Why must EVERY piece be memorized?

Barb said: May 10, 2011
Barb Ennis
Suzuki Association Member
Cello
678 posts

One of my (cello) student’s sisters is asking this about her violin pieces. Her mom related this to me, and sounds sympathetic. She really did wonder why the string teachers are requiring this, and not the piano teacher.

In my inexperience I didn’t have a really good answer at the tip of my tongue. What would you say?

The cello student memorizes easily (is 9, learning Book 2 Minuets, in her third year of cello lessons after one year of Twinkle on violin), and doesn’t complain. (yet!) It was when I was telling her about the book 1 recital that her mom brought this up.

The sister also studies piano (not Suzuki), and does not have to memorize all the pieces, and is moving much more quickly—about two grades per year. I think she is 14 or 15 and is in her fourth year of violin, and played Lully Gavotte at recent festival (grade 3 RCM—her teacher uses Suzuki as a core at least for beginning, but also teaches fiddle tunes and RCM repertoire). She has been playing piano longer than that, but I’m not sure how long (I think she is at grade 6 RCM). I understand that she views piano as her “main” instrument, seems to enjoy it more. But I got the feeling that the mother and other daughter were thinking having to memorize all the pieces was holding her back on violin.

Most of my students have come to me already reading music, and I have not had them memorize all of their supplementary songs, which they read, but I do have them memorize the core Suzuki pieces. I had a teen student whom I had memorize everything up until Happy Farmer and Minuets at end of book 1—at which time she quit, anyway. I have not required my adult students to memorize, though I encourage it.

I think for an answer I said something about it being part of the Suzuki method, or different teachers have different methods, and something about internalizing the music. I know that it is easier to play a memorized piece expressively. So tell me what I should have said!

Barb
Music Teachers Helper—for individual teachers
Studio Helper—for entire music studios or schools

Deanna said: May 11, 2011
 
Suzuki Association Member
Violin
90 posts

I sometimes make the analogy to actors and actresses… when you watch tv or a play or a movie how many of the actors are reading their lines? None! For the same reasons you gave—you can be much more expressive and convincing when the printed music is out of the way. Imagine what a movie would be like if all the actors had their lines in front of them and read off each one. The lines get between the performer and the audience. Similarly the printed music is a bit of barrier between the performer and the audience. I explain that you can use the printed music as a tool when you are learning a piece but that eventually there should come a point where you don’t need it anymore because the music (and a much more complete version of it) is inside of you.

As a side benefit the memory work is just plain good for you. I never had any problems memorizing anything for school due to my suzuki lessons as a child. I think having to memorize teaches you how to visualize, and how to organize your thoughts and experiences in a way that is easy to retrieve—that’s a very useful life skill.
I think older students and adults are daunted by memorizing because they realize there is such a thing as memorizing whereas little kids don’t and just take it forgranted as the way they learn.

Grace said: May 11, 2011
 Violin
110 posts

I would ask how their listening is going. I think listening and memorizing go hand-in-hand. I could understand if there are multiple kids learning multiple instruments, and it would be hard to get enough listening time in the car. But, if a student is having trouble with memorizing, I would challenge the parent to increase listening and see what happens. They will probably be amazed by the difference!

Laura said: May 11, 2011
 
Suzuki Association Member
Piano
358 posts

Without knowing anything about the students involved or how well they actually play, I just wanted to toss in the following comments (without specifically referring to the students you describe):

  1. Even though one is “never too old to Twinkle”, etc. I still believe very strongly that Suzuki as a beginning method works the most magic with the very young, with its effectiveness decreasing as beginning age increases. Some children are natural aural learners and do well in Suzuki regardless of age, but those children also tend to be reluctant music readers overall. But the rest, by the time they are fully into school and functionally literate, can’t resist the “crutch” of staring at a book, a) because they expect to (e.g. based on what “everyone else” does), and b) because they are accustomed to visually referencing a printed page to learn information. With students like this, I find that I must respect their need to learn by reading (it is, after all, a desirable and necessary skill). However, I still emphasize that a piece has not been mastered until it is memorized, period.

  2. I absolutely agree with the analogy to drama. Actors must internalize their role, adopt their character, and truly express the words they are delivering—in essence, giving a true performance instead of a mere reading of the script. Many parents don’t fully appreciate this aspect of music, so it’s hard for them to encourage their children towards this goal until they embrace it themselves.

