Memorizing music is a long process. Once most people have passed the first two stages, they think they are done. But that really is only the beginning.
In previous posts, I wrote about the first two stages of memorization: rote memorization and conscious memorization. Rote memorization relies on repetition to develop knowledge strengthened by physical habit. Conscious memorization requires committing the details to your conscious memory so you can recall them when you need to.
But it’s the third stage of memorization, intuitive memorization, where the magic really happens. This is the stage that changes your performance from a recitation to a creation.
Intuitive memorization is not about using your intuition. It is about developing your intuition for the piece. It is about knowing the piece so well that there is a sense of inevitability in your playing, one that blurs the distinction between composer and performer.
This stage requires the most time of any of the stages. It takes long experience with a piece to achieve this kind of intimacy with it. And frankly, most people stop well short of that result.
So how do you get there? By practicing the piece from memory and continuing to practice after the piece feels “finished.” In fact, this stage of memorization requires multiple performances of a piece in addition to just practice. Months, and more likely years, of practicing and performing a piece will create that sense of mastery that you hear in a concert by one of the great performers.
Intuitive memorization isn’t impossible; it just takes more time than most people are willing to spend. For those of you who are in it for the long haul, here are some ideas to keep yourself interested in the piece while you practice.
First, think big picture. Work on the flow and pacing of the entire piece. If it’s a multi-movement piece like a sonata, think of the pacing across the span of the movements. Make the piece a unified whole. Working this way will also help you develop the physical and mental endurance for the piece.
Work for total technical precision. Listen for and eliminate every buzz, every pedal noise, every unevenness, anything that will detract from the music.
Try out different tempos for the piece. Remember that the tempo that felt right today may not be the right one next week. I have a wonderful recording that the pianist Vladimir Horowitz made near the end of his career. He plays some of his favorite compositions, including Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata which he performed countless times. The liner notes for the recording say that after the recording sessions were complete, Horowitz asked to come back and re-do the Beethoven, because he thought the tempo was too fast. If Horowitz can change his mind, so can you.
So how do you know when you’re ready? You will know you’re getting close when your concerns about the piece are no longer about your note mistakes but are about your interpretation instead. And “close” is really as good as it gets.