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October 1966 How to Memorize, By Henri Temianka

Editor’s note: In an article about the skill of memorizing, the author recounts his experiences with George Szell’s amazing memory.

   There is no such thing as a really bad memory. People who think they have a bad memory simply have not learned how to use it. All the things in life, which we do well, we have trained ourselves to do, usually over a long period of time: speaking, reading, writing—all the things we now take for granted.
   Similarly, a good musical memory is acquired through careful training.
   Undeniably, some are more naturally gifted than others. The kind of memory with which musicians like Dimitri Mitropoulos and George Szell are blessed is entirely exceptional. Mitropoulos’ memory was photographic. His knowledge of the score did not only include all the notes and dynamic markings; it extended to the letters and bar numbers. I remember my amazement when, rehearsing Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole with him, he stopped the orchestra and, with no score in sight, called out: “Gentlemen, let us start again eight bars before letter M, please.”
   Szell’s memory is equally prodigious. Once we spent a summer vacation together in Tremezzo on Lake Como in Italy. Szell had brought little music with him, and I had nothing except the Beethoven and Schubert sonatas, which we were preparing for our duo-concerts the following season. There was little to do on those quiet summer evenings—an occasional bridge game with Artur Schnabel who lived next door or a stroll along the lake terminating with a glass of grappa on the terrace of a cafe. Soon we were spending our evenings, and many of our days, making music in the hotel lounge for our own amusement and that of any guest who happened by. It was a typical businessman’s holiday.
   In the course of the first week, we went through practically every violin concerto and sonata I had ever   learned, Szell playing the piano part without music and helping me out whenever my memory failed me. He never skipped one bar of a tutti, even when it was as extended as the introduction to the Beethoven or Brahms Concertos. We had a boundless appetite for music, playing as many as six and seven major works at one session. At this rate the violin repertoire could not last forever. Soon we were down to the dregs, shamelessly playing Ernst’s Othello Fantasy and Paganini’s God Save the Queen variations.
   I thought this was the end; I was mistaken. For Szell it had only been the beginning, a pleasant appetizer. The next evening he sat down at the piano and started out playing the overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni. But he did not stop after the overture. He stopped three hours later, having played the entire opera from memory and sung the text to it. It is only fair to state that, as a singer, Szell was a poor second to Caruso, particularly when he took on vocal duets and quartets single-handedly. His desperate efforts to sing bass and colorature parts simultaneously sometimes caused the music-loving Italian waiters acute anguish.
   After recovering from his efforts over Don Giovanni, Szell played Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel as an encore.
   Some days later, when a goodly part of the opera repertoire had been disposed of, someone refer
red to the fact that a gifted man by the name of Beethoven had written some quartets. This was the trigger mechanism that set off a colossal new orgy of music, this time chamber music.
   Everything from Beethoven s Opus 131 to Schubert’s glorious two cello quintet emerged from Szell’s infallible mental filing system.
   Szell once told me that he occasionally had to make an effort not to memorize a new piece accidentally, as it became burdensome, particularly when he anticipated dropping the piece from his repertoire after one or two performances.
   “Of course,” you will say, “all this is very nice for Szell and Mitropoulos, but how are we ordinary mortals to memorize our music?”
   There are a number of ways. The most widely used and most wasteful way is to play a piece over and over again until it “sinks in.” This is mental saturation bombing. Indiscriminately, the player repeats the entire piece from A to Z ad nauseam, unmindful of the fact that 90% of it has automatically registered in his mind after the first few playings. If he ultimately does memorize the piece, chances are he will be sick to death of it.
   There are far more effective techniques of memorizing, and they are available to everyone. You must learn to look at your music as if it were an architect’s blueprint. A good composer is something of an architect and mathematician. He writes according to a definite floor plan. When you understand the plan, the composition as a whole is much more easily memorized. I cannot help thinking that if Bach had been trained as an architect, he would have built cathedrals to rival those of Strasbourg and Chartres. And Mozart, as a mathematician, might have followed in the footsteps of Newton and Pascal. Look at the phenomenal games of mathematical gymnastics that Mozart occasionally indulged in for pure amusement. I have one composition of his for two violins, but there is only one part from which to play. It is laid flat on the table, and while one violinist plays from top to bottom, his partner stands at the opposite end of the table and starts playing the last note of the piece, playing backwards to the beginning. You see, every note is actually two different notes. The middle G played by the one violinist reads D to his partner who is looking at it upside down from the other end of the table. The composition is of course mathematically constructed and has a plan that anyone can grasp.
   This affinity between music and mathematics does not necessarily work equally well in reverse. There is the story of Artur Schnabel playing sonatas with Einstein who was a passionate amateur violinist. The great physicist and the famous pianist had a good deal of trouble agreeing on tempo and rhythm. Finally, according to the legend, Schnabel stopped in exasperation and exclaimed: “For goodness sake, Albert, can’t you count to four!”
   Mozart’s penchant for mathematics is also revealed in the astonishing musical dice game he composed. This unique composition consists of one hundred and seventy-six separate slips of paper, each containing one tar of music. These slips can be-combined in hundreds of different ways, each representing a complete and logical composition. The various combinations are obtained by throwing a pair of dice, one throw for each bar. After each throw you consult the key list provided by Mozart and pick a corresponding bar of music. What you end up with in this game is a waltz of thirty-two bars, completely harmonized and playable. If you just keep shaking those dice, you may combine enough waltzes to last a lifetime.