  3. Ideal Suzuki method: begin by ear and rote, learn to “speak” music expressively on the instrument (which sometimes doesn’t happen when there is insufficient listening or enjoyment of the music at home), gradually learn to read what is being played (which can be a frustrating process if not introduced properly and at the right time), and eventually be able to learn at playing level either by ear, by reading, or some combination thereof. However, because the aural and memorization skills are highly developed through Suzuki, new music tends to be acquired and memorized much more quickly and efffectively, with the biggest challenges being mostly technical ones (rather than “not knowing how it goes”)

Ideal reading-based method: learn how to play solely through reading, only play what can be read, slowly acquire the skills of musical expression, ear training, and memorization (which are often hindered by the need to keep eyes glued to the written score). More rarely does such a background produce someone who can learn easily by ear, although it does happen with indiviuals with a high level of natural musical ability.

For both approaches: the end goal is to express oneself musically by memory. Overall, I wouldn’t try to argue one method over the other if it appears that this end goal is being met. Many musical prodigies began with Suzuki. But every now and then you’ll encounter a 7- or 8-year old phenom who fully reads every note of their Paganini Caprices or Weiniawski concerti but memorizes and performs them with just as much ease… if that’s the case, who cares? However, I do believe that the Suzuki approach gives a better chance of success in this area (learning to perform musically from memory, not becoming a prodogy!) to more children in general.

4. True, some children progress very quickly through graded repertoire using a reading-based approach. Honestly, if a child has a high level of natural musical ability and practices a lot, that child will progress like wildfire under any number of approaches. But such situations are more rare, and are more child-dependent than method-dependent. However, many students literally crank through new repertoire each year simply because it’s the next level. It doesn’t neecssarily mean that they have effectively learned to PLAY at that level. This might be analogous to learning a language by progressing through a set curriculum, and doing very well in the assignments and exams, but missing out on mastering actual conversation with real speakers of that language. In worst-case scenarios, music students like this may advance as far as upper intermediate grades, before they no longer have the technical abilities or musical understanding to go any further, at which point they simply quit and forget how to play altogether—because the foundation was never truly laid properly. Such students grow up to be adults who, upon having kids, seek out a Suzuki program, because they regret having wasted their own music experience when they were younger, and don’t want their own children to go through the same thing. [Okay, I admist I’m being a little harsh with this point. But I have definitely seen it enough times from all angles to verifiy that it is a very legitimate one.]

  1. Because Suzuki approach teaches more “conversationally” rather than “academically”, it’s probably more typical to find Suzuki students who can ONLY play from memory (and that can sometimes become their temporary weakness while learning to read, starting to play in orchestras, or otherwise needing to sight-read something they have never heard on a Suzuki CD). So the question of “why must everything be memorized” is not a question one hears so often in Suzuki circles.

  2. Ever see anyone on American Idol perform with music?

said: May 12, 2011
 12 posts

My Suzuki violin playing daughter (age 12, book 4, started at age :cool: memorises all her violin pieces. Suzuki, fiddle tunes etc.

The piano teacher that she and her older sister both go to also insists that all repertoire be memorised (but only insists that they keep the last couple of years pieces in repertoire), on the basis that you don’t really know a piece well enough to perform it properly without having it down by memory as you are concentrating on reading it rather than playing it. They started with her doing Yamaha music school, which is, like Suzuki, an aural based program, but uses fixed solfege and sing-along-as-you-play in solfege to teach keyboard. She insists that they have taken all their AMEB exams (we are in Australia) from preliminary grade upwards with no sheet music at all (except for the examiner to look at!) They are both progressing rather more slowly through the exam grades than some students with other teachers that we know. But they are getting top results and are enjoying their playing and playing very musically. Both find it very useful to be able to practise on whatever piano they find themselves near without having to take all their music with them (they love showing off on the grand pianos in any music shops they can find!). And the older one has been asked at very short notice to provide background music for school functions (she’s at a special interest music program in high school) and has been able to do it without having music there.

Both kids have as a result a very useful ability to memorise music very quickly, and excellent aural skills that have been developed from a very young age.

Barb said: May 13, 2011
Barb Ennis
Suzuki Association Member
Cello
678 posts

I quite agree with all said here, thanks all for your additional words and explanations. I especially like the analogy to actors/scripts.

But I think this family will also agree with that when it comes to performing, but would argue that they weren’t planning to perform all the pieces. Oh well. My student is performing all her Suzuki pieces. (Both students are readers, btw, though mine definitely relies on her ear a lot and is not a strong reader yet.)

I’ll bet you are right, Kerropi, about listening. I don’t think the violin teacher requires it (at least at some levels) like I do, based on another family putting in an order with me for a Suzuki violin bk 3 CD very close to a performance including at least one piece from that book.

