By Heart


I learned to play the piano when I was only five. I learned to read music at the same time that I learned to read words on a page. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t play; my mother tells me that when I was three or four I’d come home from church and plink out the melodies of hymns on our old upright piano. I started lessons at six, and I have played ever since.

There is a phrase that musicians use frequently, often without really thinking about what it means: that we can play something “by heart,” that is, without needing the physical piece of printed music in front of us. (And I am speaking of musicians like myself, who play from printed music, rather than those gifted with the ability to play by ear without needing any music at all.) Although the terms are often used interchangeably, this is not the same as playing something from memory: professional musicians usually deliberately memorize their repertoire for concerts. There may be an element of muscle memory here, of fingers “knowing” the right notes from repeated placement, just as a craftsman or artist might know the movements needed to carve a piece of wood or draw a certain figure. Memorization can happen simply through the repetition of practice, but at least in my specific experience, these rote memorizations do not usually stay with me once the performance has taken place and I am no longer practicing them or actively engaged with the music.

To me, playing by heart is a completely different experience than memorization. The pieces of music that I can play by heart are those that have meaning to me, or that I love. These can be as widely disparate as an allegro by Handel, a Debussy arabesque, a Vince Guaraldi piece of Charlie Brown music, a fragment of Gershwin, or a Scott Joplin piano rag. The only thing they have in common is that somehow, they made a connection with me and I played them until I no longer needed to consciously think about playing them. They are what flows from my fingers when I sit at the piano not for practice, but for the sheer joy of playing.

And yet, doing something by heart isn’t limited to music. Many of us know passages from books or whole poems by heart as well, even though rote memorization isn’t practiced in school like it once was. Some people know large swatches of dialogue from favorite movies. My father could recite whole poems learned in his childhood, and there are particular Robert Frost and Sara Teasdale poems that I know by heart, as well as passages from books that have especially struck me. True, some of this is the same memorization that occurs from frequent practice, and our memories definitely benefit from the assistance of rhythm in poetry, but surely there are times when our imaginations are struck by the resonance of words and they remain with us, unasked.

I wonder if the act of doing something “by heart” couldn’t somehow be a template for the other things we do in life: to actually live life by heart. What could we do if we decided to apply that same connection to more than just the movement of our hands or the words in our mouths? Can we live more by heart and less by automatic, practical reason? Can living our lives the way we aspire to, with presence and thoughtfulness, and not simply by rote or following our established habits or familiar pathways of thought, become something we can do more by heart? Better yet, could we reach a point where much of what we do flows as easily from us as a piece of much-loved music flows from my fingers on the piano keys?

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