A most excellent book review!

Paul Cienniwa. By Heart: The Art of Memorizing Music. Reviewed by Mark Kroll
EMAg, The Magazine of Early Music America


Playing from memory can be the elephant in the room, the “Waterloo” for many performers. I’ve used more than enough clichéd, I’ll ask a few questions. Who is to blame for starting a practice that is now standard, at least among pianists? And memorization is so difficult and potentially traumatic, why do it at all? Perhaps more important: if we must play from memory, how do you learn to do it? These questions are answered in Paul Cienniwa’s excellent book in fewer than 100 pages and with a healthy sense of humor.    

I am in complete agreement with just about everything Cienniwa says, such as his admission that “by playing with music, I had never truly learned my programs.” Indeed, playing a concert with the scores in front of you is not performing, it is reading. Equally true is Cienniwa’s rule that the harpsichordist “should be able to write out every memorized piece away from the instrument.”  Great idea, but just try this with Bach’s six-part Ricercar from The Musical Offering!

The book is divided into six sections. Cienniwa asks and answers questions such as “Why Should You Memorize?” and “Why Shouldn’t You Memorize?” He discusses the three major components of memory (i.e., tactile, aural, and visual) and makes the excellent suggestions to maintain a practice log, use a metronome, and keep a timer to avoid distractions from “email, phone calls, or writing a book about memorization.” To avoid other factors that have a negative impact on performing from memory, he cautions against hanging out backstage and bantering with stage hands before a concert and “agreeing to a lecture recital,” which is really a completely different skill. Cienniwa also urges the player to eat bananas for “their stress-reducing properties,” maintain a consistent fingering, and practice away from the instrument. I really like this last bit of advice. Not only is it useful, but also some of my best performances have been on my kitchen tabletop.

Three appendices summarize this material in a user-friendly format. At the outset, in Appendix 1, Cienniwa offers some of the reasons people, including “the world’s greatest harpsichordists,” don’t play from memory, explaining that “the best excuse of all is that we don’t have to. This is a great excuse, and I’ve used it so many times that I even recommend it!” Cienniwa concludes, however, that students should be required to play from memory, because “we don’t have to is no longer an excuse” for the next generations of harpsichordists.  So just do it, and maybe start by memorizing this book.

Leave a comment

Add comment