Playing by Rote

Michael Wittgraf

Why would a 53-year-old college music professor, composer, and department chair bother to memorize on the piano several Chopin waltzes on his down time during a six-month sabbatical, despite other creative obligations that required a large investment in time, none of which required piano playing?

For quite a long time now, rote memorization generally has been on the receiving end of bad publicity in higher education. Interestingly, though, among musicians in the academy and elsewhere, especially performers, memorization of music is still emphasized and required. In general, memorization as an exercise helps the brain to function better in many ways. In music, it allows the performer to have greater freedom and range of expression as they work their way through a piece of music. A cursory glance around the internet indicates that there has been a lot of research demonstrating the benefits of rote memorization.

How does this answer the question? It doesn’t. It simply felt good to memorize them. I have excellent sight-reading skills, the ability to learn fairly difficult music quickly, and have played in private a large swath of classical piano literature many times over during my lifetime, and will continue to do so. I have not, however, made a habit of memorizing music, because performing classical music on the piano in public is something I do rarely, and when I do, I use sheet music. Memorizing helped me to access an underused part of my brain, and I liked it. That being said, I probably will not have the time to memorize anything new until my next sabbatical. I should make time.

Here are YouTube recordings of the five waltzes that I chose, performed by pianists who know what they are doing:

Michael Wittgraf is a Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Music at the University of North Dakota.