The Three Steps to Memorization

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“Please memorize this for next lesson.” These are words that send chills through many musicians. Do you dread playing from memory? Do you feel ill-equipped for this task?

So many times I hear students of all ages say, “I could never play from memory. I can’t remember anything.” Music memorization really isn’t all about remembering. It’s really a specific process that enables you to know a piece at the very deepest level, and perform it with more conviction and musicianship than is possible any other way.

When I have a piece well learned, that is to say, memorized, I can play it more like the composer must have heard it in his head. It is a musical whole, and I am able to interpret it, rather than just play it. It’s like being “in the zone;” your awareness is beyond your physical activity.

This is not to say that I am always able to play at that level, but I have done it. It is possible, and you can achieve it too by working through these three steps:

1. Commitment. We often use the phrase “commit to memory” without really thinking about what it means. Committing a piece to memory is not a rote process. It is a series of deliberate decisions which allow you to absorb information in a meaningful way. It is the polar opposite of playing something over and over again until you know it. This is finding the information that helps you remember what is on the page. It creates landmark points that you can remember.

When you’re working in this step, you should be aware of note names, at least at important points; harmony; sequential patterns; in short, anything that gives you a way to describe what happens in that particular section. This is not the same way you memorized the Gettysburg Address or the Lord’s Prayer, which you might have learned to recite without understanding the meaning of the words you were saying. Instead, you are attempting to understand as much as you can about what is actually happening in the music.

2. Practice. In this step, you learn to practice without the music. This is not just playing the piece through from memory. It is working on all the little details, from fingering to dynamics, without the music in front of you. Correcting your mistakes from memory is one of the most important things that you can do to solidify your memorization. For this reason, memorization should start fairly early in the learning stage. Then your “memory” of the piece and your learning of the piece will be one and the same.

3. Insurance. In the last step of memorization, you prepare for the difficulties of performance. You prepare your memorization to repel and survive distractions. This is a technique I learned when I was a student at Curtis and I got to know Madame Martha Massena. Mme. Massena taught secondary piano and accompanying. When I knew her, she was a deceptively frail looking older lady with a very tight bun of hair and a wicked sense of humor. But she gave the best insurance method for memorization.

She told me once that she knew she had a piece really memorized when she could put a detective novel on the music rack of the piano and simultaneously play the piece and read the book, even to the point of turning pages. I have not used this technique with a detective novel, but I often will play recital repertoire in front of the television, making sure I’m watching the television show while I’m playing. This bizarre technique creates the ability to go back and forth, to lose your concentration and to find it again. This is the best preparation I have ever discovered for performing from memory.

This process takes time and patience, but guarantees a good result.

Coming in a future post: how to practice committing to memory.

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