Friday, March 16, 2018

3 Ways to Memorize Music When Nothing Else Works

Lydia wrote an interesting comment on my 2007 article about memorizing music:
I notice that many of your tips for memorization include the word memorize in them. "Run the piece from memory, mistakes and all, keeping track of all the slips." In other words, memorize where you messed up. "Memorize, the articulation, memorize the dynamics, memorize the work away from the piano." These are all suggestions I've heard from my teachers for years, but my question is always HOW? HOW do i memorize the dynamics, HOW do i memorize the form, HOW do you expect me to remember where I messed up after playing a piece? These are not suggestions for people who have difficulty memorizing. These are variety exercises for people who are already decent at memorizing. Do you have tips for people whose brains simply refuse to remember these things?
What an awesome comment! Lydia asks some completely valid questions here. There are indeed times when absolutely nothing works. In the 11 years since originally writing that article, I've found this to be the case with myself, especially as I age and tend to think a little differently.

The situations that Lydia describes are places where thinking laterally can work. Rather than a full frontal memory practice assault, consider working in different ways. Here are some ideas:

1. "How do I memorize the dynamics?" Dynamics aren’t just a volume dial, but a way into playing with different tonal colors, textures, shades, and moods. All of these colors can be accessed through varieties of touch, and you can commit them to memory by remembering what the touch feels like. Practice with the music, not just reading and listening for the dynamics, but feeling the speed of attack and quality of touch. This is something that the body can remember. And if the body remembers it, the senses and emotions are never far behind. How does a piano feel? What about pianissimo? Fortissimo? Dolce? Mezzo forte? What about crescendo and diminuendo? Being aware of the slight changes in touch and pressure with these dynamics in practice can unlock a way to perform with them as well.

2. "How do I memorize the form?" Get out a blank piece of paper and draw the form. Take what you know about the basics of the form that you’re playing, whether it be binary, ternary, Sonata, Rondo, or whatever. Draw the main divisions. Write the bar numbers, phrase lengths, cadential points, and key centres on the page. Then try to play from the piece of paper. Still confused? Write in as much information as you need. Your written-out form can serve as a cheat sheet.

3. ”How do you expect me to remember where I messed up after playing a piece?” Record yourself. It has been said that there is no more effective, blunt, or honest teacher than observing yourself play on video. If you’ve got the guts to watch yourself having memory bloopers in a run-through of whatever work you're preparing, you can go a step further and figure out exactly when, where, how, and why the mistakes happened. Then figure out how to fix them. Then record/watch again and look for progress.

But to be completely honest, sometimes memory is simply not happening. Unless you’re in a situation where playing from memory is absolutely compulsory, consider using the music. There’s no pride lost in using the score in order to bring a work to life and feel confident in performance.

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