My brother and I had a favorite game when we were kids. It was a maze that was filled with holes and barriers. The object was to take a small ball through the maze by tilting the board using knobs on the sides.
After mastering the maze, we wanted to make it next-level challenging. We had to do it with our eyes closed. That challenge proved to be too difficult. We were able to get half-way through, but neither of us made it to the end before we simply gave up.
Memorizing music was next-level challenging for both of us growing up. We’d work so hard to get the bowing, the notes, the fingering, the shifting, the dynamics just as they were written down. And now we had to do it with our eyes closed?
While my strong ears could help me play the song, I always had the notation in front of me. I essentially outsourced the details of the song to the notation and saved my brain the effort.
Nonetheless, because competitions and performance etiquette demanded it, I would memorize the occasional song. Following the performance, I’d set the piece aside for a few weeks and promptly lose my confidence to play it without the notation. A seemingly small obstacle — confidence — was enough to keep me from playing the song more frequently or spontaneously.
When I began learning classical pieces only by ear, the challenge of memorizing was replaced by the challenge of solving the puzzle of what and how phrases are played. This strategy for learning requires so much listening — followed by trial and error — that the organization and flow of the piece became indelibly etched into my memory. By the time I was on the last phrase, the piece was fully memorized.
The natural memorization of the song was a welcome side-benefit of learning by ear, but the real surprise for me was how much more I would play the songs. Whenever I had a few minutes, sitting in the park, waiting for a student, a quiet evening at home, after dinner with friends. It was natural and easy. And the songs continue to get better and better.
The comfort, affection and appreciation I now feel for these pieces changed my relationship to this genre of music. Classical music, something that I always reserved strictly for performances, has moved into the recreational part of my musical life.