A few months ago I wrote a post entitled 30+1 Ways to Memorize Music Flawlessly, which has gone on to become one of the most popular articles on this site. Memorization is no small feat, and obviously people are finding it challenging since I find so many memorization-oriented search terms as the entry points to this site.
Today I'll be looking at why memorization is so important in the learning process. I like to emphasize that the earlier that performers memorize, the better. That leap of faith from the printed page to the concert hall is a significant one and carries with it the promise of musical integration and inspiration. Here are some reasons why this is so:
1. Make the music a part of you. I heard a fascinating comment back in the Napster days of the 1990's when Lars Ulrich and Metallica were testifying before Congress. A distraught Metallica fan was interviewed as to why he was protesting his favorite band. His response was that "It's our music too". A fascinating statement, obviously false from a legal perspective, since a listener has no legal right to call his favorite music his own. But on an inner level, this poor Metallica fan had internalized their music to the extent that he considered it his own. That's what performers need to do. Work on the music to the extent that it gets in your bones and seems to flow naturally from yourself. Memorization is one of the tools to take it to that level.
2. I can only look at one thing at a time! Aarrrrgghhhh! Musicians that play instruments that require spatial sense include string players, pianists, and percussionists. Knowing where to look can be a dicey situation when playing the piano, as we sometimes need to choose between staring at the music or looking at our playing mechanism, and risk either missing notes or losing our place. Memorize the music and that problem goes away. Professional percussionists often need to memorize music just to be able to play their parts in orchestra and ensemble music that involves rapid changes of instrument or body orientation. Once the music is committed to memory, we can scan the keyboard or fingerboard and plan exactly what we need to do physically, freed from the fetters of needing to stare at the score all the time.
3. Tell your own story. Singers have the roughest time of all musicians. They need to learn how to create their own instrument inside their body, learn the music, learn languages to the level of a native speaker, and learn to act, to name a few. There comes a time when they are preparing music when they must take that leap of faith and get the music off the page so that they can be convincing in recreating a poem (in the case of art song) or a character (in opera). Memorization is the golden road to getting to that place. Instrumentalists also need to realize how important this metaphor is for them in telling their own story through their instruments and repertoire.
4. Find your limitations and transcend them. Let's face it--memorization is difficult. Getting a work memorized carries with it the danger of failure and disappointment. However, all is not lost. Everyone comes at memorization a different way and needs to build on their strengths while working on their weaknesses. To put it simply, memorization is a combination of sight, sound, feeling, and thinking, and the process is almost like finding your own 4-digit PIN that allows you access to creating memorized music. The rewards of challenging yourself are worth the investment of time.
5. Stop playing/singing like a student. What is the magical moment when a musician stops being a student and suddenly becomes an artist? Is it graduation? A first gig? The hundredth gig? All wrong--the precise moment that a performer becomes an artist is at the moment of their own choosing, when they stop thinking that their development is subject to the whim of a teacher and they learn to trust their own instincts. It is obviously somewhat more difficult to do this when you are still staring at the page looking at note after note. Get to the memorization level and it is considerably easier to stop thinking like a student and playing more like a genuine performing artist.
Next: Find Your Repertoire