The Case for Memorization: Why It Matters More Than You Think

Every harpist I know has an opinion about memorization.


Some harpists swear by it as a learning technique and a performance aid. Others regard it as unnecessary and not worth the effort. Still others think that their memory just isn’t as good as it used to be, so why should they even bother?


When I was a student, playing from memory was expected and required. For most harpists, though, playing from memory is never mandatory. Many harpists feel more confident playing from music. Other harpists use memorization as a way to compensate for slower note reading. Memorization considered on its own as a skill, however, is a powerful tool for developing your musicianship and increasing your understanding of your music. 


Whatever your feeling about memorization, I hope to change it. If you memorize regularly, I have some ways to practice memorization that will strengthen your learning skills and help your note reading. (Yes, I know you thought that memorizing your music was a way to escape note reading, but I won't let you get away with that!)


If you never memorize either because you don’t think it matters or you think you can’t, I will show you how practicing memorization - even if you never play without music - will develop your musicianship and help you learn music faster. 


Have I intrigued you? Let’s look at some compelling reasons to practice memorization.


Memorization improves your brain. If you worry that your brain may be beyond doing much memorization, think again. “Older adults who work their brains through memorization are stimulating neural plasticity, which alters the brain’s neural pathways in response to new experiences,” says Marwan Sabbagh, MD, Director of Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. “These functional brain changes occur whenever we acquire new knowledge or learn a new skill, and they appear to be important in warding off cognitive decline.”  Practicing memorization makes your memory better. That’s a win-win.


Playing without looking at the music allows you to watch your fingers. You might want to check your technique. Perhaps you’re playing a piece where looking at the music is more confusing than looking at the strings. Maybe looking at your fingers is easier on your eyes. 


When you stop focusing on the page, you can focus more on the music. It’s true that when you are freed from reading the page, you are able to put more expression into your music. It’s a different and very rewarding level of playing. 


When you know you are able to play without music, you will play with more confidence, even if you use the music. Music that you have memorized, whole or even just partly, is more secure. Memorization is less about “remembering” than it is about “knowing,”  and knowing a piece at that deeper level will allow you to play it with less fear and more freedom.


I believe that many harpists think they can’t memorize because no one has ever taught them the steps in the process. Memorization doesn't just happen; you work over time to deepen your knowledge of your piece gradually. The old rote method of memorizing - just play it over and over until you know it - doesn’t create the understanding of the piece that will help you play it well. In fact, this type of memorization often fails in performance because there is no foundation of knowledge to help you recover from a missed note or misplaced finger. 


Start developing your memorization power with these simple steps. Use any piece you are studying or one you know well that you would like to memorize. If memorizing is new to you, be sure to choose a simple piece so you aren’t struggling with the notes and memorizing at the same time.


  1. Choose a short group of measures, no more than 2 or 4 bars. Play those bars through using the music 3-5 times.
  2. Swivel your music stand around so you can’t see the music and try playing those same measures. See if you can play them three times. 
  3. If you could play them fairly easily, go on to the next several measures and repeat the steps above, Then combine the 2 sections and play that longer section from memory.
  4. If you had difficulty with the initial measures, turn the music stand back and look at the music. What did you need to know? What note or chord or finger did you need to place properly? Look for patterns that might help you. This is how the memorization process helps you learn your music, not just remember it. 
  5. When you have refreshed your mind with those measures, play them through a time or two more with the music, then turn the stand around and play without the music, using your new understanding of those measures to help you. Repeat the process as needed.


Don’t use this process as a method to learn a piece. It is too slow and labor intensive, and it gives you only small glimpses of the piece as a whole. Learn the piece in larger sections and let your fingers become accustomed to the patterns before you begin memorizing. Your memorization will go faster and you will strengthen your note reading too.


As you practice your memorization of any piece, be prepared for backsliding. Just because you’ve never had a problem with any given measure, doesn’t mean that one day you won’t “forget” it.  Over time, the gaps in your knowledge will be fewer and smaller and eventually totally insignificant. 


The key to the success of this process is in seeking to increase your knowledge and understanding of a piece. Don’t just repeat it; review it, read it, and learn it. Then you will truly be playing it “by heart.”


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