Read – Memorize – Cheat!

With Richard Goode’s performance of the last three Beethoven piano sonatas at Carnegie Hall still ringing in my ears, I wanted to share some thoughts about how we can get music off of the page and into time and space.
The concert was a revelation to me.  I heard Beethoven as the unlimited musician, able to realize any invention or idea in the most imaginative way.  But the singularity of the experience lay in the fact that Goode – or rather his assistant – cheerfully plopped his old copy of the Beethoven piano sonatas up on the desk and flipped pages through the entire 90 minutes of music, subverting a common convention of top level solo piano performances. 
I’ve been oscillating back and forth for years about the relative merits of memorization vs. “reading” in performance.  Actually, I’ve recently reached equilibrium in thinking about it:  if it sounds good, it sounds good. 
But I remember that in the past I was obsessed with this issue, and I imagine some players continue to struggle with or be ambivalent about it. I have spent some years gleaning perspective from mentors and friends, and also teaching younger musicians who are working their way through what it means to participate in a literature of music. 
In my group So Percussion, we most often consider memorization a virtue.  It happens that with percussion instruments, there is frequently choreography involved in performance, so that constantly checking back in with the score can be more trouble than memorizing.  And there is something breathtaking about watching somebody exhale a complex piece of music as if they are improvising. 
In chamber music, it’s both helpful and fun to be constantly in touch with the other performers to confirm cues, read body language, and communicate intention.  Pushing the score aside is a huge step in cultivating these habits.     
But for me there is another side…I have a lot of anxiety about memory slips.  I sometimes feel that my brain is spending more energy trying to not mess up than on the musical intention and nuance. 
This anxiety exists when performing music with only one prescribed path.  Stray off the path and you’re floundering, desperately groping your way back.  Miles Davis did not have memory slips, because each new note was an opportunity for invention.  I imagine Beethoven and Mozart experienced the same kind of freedom when performing their own music.  
What I have always loved the most about classical music is the idea of a literature – and yes, a canon – that inspires a multi-generational conversation, as well as the peculiar benefits that the use of a score lends to its creator. 
What I have admired and envied about some other musical styles and traditions is the sense of immediacy, the agency that a performer has at any one moment when he shares creative responsibility with the composer and/or the collected other performers. 
We can have both, but it helps to question ourselves about what the score is, and how we want to use it.  
The first step is to stop thinking of the score as music.  As I briefly examined in a past blog post, the musical score has a wonderfully rich and varied history.  As a way of recording and passing on musical information, it was unique until the invention of sound recordings.  It also allowed a body of individual authorship to flourish, so that we now speak of Beethoven, Chopin, and Stravinsky as having an intact and recognizable body of work.  
Without pretending to define music it in its totality, I feel comfortable saying that music happens in both time and space, and that it requires the presence of aural perception, though not always of intentional sound.  I’m a firm believer in John Cage’s philosophy that sound and silence create musical space together, and also that in any event it is impossible to create perfect silence within any medium that is not a vacuum (where it doesn’t exist). 
The musical score is a visual medium, which can be perceived without reference to time.  Actually, one of the most important skills a musician learns in western practice is to move our eyes and brains patiently across the page while transmitting the information into music. 
In order to be precise, we could refer to the score as an instruction page, or a guide.  I often do this with my students to knock them out of the habit of thinking of the score as if it is actually the music.     
Part of the genius of a score by George Crumb lies in the way in which he invests completely in the visual medium, creating stunningly beautiful patterns and images.  He entrusts the performer with the task of translating this into interesting music, but with the understanding that the score is its own canvas.

– Page from Crumb, Makrokosmos – 
This playful visual realization of normally pragmatic notation goes back a very long way.

