Memory through Music

The last few days, I’ve been listening to Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis. Over and over, ad nauseum. I can’t get enough. Insert your cliche of excess here.

I played the four movements of this piece as part of a concert band in college, and I don’t remember actually enjoying it then. In fact, the words, “Let’s take out the Hindemith” often filled me with dread and trepidation. The piece is wonky. There are a lot of trills, weird key changes, stutters, notes packed in tight and sore-thumb noticeable if you screw up. Which I did, regularly. It is by turns joyous, eerie, triumphant, and wary. The “Andantino” has a snarling, barely contained tiger of a flute solo. It is achingly beautiful and wickedly hard, but you have to make it look effortless, which our very capable first chair flautist did enviably. I was glad to not be her. Plus, Hindemith must have had something against flute players, because just when you’re silently screaming, “Brava!” when the flute hits its final, shimmering note, the flautist must repeat almost the whole thing again several bars later. Evil.

Even though playing The Metamorphosis was challenging and some days made me want to die, as I’d sit for hours hunched over my tape player in a practice room, memorizing all 600 thousand million notes of the thing, when it finally came together, it was pretty great. I had not listened to the recording for several years since, maybe a decade. When I first heard it at the beginning of my binge, all I could concentrate on was the flute part. It was like no time had passed. I could close my eyes and remember every one of those 600 thousand million notes, beating inside me like they live there now. I remembered playing them in rehearsal, how singular the experience was, how it forced my brain to stop thinking about anything else except this one vital, exquisite thing in front of me. If you’re as much of an over-thinker as I am, you know how merciful those moments are. Even when I wasn’t playing, I was counting rests, listening for my lead-in cues: brass, clarinet, me, and we’re off again.

I’ve played in a few ensembles since college, and I’ve noticed that my memory is not as good now. Or, maybe my adult attention span is lacking, I’m worried about too many things, about feeding myself, trying to have goals, getting through. Now, when I memorize music, I can pull it off for a performance, but I guarantee you I can’t remember note for note for too long after that.

Memorizing and playing instrumental music is something I’m so grateful to know how to do, and to know that I can do throughout my life. People seem surprised when I tell them how different it is from writing. “But it’s still that creative, artsy thing,” they say, “it still uses the same part of your brain.”

I am in no way a brain expert, but for me, it feels quite different. Yes, there is some leeway in interpreting already-composed music, especially in jazz and baroque styles, where improv and embellishment are what make the pieces sparkle. But there is also an exactness to it; here are these notes that I must play in a particular way: sharply, softly, staccato, smooth. Here is what everyone else in the ensemble is going to play. Here is how it all fits together. And when it fits together, you don’t think, you don’t edit, revise, try different words, take those words out, try other ones. You just play all the damn notes, and you breathe when you can, and feel your face flush hot when you can’t, and listen to your heartbeat and squeeze your eyes shut and go for it, every time.

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