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Memorization on the Mental Violin

Happy 2016, dear violin enthusiasts!

This year, I will focus my efforts on my research and my dissertations and I cannot wait to share my findings and observations in 2017.

While I work on this project, I’m really excited to bring you essays from colleagues I respect and I am inspired by! I hope you enjoy!

I am so very excited to welcome Wil Herzog as my first guest blogger for 2016!

Wil is a wonderful human being and amazing violinist. He and I met at Northwestern University and shared many talks about violin technique in dingy smelly practice rooms. He is someone who’s opinion and insight I value tremendously and who’s friendship I consider precious.

In this post, Wil shares a few of his thoughts and strategies on how to maximize your time away from your instrument and achieve musical magic in your head! And now, to Wil!

Memorization on the Mental Violin – by Wil Herzog

Undergraduate technique class at Northwestern was nearly the same this week as any other. As usual, each student took a turn to stand at the front of the room and play scales and arpeggios in response to the prompts provided by me, the instructor. However, this week, each student also played an eight-measure excerpt of a Corelli sonata from memory. All of the performances were near flawless, with only an occasional hesitation or stumble. After everyone had taken a turn, I posed the big question: “So… how did it go?” The students giggled and began the discussion.

The conclusion: it had gone surprisingly well. What made this week’s assignment unique? The students had been asked to prepare the given excerpt and perform it memorized without ever playing it on the violin or listening to a recording.

Most young violinists memorize music by accident. They play a piece over and over again, and eventually, voila, they know it by heart. I relied on accidental memorization for at least my first 14 years as a violinist. Once I got to college though, it seemed that memorization was not as automatic as it used to be. As my repertoire grew more complex, and the amount of time I was able to work on a single piece shrunk, I found myself increasingly unable to memorize music. I diligently struggled to improve my memory, but found most techniques to be only minimally helpful.

A watershed moment in my development was in the first year of my master’s degree at Northwestern. As a graduate student living way off campus, I now had a significant commute to school on public transit. I wondered if I could use my time on the train to learn some music – could I accomplish anything just by studying the score silently? At first, I found it difficult. The Ysaÿe sonata I was studying seemed to be a jumbled series of notes, and it was very difficult to absorb anything permanently by looking at the music. However, as I grew more patient, I started to focus on smaller bits of music, as few as six to ten notes. I also started actively visualizing - conjuring up how it would feel to play those notes in my mind.

Later I began calling this “playing on my mental violin.” I quickly established a routine: first I chunked the music into very small units and repeated those many times on my mental violin. Then I would combine these small units, and repeat those larger units many times. I was able to absorb and retain the music with significant success. What’s more, I did not find that I had any difficulty with a lack of “finger memory.” It seemed that the mental work alone could produce significantly high-level results.

My success in memorizing the Ysaÿe sonata on the train inspired me to give the unusual assignment to my technique class guinea pigs… er, students. While the students complained at first about the seemingly impossible assignment, they were surprised at how successfully they were able to complete it. The only advice I offered them was based on my own experience: do some work every day, chunk the music into small pieces, and make sure to visualize playing it in your mind as you practice.

After several years of using the no-violin method of memorization, I find that the more completely I visualize my mental violin the better. In addition to the fingerings and bowings, I try to include musical decisions, such as vibrato type, bow distribution choices, sound-point choices, and slide type when memorizing, right from the start. I find that this creates a deeper memory of the music that in no way hinders later spontaneity.

While the class assignment forced students not to play the violin at all, in reality, I always have my violin with me when I memorize a new piece of music (unless I am on the train!). I just don’t use it much. What I do use the violin for is creating fingerings and bowings that suit my musical choices. However, once the decisions have been made, the actual “memorization” of the music always occurs in my head with my mental violin.

If you have never done so, give mental-violin memorization a try. Happy practicing!

As a reference, my usual memorization progression is as follows:

1. Play a large section of the piece you are working on, on your physical violin, working out fingerings and bowings (this step can take days, as the decisions should be informed by style, context, harmony, and a host of other factors).

2. Divide the section into small chunks. I number the chunks.

3. Play chunk 1 on the mental violin while looking at the music

4. Play chunk 1 on the mental violin without looking at the music

5. Play chunk 1 on the mental violin again, double-checking the music

6. Repeat chunk 1 5-10 times on the mental violin, focusing on different aspects: bow distribution, intonation, precise decisions regarding articulation. Occasionally check the music while doing this step.

7. Play chunk 1 on the physical violin

8. Do instructions 3-7 with chunk 2

9. Play chunk 1-2 together on the mental violin several times

10. Play chunk 1-2 on the physical violin several times

11. Continue progressing with more chunks!

12. Do not be distressed if you can’t remember what you have learned the next time you look at the music – this is normal! You will relearn it much, much faster the second time. The third time you come back to the passage, you will likely remember it almost perfectly, and the fourth time it will be yours! Always work with the mental violin first!

William Herzog

Canadian-born violinist William Herzog began studying violin at age four. Early achievements include being the youngest musician admitted to the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra, at age 10, and being featured on TVOntario and CBC radio. William has earned a bachelors in music from Indiana University, where he studied with Mauricio Fuks, a Masters of Music at Northwestern University, where he studied with 📷Gerardo Ribeiro, and is currently pursuing a doctoral degree at The Eastman school of Music under the tutelage of Renee Jolles.

William has an active and diverse performing career, having played Vivaldi’s four seasons, Max Bruch’s g-minor concerto, and Mendelssohn’s e-minor concerto with orchestras. His chamber music experience began at a very young age, and has seen him perform across the U.S. and Canada, including recent performances in Northwestern University’s gala chamber music concert and Eastman’s Holocaust remembrance concert. In 2014, William won second prize in the Samuel and Elinor Thaivu string competition in Chicago.

A passionate teacher, William has been a teaching assistant at Indiana University, Northwestern University, The Meadowmount School of Music, and at The Eastman School of Music. He has also taught, and assisted in running group classes in the Indiana University String academy and Northwestern Music academy. William currently teaches for the Eastman Community Music School, as well as the Eastman School of Music.


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