-Baude Cordier, Belle, Bonne, Sage, 14th century

If the score isn’t the music, then why not just do away with it in every case?  Answering this question is personal:  to me, it’s because the history of composition took a series of fascinating turns once writing scores became commonplace, which created a wonderful tradition.  To examine these insights in depth, I’ll happily refer you to Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music, which brilliantly outlines the evolution.    
This is what I love most about written music:  it creates the possibility of extending musical memory and radically personalizing a composer’s individual style, sometimes challenging the listener’s own ability to keep things straight.  In some types of experimental music like John Cage’s Music of Changes, you really aren’t expected to keep up in any case.  The composer can work with non-linear ideas on the page, exploiting many fascinating structural and narrative possibilities. 

Working with notation also allows us all to tap into centuries of tradition, to exploit and marvel at the riches of other musical tinkerers.  
I continue to believe in written music:  I really like what it can do. The truth is, we don’t need it at all anymore.  Every kind of musical information can now be preserved and transmitted – with greater accuracy- by means of audio, video, and digital recording.  
When my group plays Iannis Xenakis’ music, especially the monstrous Pleiades, I’m struck by how well his visual and aural thinking line up together.  Many times, the six musicians play adjacently sequenced polyrhythms (2:3, 3:4, 4:5, 5:6, etc) simultaneously, which quickly snap back into unison after a very long period of chaos.  It’s not impossible to imagine somebody composing this non-visually, but I know for a fact that this architect loved transmuting the visual structures of architectural design into aural phenomena.  It strikes me as a kind of music with such complex layers of simultaneity and large-scale structure that it would likely not have been improvised.
So the score as a means of transmitting information and preserving compositions is a good idea.  What, then, of its use and presence in live performance? 
Those of us who play(ed) a lot of contemporary music in music school are familiar with the giant poster board parts we’ve all made to perform complex pieces.  I still use a few today, so I’m not going to dismiss them.  Sometimes, though, these boards are so large and cumbersome that they dominate the visual space the performer occupies.  It even feels as though they exist to send a cultural signal:  this music is really hard. 
In 2002, So Percussion premiered David Lang’s “the so-called laws of nature” at the Miller Theatre in New York.  This was our first major show in New York (I was 23).  We practiced for months to perfect what is still probably the most difficult piece we’ve played.  Getting the entire 36-minute piece onstage was a huge accomplishment.  We were absorbed in the minutiae of each pattern, fascinated by the symmetry and dynamism of the piece. 
David and Michael Gordon sat in the hall while we ran through it in the dress rehearsal.  We admired them so much that we couldn’t wait to see the reaction this performance would provoke. 
After we performed, David asked Michael what he thought.  “It’s great,” Michael said, “but can I make a superficial comment?  I can’t see your sticks because of those boards, and that’s my favorite part of watching a percussionist play.  Can you get the music stands out of the way?” (I’m definitely mis-remembering what he said)
As a grad student at the time, I couldn’t believe that was his first comment.  What about the subtly thwarted expectations of the patterns?  What about the hi-wire act of performing canons with our backs to each other? 
That moment had a huge impact on each of us:  if somebody’s aunt had made the comment, we might have dismissed it as cute or naïve.  But this was Micheal freakin’ Gordon, and that couldn’t be so easily done.  To this day, “superficial comment” has entered our lexicon in masterclasses as a way of talking about the crucial issue of visual presentation. 
When So Percussion first started, we were on fire to memorize ensemble music.  Eighth Blackbird had taken the contemporary music world by storm with their virtuosic memorized performances, and founding members Jason Treuting and Tim Feeney had studied in Bali, where extremely complex music is taught by rote and memorized.  Jason and Tim in particular seemed to have sponge-brains for memorization. 
