This past summer, armed with 12 years of weekly lessons and two years of music theory, I achieved a goal I never thought possible—memorizing a piece of music. From the very start of my piano study, I had harbored fantasies of being able to sit at any piano that I stumbled upon: in my brother’s living room, a practice room at my son’s college, or even an unfamiliar hotel lobby, and just play. I had a hunch that if I could remove the necessity of the score, I might be able to perform with much more emotion. But I couldn’t overcome my crippling fear of attempting to memorize even a few measures and was intimidated by the ease with which my children accomplished this task. I convinced myself that my middle-aged brain was already calcifying and the memorizing ship had long sailed. Besides, wasn’t it enough that I was learning to play piano at this late stage in life? What more did I have to prove? But secretly, I envied fellow piano students who accomplished this feat.
Finally one day last spring, under my breath, as if she wouldn’t hear me, I shyly suggested to my teacher that perhaps I could try to memorize something. “Of course you should, Robin,” she replied, implying with her tone that of course I could, and suggested I start with something I already knew. We chose Schumann’s “From Foreign Lands and People,” from Kinderszenen or Scenes from Childhood, Opus 15. I had played this piece a few years prior with my previous teacher, and within a couple of weeks I had re-learned the music.
Applying tools from music theory, and with my piano teacher’s help, I started by analyzing the chords in each measure, taking note of the progressions. Written in the the key of G major, “From Foreign Lands and People” begins with a tonic chord in the first measure, moves to a V chord, the dominant key of D, in the second, returning to a I chord in measure three. By observing how the bass notes were changing, I was able to trigger my memory to help determine the notes in the treble clef. For instance, if the bass note was a G, it was reasonable to assume that the notes on top would be part of the I chord, a B and D, if the note in the bass clef was a D, the notes on top would likely be in the V chord, an F-sharp and A. All that hard work in music theory was finally paying off!
But theory alone wasn’t going to jigger my brain cells into memorizing this music. At times it seemed like I had spent an entire day sitting at the piano, as I forced myself to concentrate on memorizing two measures at a time. First hands apart, then hands together, constraining myself to not push ahead until those two measures were firmly in place. It took most of the summer for me to learn the two pages of music. Thankfully, the music has repeats so I had a second chance at getting it correct. Nevertheless, by the time I made it through the repeat of the first section, I was unable to recall the opening E minor chord of the second section. This tedious work was so frustrating that on several occasions I was reduced to balling up my fists and banging on the keys like a three-year-old, thinking it absurd that I could ever accomplish this feat.
But luckily for me, my teacher never doubted that I could. Stressing that I continue to practice the music very slowly, she also pointed out a very helpful tool in a section that I had been stumbling with: as my left hand moved up a step, my right hand followed suit, also moving up a step. In this way it was as if a string were threaded through my hands, connecting their movements.
The first time I attempted to play the entire piece from memory, I went blank. I could not retrieve any memory of what the notes looked like on the page or where my hands went on the keyboard. I opened the music and played through, refusing to give up. I had come this far; it was too late to turn back now. I closed the music and tried again, this time playing the piece from memory. Oftentimes my brain froze at certain measures, and once again I opened up the music, cognizant of the chords, hand positions, and how the notes looked on the page. The next instruction my teacher gave was to close my eyes and play, compelling me to feel the geography of the piano in my hands, giving me one more tool: the tactile sense. This was tough, but eventually, I mastered that challenge, and with it a reward I had never thought possible.
Last October I mustered the courage to perform the music for a small group of fellow pianists, and to my delight it went off beautifully. Although my hands quivered at first, it was impossible for me to resist the beauty of the music. By closing my eyes, I shut the world and its myriad distractions out, and for those two or three minutes it was just Schumann and I.