Using visual art to aid memorization

Memorizing solo piano music is one of the most tedious tasks I can think of. While I love the feeling of performing confidently from memory, this process can take awhile and taxes my patience. I have several favorite go-to tools for memorization, especially having helped many students with the process, but today I dug one out that I haven’t used in awhile: creating an “artistic” representation of a piece. I have my accidental sketchbook practice journal to thank for this idea.

This particular piece, No. 8, from Lera Auerbach’s 24 Preludes, has been tricky to grasp. Not only is the harmonic style a bit outside, incorporating unusual scale forms, but because of the constant sweeping scales and arpeggios, each measure takes up a lot of space, and it is difficult to see whole phrases because one phrase may take up several pages. I thought that it would help to be able to “see” the whole piece on one page.

Opening up my watercolor markers, I started swooping and slashing, trying to choose colors that intuitively spoke to me as representative of the harmonic and textural material in each phrase. The result is not pleasing from an artistic perspective- I am not equipped to make visual art; but, it does show the phrases, form, range, rhythm in an abstract way. As I work on solidifying the memorization, I will be able to use this page to jog my memory, filling in details as more connections are made. What I really like about this process is that it breaks me out of routine thoughts and encourages different ways of sensing and recalling the music.

In the name of vulnerability, I will bravely post my “art” below. If you like, follow the “score” while listening to Lera Auerbach perform the prelude. (Begin at 3:55) Be kind, please, and happy practicing!

Prelude No. 8 from 24 Preludes by Lera Auerbach

How does vulnerability figure into effective practice?

Thanks to BrenĂ© Brown, it seems like the word “vulnerability” is everywhere. I am a recent convert to her podcast “Dare to Lead,” and find much there that applies to my life as a teacher in higher ed, but also so much that relates to life as a female professional. If you haven’t checked it out yet, do it now!

This emphasis on vulnerability leads me to question what this could mean in the practice room. Can the practice of vulnerability make us more courageous and less vulnerable to mishaps on stage? If cultivating vulnerability helps people to be better leaders, can it help a person lead themself more effectively in the practice room?

Why is Vulnerability Difficult to Cultivate for Musicians?

Musicians spend most of their time in the practice room trying to eliminate vulnerability. The goal is to make difficult things look easy so that an audience member can gain optimal communication from the stage, while experiencing awe in the face of flawless execution. Having experienced enough criticism, some well-meant, and much of it mean-spirited, musicians know better than to allow themselves to appear as anything other than perfect. We equip ourselves with layer upon layer of armor to achieve this end, but in the process we risk becoming inauthentic and mechanical. In really free, open-hearted moments, we may give our most honest selves to the audience, but in my experience, this is a rarity. How can we practice so that these moments occur more frequently, and how can we incorporate the practice of vulnerability into our routines?

This might be a dumb question, but…

This is a phrase I have real difficulty with, in fact I’m pretty sure I have never had the nerve to utter it. Taking the risk of asking a question that might expose ones ignorance is a raw display of vulnerability. Admitting that you don’t already know something, or that you are unsure of the next step is hard, especially if you are a seasoned professional. We live in a culture where “fake it until you make it” is an accepted adage. It’s not really effective in the practice room, as it results in a scaffolding of dishonesty of the worst kind- the kind where you lie to yourself. Yes, we have to exhibit some confidence in order to move forward, but we would be better off asking more questions rather than confirming our knowledge (especially when that knowledge may be incorrect). A veneer of confidence with little to back it up betrays us on stage when we confront the fact that we didn’t ask enough questions in the preparation stage.

In the lesson setting, I give my students many opportunities to ask questions. I encourage them to write down their questions before they come to the lesson, and I always end the session with one more chance to ask questions. With few exceptions, students rarely come to the lesson with prepared questions. When they do, there is a flip from a teacher-driven session, to a student-driven session. This is always more productive. Rather than guessing what the problems are, I can target them easily. The last-chance question session rarely gets any response. Usually the student will cop out, and say something like ” I just need to practice it more.” I think that if students honed their question asking skills more in the practice room, they would ask more meaningful questions in the lesson, and would be more willing to display vulnerability in front of their teachers.

Things I’m going to try:

  • Begin the practice session by writing down 3 things I don’t know, or 3 problems I haven’t solved.
  • Keep track of self-armoring thoughts during the practice session, especially excuses and confirmation bias.
  • Write down at least 3 discoveries I make during the practice.
  • End the practice session by writing down 3 questions I have for tomorrow.
  • At least once per week, ask a colleague a “dumb” question.

If you feel moved to try some of these ideas, I would love to know how they affected your practice. Happy Practicing!