The initial goal was to have all of our repertoire memorized.  In early bios, we even highlighted this as part of our mission.  During our “ten thousand hours” we set very intensive collective goals for memorization:  three rehearsal letters (six pages) of John Cage’s Third Construction per day, which we’d test each other on the next morning.  When competing in the Luxembourg International Competition in 2005, we memorized almost the entire list.  When a young student watches us improvise with dried leaves or play drones for half an hour, I like to remind them of these years spent focusing on virtuosity and achievement. 
The benefits of memorization are enormous:  the discipline it requires forces you to constantly test your knowledge of the score; you spend more time interacting with yourself and others in performance; there is a special confidence in music-making that comes from internalizing its structures. 
In fact, I would be comfortable saying that music should ALWAYS be memorized as part of the learning process.  You simply do not know a piece well enough if you aren’t sure what’s coming next.  The effort and process of memorization always help you to know the music better.  During the Richard Goode recital that inspired this article, I noticed that he looked down at the keyboard many times to play particularly involved passages.  He obviously had memorized each piece thoroughly. 
Here are two videos of memorized performances, first our version of Third Construction, then Tim Feeney, professor at the University of Alabama, performing Xenakis’ Rebonds A:
Our video highlights the fun and virtuosity that memorization brings to a group performance.  We find that it allows us to interact with each other more like musicians in a jazz or folk setting:  ideas seem to bounce spontaneously back and forth, surprises in the score feel like real surprises, and the anticipation of an exciting moment accumulates in the group’s energy. 
Tim’s video illuminates how an incredibly complex score can be transformed from a formidable mathematical monument into a breathing, malleable flow of information.  Rather than over-earnest and effortful, his performance actually seems spontaneous.  One of my most memorable lessons with Robert van Sice at Yale was on this very piece, where he breathlessly explained the joy of hearing such a complex musical structure delivered with dynamism, as if the performer possessed some kind of cyborg brain that could dream up Rebonds A on the spot. 
In the percussion world, Steven Schick is the pioneer of this charismatic virtuosity.  Here’s his version of Xenakis’ Psappha.
I – and we – find this kind of performance dynamic very attractive.  We strive for it almost every time.  Knowing what it looks, sounds and feels like to completely inhabit a piece of music provides a goal, an ideal to measure yourself against.  But as I mentioned above, I have a love/hate relationship with memory, which is clearly not as much of an issue for a performer like Tim (I watched him saunter through Roger Reynolds half-hour Watershed IV in grad school like it was nothing).  
My job demands that I be in command of a very high volume of hard music.  Added to this is the fact that the increasing visibility and pressure of an evolving performing career make the stakes feel higher and higher with each passing year.
There was a moment when So thought we might memorize all of the so-called laws of nature, but it is prohibitively difficult.  The lawsthat the piece refers to manifest themselves as unexpected variations in sequential patterns that are maddening to keep track of.  On top of that, the entire piece consists of about 2000 bars of constant notes. 
Jason memorized the 3rd movement years ago, and now is able to pick it back up on one rehearsal with little trouble.  I also memorized it years ago,  leading to the most uncomfortable 12 minutes on stage of my life, and have since resolved to make myself more comfortable and effective.    
When I wrote above that music should always be memorized, I really should have said “internalized.”  Memory is one of the many tools that are used in preparing a performance (plus there are different kinds of memory – kinesthetic, visual, aural). 
In our group, we have come up with a number of novel solutions for “cheating.”   Cheating involves getting just the necessary information down some place where it helps you feel confident about your performance.  We call them “cheat sheets,” which is a little tongue-in-cheek, because it’s not a test.  But they do offer a way to direct the audience’s attention towards your performance, and away from the presence of the instruction page.  
Perhaps more importantly, cheating is itself a process, a kind of very personal analysis, where you decide for yourself what must stay on the page and what can go.  It might be a harmonic road map, a bunch of important rhythmic sequences, or just a reminder of what instruments to pick up. It doesn’t mean that the other elements are unimportant, perhaps only that they are easier to remember.

