reply
    1. Jonathan Still Post author

      At a guess, I’d say that I probably improvise improvise for about a maximum of 10% of the class. It’s always at the point where either something has gone wrong (an extra eight I wasn’t expecting, for example) or where the exercise is quite short and needs a particular musical “tool” to make it work. In both cases, saving the day, or making an exercise work, are more important than playing a great piece of music, so I think it’s probably seen by others as the right thing at the right time. My impression from dancers who express an opinion on it is that wall-to-wall lacklustre improvisation can be a bit dull. But some pianists can improvise stuff that sounds as if it isn’t improvised, or sounds near enough to something that dancers do know that it goes unnoticed. Overall, making the class work as a whole is the main thing, so a bit of fluffing around now and again isn’t going to worry anyone, and other pianists recognize that too. I’m sure all pianists would recognize the harmony thing too—we’ve all been there and wished for a hole in the ground. But the chances are that very few people would actually notice. Just occasionally, a really musical teacher will raise an eyebrow at even one tiny note wrong in something they know, but that’s actually nice—it’s a mark of respect and sophistication in a way!

      Reply

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