   The first rule then, for someone who desires to gain an insight into the technique of memorizing, is to study a score with the mind alone. Play it once or twice if you wish, or listen to it once or twice. But after that, away with the violin or piano; the time is not nearly at hand. That first theme, of how many bars is it constituted? To what key does it modulate? Where does the development section begin? Where is the recapitulation? In what form is the piece written? Sonata form? Variation form? Rondo?
   All this is just the ground plan. Now you begin to sing the piece to yourself. Here is where you can make your waste time productive. You should do your singing quietly, inwardly. The memorizing process can be successfully applied while waiting for a bus or riding in it. You can apply it in the bathtub and in bed. If you are at a boring party, you can apply it with immense success while someone else is holding forth. This, of course, you only do when you are in the advanced stages of memorizing a piece and can work on it without having the score with you. I have done some of my best work while mechanically nodding to a dinner partner who was haranguing me. How often have I observed a musician like Monteux thoughtfully tapping the table with his fingers, absently humming between two morsels of lobster Newburg, while someone else was telling a story. What was he humming? Obviously, next week’s symphony program. On one occasion I had no knowledge of the program chosen. I carefully watched Monteux at the dinner table, and suddenly I knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt what he was rehearsing underneath his lobster-soaked mustache. It was so obvious: The March to the Gallows, from the Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz. How did I know? I caught him making a characteristic sucking sound, which I knew was not directed at the lobster. For those who knew Monteux’s mannerisms, it was clear that here was an imperative summons to the trombones.
   Among the true masters of music there are many who will not even begin to practice a composition on their instrument until they have mentally and musically almost completely mastered it. Unfortunately, a great many students do exactly the opposite. They practice and practice a given piece on their instruments until they are mentally, emotionally, and physically stale, and their musical vitality has gone down the drain.
   Those same students will pack up their instruments after a practice period and promptly forget about the whole composition. To the contrary, with the instrument out of the way, you can really rise above the mechanical impediments of execution. Now your mind can work unfettered. Instead of exhausting yourself at the double task of simultaneously conquering technical obstacles and memorizing as well, do your memorizing separately.
   I once witnessed Yehudi Menuhin apply this strategy in a masterful and, I would say, rather daring way. He had programmed two new contemporary pieces, a slow number by the South American Guarnieri and a rapid one by the Englishman Arthur Benjamin. All kind of unexpected things had happened to interfere with his practice schedule and the day of the concert came without Yehudi being ready.
   I was staying with him at the time and drove with him to the concert. We rested for a while at the hotel during the afternoon and then Yehudi got up to begin the usual pre-concert routine. He was about to start shaving when he remembered the two new pieces, threw the scores on my bed and asked me to follow them while he whistled the music. With that he disappeared into the bathroom and began to shave and whistle. Soon he reappeared with his face full of soap, the music emerging from behind a mass of white blobs.
   I had to stop him after four bars because he had skipped a couple of notes. I made the correction and he continued. A little later I had to stop him again. Thus we continued, Yehudi whistling, I playing Beckmesser. When we got to the end, he started over again. He did not repeat the old mistakes but he made a smaller batch of new ones. At the fourth try the piece was note-perfect. Then we rehearsed the other piece.
   That evening Yehudi played both compositions perfectly, by memory.
   One need have neither the facility nor the daring of Menuhin to apply the same technique successfully, in a more leisurely way.
   Far be it from me to suggest that the task of memorizing should be entirely one of mental and intellectual slavery. As I have said at the beginning, much of it comes, thank heavens, entirely naturally and subconsciously. Listening to recordings while following the score is extremely helpful.
   A certain amount of mechanical drudgery is unfortunately inevitable, for fast passages can only be secured by the development of an automatic mechanism, a kind of finger memory so rapid that it runs ahead of the conscious mind and functions independently of it.
   Finally, a great many home performances are required before you are really ready. You should perform the piece with a pianist to become thoroughly familiar with the whole score, not just the solo part.
   One more thing: The ability to memorize must be developed through regular training and habit. No matter how difficult you find it, impose upon yourself or your pupil the task of memorizing at least one piece every month. You will discover for yourself what astonishing developments can occur in the course of a few brief months, a year at most.

After dwelling so extensively on the part that conscious and intellectual efforts play in our work, I do wish to emphasize the enormous part played by our subconscious mind. These subconscious functions, of which we know so little, must be allowed to function as freely as possible.

I remember one occasion when I had a particularly bad time trying to memorize a piece; when it mended in one place, it broke in another. Finally, I gave up in despair and tossed it aside. One month later, on a sudden impulse, I started playing it, just to see how much of it still remained. To my amazement, it went faultlessly, with not one break from beginning to end. It was an extraordinary manifestation of the subconscious work that had gone on in my mind after I had discarded the piece.

I hope I have made clear my belief that too much intellectual probing can be as harmful as too little. You know the sad story of the centipede? One day he was sauntering along happily when another animal came along and said: “Hello, Mr. Centipede. Tell me, what method do you use in walking? Do you say to yourself: ‘Now foot 77; now foot 34; now foot 13?'”
   The centipede replied: “I have never thought about it, I just walk. Give me a minute to figure it out.” He stood there for a little while, thinking hard. Then, suddenly, he cried out: “I can’t walk anymore; I’m paralyzed!”