Here’s my cheat sheet for the last movement of Steve Reich’s “Mallet Quartet:”

When written out fully on the score – this is a particular issue with minimal music – there are many many notes, so many in fact that I could never perform this movement without somebody else turning pages since there are no breaks. 
I’ve memorized the piece, but sometimes we perform Mallet Quartet on very little rehearsal to demonstrate it to students. 
The cheat sheet only has the information that I need to instantly be able to pick the part back up:  in this case, it’s the sequence of constantly shifting meters.  As with much of Reich’s music, the harmony changes are relatively slow and easy to remember.  But the meter changes have subtle pattern variations, and if my motor-rhythm part goes off the rails, there’s a train wreck (i.e., if I play a 7 when there’s supposed to be a 5).
This sense of responsibility to the group makes me want to have the security of the cheat.  I’m not trying to score points by showing I’m hardcore, I have to be rock solid: the vibraphone players are performing razor’s edge melodic canons on top of my patterns.

In solo music, there is the possibility that a memory slip might lead only to a temporary blip, with a recovery somewhere else in the music.  The audience may not even notice.  In ensemble music, it can create a chain reaction.  Learning to recover as a group is one of the vital skills we teach other ensembles, but I like having the option to minimize that risk. 
Here is my recently created cheat sheet and published part for the 3rd movement of David Lang’s man made, our first major concerto with orchestra.  We had just over a month to learn this piece before the premiere in London with the BBC Symphony.  

The instrument for this movement is ten tuned pipes, five lower and five higher.  David did the right thing by notating it in a conventional way, but I needed to be able to play these difficult patterns in a very short amount of time.  I devised my own notation for this setup, where a single ledger line indicated the break between these two sets of five pipes.   In my “keyboard,”  E and A were right next to each other, while in the traditional notation, they were a fourth apart. 
This was messing with my sense of physical space as I learned the new instrument.  I needed some way to visually reflect the feel of the pipe instrument.  Also, the pipes were lined up in a single row, without the 2’s and 3’s of a traditional keyboard to help orientation.  I immediately wrote the letter names on the pipes themselves, and also inside the noteheads of my new notation.  
Added to the complexity of the pipe melody are two trash sounds that oscillate back and forth in an unpredictable sequence which is totally unrelated to the pipes. On David’s original part these trash metals are notated as G and A, which are the pitches the rest of the orchestra performs in unison with us.  My eyes could barely distinguish between the two notes while I labored to keep track of the pipe melody.  I needed something splashier, so I used differently shaped noteheads to contrast them. 
I showed my sheet to Josh, and his first reaction was “what the hell is this?”  It made no sense to him, because it reflected entirely my own journey of problem solving, and my own personal needs as a performer. 
There is no prize for having the fanciest reading or memorizing skills.  The only thing that matters is sounding great and feeling confident. 
The good news is that a cheat sheet most often convinces the audience that you ARE playing from memory.  They are conditioned to either seeing a score or not, and even when you show them you’ve cheated, their strongest impression is usually that you’ve performed from memory. 

Finally, the journey of building a cheat is an effective step towards memorization.  You’ve taken the time to reduce the musical information into packets and patterns, rather than the common brute force method of cramming notes.  When I’ve fully memorized pieces for which I’ve also built cheats, I find myself preferring to go one way or another in performance, options that were anticipated from the very beginning of the learning process.  






2 responses to “Read – Memorize – Cheat!”

  1.  Avatar

    “Cheat sheets” are a great idea. I think a lot of percussionists have devised some sort of “cue card” system to help jog the memory and give out points of reference when playing a piece. I'm all for memorization, but sometimes it's like, how many notes can you safely cram into your head? If you play a lot of music, it can become a jumble of notes after a while.And unlike everyone else, there's always that logistics problem with percussion. Not only does your part have 20 different instruments on it, but they are spread out all around you. So it's nice to have that little card with your cues written on it to help you navigate the panoply of instruments you are wading in. Nice post. Thanks.

  2.  Avatar

    Thanks Michael. Yes, it's something that's been in the water for awhile in the percussion world. Shorthand is very old – figured bass is a great example – but the huge diversity of styles that are available to play now make it so that a personal shorthand and analysis style helps a lot. When I was a young student, I didn't initially have the confidence to “analyze” music based on my own instincts. I figured I would eventually learn a proper theory that would take care of everything. There are many great theories, but I eventually realized that just finding patterns and counting notes goes a heck of a long way.

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