4/27/2015: Can you describe your process for analyzing and systematically memorizing large pieces of music?
First, for the record, I don’t attempt to conduct from memory in the sense of leaving the score in my dressing room. There are works for which I don’t need to look at the score very much, and there are moments in many works that one simply must know cold from memory (usually because they are fast or complicated or both). But conducting from memory for its own sake is not an objective for me.
I’m afraid that the best advice I can give relates not to how to study a single work but to how well prepared one is to learn, much as pedagogues speak of children being “ready” for school:
Studying an instrument and its repertory deeply from childhood and youth prepares one to learn other kinds of music. It forms a foundation. For conductors of vocal music and for singers, having some basic understanding of the language of the work is indispensable. It is not necessary to be fluent but to have a idea of how the language works. Memorizing a string of nearly meaningless syllables is much harder than memorizing something that has meaning. (Of course, there is a wide gray area between those two extremes, but you get the idea.) In addition, words shed light on the music as much as the music sheds light on the words. When they reinforce each other, the meaning is clearer and remembering is easier.
When I perform a work I have performed before, I bring some practical experience to those performances—things you really can’t prepare for alone in your studio. In ensemble pieces, the dynamics among all of the participants require problem-solving and opportunity-grasping that you cannot study in advance. A solid foundation and coming to rehearsal knowing one’s part leaves one ready to solve problems and grasp opportunities. Having done a work before certainly contributes to knowing one’s part.
When I perform a very big work for the first time (like Río de Sangre or Der Rosenkavalier), it would be safe to assume that I’ve spent about two years with the piano score—music and words. I’m not the first to discover that learning over a long period of time is best if one can do it. I can barely remember works I’ve had to “cram” for.
Last, it is a truism that teaching is one of the best ways to learn something. I have found that working with people who are new to a piece, with their own particular strengths and weaknesses, prompts me to step back and think of new ways to understand it and communicate that understanding.
©2015 by Joseph Rescigno. The text here may be freely reproduced for non-commercial purposes as long as credit is given.
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