I would guess some other factors are involved, btw, in her moving through piano grades more quickly. I think it makes a difference that she enjoys piano more, and probably practices that more, or in a better way. Perhaps she is learning more repertoire per grade in violin than on piano (if my students ONLY played Suzuki pieces they MIGHT move through them more quickly). Maybe with a different skill set required it is easier to move through the early piano grades more quickly. Maybe having started violin at an older age it made learning it slightly less “natural”. (I know in my limited experience that with my younger students they just do what I say with their hands. The ones who are 11 and up tend to kind of argue that “that feels weird”.)

Barb
Music Teachers Helper—for individual teachers
Studio Helper—for entire music studios or schools

Laura said: May 13, 2011
 
Suzuki Association Member
Piano
358 posts

As a piano teacher and violin parent, I can say without a doubt that one can progress much further in piano “superficially” than one can with violin. Bad piano playing can sound okay to untrained ears (irritating, perhaps, but still okay). Bad violin playing, however, is completely unrecognizable as music and is equivalent to torturing the listener.

It’s an honest challenge for me convince some piano students, and even some of their parents, why I get so picky about technique, because to them, it always seems more than sufficient that the student is “pressing all the right buttons at the right time”—my words, not theirs, but this is the general mentality. The proliferation of electronic keyboards with all the bells and whistles doesn’t make it easier to change anyone’s minds in this matter—”all I have to do is poke out the right notes in the right rhythm, it automatically sounds awesome”—but this does not make me a good pianist by any means.

Piano students continuing to neglect technique (or even worse, never being taught it) quickly hit a wall in terms of what pieces they can handle. Shortly thereafter comes frustration, then withdrawal, then hating and quitting. With strings, this wall gets hit much earlier. This is, I believe, one reason why we often see ads for “piano for sale—my kid played for a few years and then quit”, as opposed to “violin for sale—my kid played it less than 10 times and then quit”

So, ignoring good instruction with regards to technique is, to me, setting a student up for failure. But I believe that piano has one of the highest levels of tolerance for poor playing, compared to other instruments. Strings have one of the lowest.

[Disclaimer: many individuals are rather naturally adept at the technique of a certain instrument, and require minimal instruction and guidance in this area. Such students often progress quite well regardless of instruction, because they have managed to bypass a critical pathway— more power to them! ]

Regarding parents who think that a piece doesn’t have to be memorized if it isn’t being performed, I would still insist that the piece hasn’t been been completely learned if it hasn’t been memorized, for all reasons already discussed. The parent would need to acknowledge that they are allowing their child learn everything to only 80% completion, and missing out on some of the more crucial points of musical development—this is one way of putting it that might help them fully understand.

Laura said: May 13, 2011
 
Suzuki Association Member
Piano
358 posts

Further to my above post, I don’t necessarily believe that violin is harder to learn than piano. They both have their pros and cons, and this would make an interesting separate discussion.

I just believe that, with all other factors being equal, it’s possible to progress more quickly on piano than on violin in the beginning years, because one can get by rather sufficiently on piano simply by “learning the notes”, to a certain level of playing. Spending more focus on technique, while ultimately beneficial, can appear optional; on the surface, the lack of it doesn’t appear to hinder this apparent “progress” in piano. However, in violin, those picky technique points are an INTEGRAL part of early learning, or the student cannot play, period. So this focus is not optional in violin, and can appear to make the violin take longer to learn unless the technique is adopted quickly and well.

said: May 13, 2011
 12 posts

If the student says that every piece doesn’t have to be performed, that is rather missing the point by the student. If a kid hasn’t got something up to performance standard then they haven’t learnt everything they can from playing it. That is one of the good things about doing exams (one of the few good things about exams!). There are no excuses about not having most music really well polished.

Finding performance opportunities for most pieces also would help if they have this mindset. With school concerts, guest appearances at her choir concerts, Suzuki concerts and auditions for ensembles and a music scholarship, my daughter has been able to perform as solos all the material she has learned in the last year.

Edit to add. There are no prizes for rushing through the exam grades fast either. What matters most is what you learn from the music, and what results you achieve.

Barb said: May 14, 2011
Barb Ennis
Suzuki Association Member
Cello
678 posts

Thanks for your comments, Purple Tulips. That pretty much confirms what I was wondering about.

Susan, well said!

My students perform all their pieces at least as a group, if not as solos, but I have to admit that they do the most polishing on pieces they perform for an adjudicator at the music festival!

Barb
Music Teachers Helper—for individual teachers
Studio Helper—for entire music studios or schools

Teresa Henrichs Hakel said: May 26, 2011
Teresa Henrichs Hakel
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
Houston, TX
9 posts

I have two more thoughts:

  1. I hear a lot more details when I play a piece without the music than when I read it. Even if I’m just looking at the music for a piece I have memorized. Even better is when I close my eyes.

  2. Many of the most valuable group class ideas would not be possible if the kids are reading.

Teresa

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