Tuesday, July 17, 2007

30+1 Ways To Help You Memorize Music Flawlessly

As performance dates approach, one of the things that worries many musicians is the process of committing the work they have already done to memory. While the traditional way to memorize music is to practice a piece until you're blue in the face and then hope and pray it translates to memory, there are a number of musical preparation techniques that can help your memorized performance survive and even excel as you take the stage. These ideas are mostly intended for pianists (with a small section for singers), but can be used by players of all instruments.


1. Learn the music properly first. Pay attention to all the elements including notes, rhythm, dynamics, fingerings, and phrasing and let the score be your guide to the interpretation of the piece.
Look inside this title
The Piano Student's Guide to Effective Practicing - sheet music at www.sheetmusicplus.com
The Piano Student's Guide to Effective Practicing By Nancy O'neill Breth. Educational Piano Library. Book only. 6 pages. Published by Hal Leonard. (296450)
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2. Run the piece from memory, mistakes and all, keeping track of all the slips. Then go back and play the music with the score, correcting the mistakes. Now play the piece through again and repeat the process.

3. Work on the momorization trouble spots. Forget running the piece for the time being, but work only on the passages that give you grief.

Visual Work

4. When playing from memory, try to remember the way the music looks on the page. This is the most common method of memorizing for many pianists and one that can get you into trouble when used to the exclusion of all else.

5. Be aware of when you need to look at your hands when playing the work. Is this a crutch to compensate for tension, incorrect learning, or unsure gauging of distances? When playing from memory, decide if you can get around the need to look at your hands or if it is something that is necessary.

Auditory Work

6. Listen to every single sound you make. If you make a mistake, go over the passage again and listen for what you missed. This is perhaps the single most important advice about memorization.

(Aside: David Burge once mentioned to me in a lesson that if one were to really listen to every single last detail of the piece in great detail, one would never make a single mistake from memory! An ideal, but a noble one.)

7. Hear the work away from the instrument. Can you hear the work the way you want to play it?

Kinesthetic Work

8. Turn the lights out and play the piece in the dark. Can you get through? Consider Stars Wars Episode IV--the scene where Obi-Wan made Luke Skywalker track the probes in his lightsaber training with the helmet over his face not being able to see them. Why did Obi-Wan do this? To teach Luke to trust his instincts and his physicality rather than vision alone. Use the force. Trust your instincts.

9. Play from memory with only one hand. Then switch.

Intellectual Work

10. Analyze the piece. Take apart its harmonic, melodic, and formal structure and really get a sense of how the work is put together.

11. Memorize the dynamics. It's not just about playing the notes, but about the musical colors that go along with them. A good start in this direction is dynamic detail.

12. Memorize the articulations. Another good way to create coloristic delineation is knowing where staccato, legato, and everything in between are located in the score and how to create them. Again, pick up on visual, auditory, and kinesthetic cues to think, hear, and feel the colors the articulations can create.

13. Memorize the work away from the piano. Who ever said you needed to actually play when doing your musical preparation? Unlock your creative ideas by considering the music unfettered by your need to play it all the time.

Ideas for Singers

In addition to memorizing music, singers also need to memorize a song or aria's text, often in a language other than English.

14. Memorize the text away from the music. For texts not in English, this includes knowing the text in the original language and its English translation.

15. On a blank piece of paper, write out the text including all repetitions of phrases and words. It's difficult, but if you can do this you'll really have a solid grasp of your material.

16. On staff paper, write out the vocal line from memory. Even trickier, but very useful.

17. Memorize the interludes in the piano or orchestra. In addition to memorizing the bars and beats between singing entries, put in thoughts that go in the rests so that they will be imbued with meaning and motivation, and give you further security in performance.

Some Helpful Links and Further Reading

18. Read Philip Johnston's article Why Memorize? on PracticeSpot.

19. Read Martha Beth Lewis' Memory Methods.

20. Read the Playing From Memory FAQ page.

21. The Young Composers Forum has a useful article on integrating memorization into the process of learning a piece.

22. For some ideas from the horn player's perspective, read some thoughts on memorization from Hornplayer.net.

23. Read Robert T. Kelley's Tips on How to Memorize Music.

24. Try out The Violin Site's Shadow Practicing Method.

25. Read Jamey Andreas' On Memorizing.

26. Read the Wikipedia article on Memory.

27. Read Virginia Houser's Memorization--An Integral Part of Musicianship at Every Level.

Putting it all Together

28. Perfect the beginning of the piece so that if you suffer from nerves, you can rely on rock-solid preparation for the opening.

29. Perfect the ending of the piece--it's what the audience will walk away with.

30. Do enough preparation so that you can trust your abilities and the work you have put into the piece, regardless of what anyone in the audience might think.

And finally...

31. Make the piece your own. Play with the conviction that comes from a deep knowledge of the music and meticulous preparation. Only then will you be able to say that you are making music from a place of deep confidence and artistic integrity.
Memorization in Piano Music - sheet music at www.sheetmusicplus.com Memorization in Piano Music By Stewart Gordon. For Piano. Textbook - Keyboard (DVD). 0. DVD. Published by Alfred Publishing. (22559)
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7 comments:

  1. Great post Chris, apologies if the following suggestion is already somewhere in the post:
    I've found that practicing playing a piece with extreme distraction also helps memorization - i.e. television on very loudly in the next room. It's a good way of practicing how to focus as well. The night before my masters audition (I was travelling for it) my only option was to practice in an undergrad residence practice room. There was a rock band practicing full-on in the next room. Nevertheless I practiced as much as I wanted above the drums, guitar and bass. The next day I experienced a clean focus like never before!

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  2. That's one of the benefits of practicing in a music school--you get used to the horn player or trombonist next door and learn concentration. I've recently learned from the challenges of trying to practice with my two noisy daughters nearby.

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  3. Another trick I've started using lately - circling some problem notes and singing them when I come to them instead of playing them.

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  4. Anonymous3:17 PM

    Once I have mastered a piece, to memorize it, I try to play it from start to finish in my head, away from the piano- perhaps while driving or in the shower..very important, Don't skip any notes. If you get stuck, look at the music and then start over. If you can get all the way through, you actually have a good part of the memorization done. It's amazing how hard this is to do, even with pieces of music I have been listening to for 40 years.

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  5. ya thx alot for this post. I have a hard time with this song because the part repeats again but they are in different octaves and ya, so I mix it up.. Any tips?

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  6. This is a bit tangential considering the original post, but the idea of playing entirely without looking at the hands, or playing in the dark, is extremely problematic for me, because I spent my first 3 years of study practicing on a slightly-narrower-than-standard keyboard (and practiced more in those 3 years than in the 10 years following!). Therefore, I HAVE to look at my hands to negotiate any gestures that cover more than an octave, and I end up rewriting most of my accompaniments to accommodate that. (On the flipside, I almost never have to make a conscious effort to memorize any work of tonal music, because I'm used to the fact that to perform a piece at any half-decent level, it must be memorized cold first, and most of my technical/sightreading flubs actually arise from my inability to look at the keys and gauge distance, so they get fixed quickly once I'm looking at the keys!) Have you ever encountered this situation with another pianist, out of curiosity?

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  7. Jasper Witt5:06 PM

    I love the star wars reference. That is great for keeping the younger students engaged.

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