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"Brain Study: Graphic Designer" by matemute ~ Creative Commons license

How do you memorize music?  Do you incorporate more than one method?

Imagine the pathways in the brain.

Until recently, scientific brain mapping has involved tracking responses to stimuli as affected areas light up in brain scans.  Now there is a new method researchers are just beginning to pursue.  In it, specific pathways would be identified.  You may be interested in reading this 12/28/10 New York Times article.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to know how memory is stored?

Since there are a myriad of pathways in our brains, we can imagine dedicating some of them to different kinds of memory.  I like to imagine a 4-lane highway, with each lane programmed in a different way.  Or maybe 4 strands of licorice (red) stuck together.  Use your own image!

You will want to program several pathways so you have backups when one or another type of memory fails in performance.  That happens regularly.  You can count on it.

Best time to memorize

Memory work should be undertaken at the beginning of a practice session, when we are most alert.  Commiting new material to memory when we are most able to concentrate ensures the greatest success and eliminates a whole lot of frustration.  (I can’t do this, I’m too tired.  But I have to memorize it by next week!  So you stick it out, become more and more fatigued, and get more and more frustrated.  That’s not progress, it’s a waste of time.)

Switch starting points

The piano teacher I had in high school marked “memory posts” in my music.  Although I hated it at the time, it works.  Can you start at the development section?  The coda?  Top of page 3?  You need to know very specifically where you are in the music.

In college, one of my teachers would make notations in my score as I was playing from memory.  That meant that she would often turn the page late!  So I had to learn to ignore that and have confidence that I knew where I was in the music.

You may want to call them “memory posts” or not, but having several points available and being able to start at any one of them is a great advantage when something interferes with your concentration.

Play starting points out of order

You should be able to start at any point, in any order.  First ending?  OK.  Second ending, where only one note is different?  First statement in a fugue, ending in a descending scale; second statement, continuing up the keyboard?  Those passages end in different fingerings.  No problem.  Two endings in reverse order?  Find a way to make it easy.  (Make up silly words or something.)  You will be happy that you went to all that trouble when the inevitable distractions happen during your performance.

Memorize music, not notes

Play expressively when you memorize, incorporating dynamics, changes in character, pedalling, etc.  You will then have the music memorized, not just the notes, making the playing much more enjoyable.  And you will have less work to do later.

Types of memory

Visual ~ the look of the music on the page, look of the pattern on the keyboard.

Aural ~ what the music sounds like ~ memorize each part, not only the general sound.

Muscle memory ~ the way it feels in your hands, and your choreographic movements (leaps, hand crossing, direction of the hands).  This is more than just tactile memory.  Muscle memory involves programming different positions into your hands, similar to moving through dance steps deliberately, exaggerating the movements. Can you feel your hands working?

More approaches

Say the fingering out loud

Learn big leaps by saying names of notes ~ example, Chopin left hand.  I often say the bass notes apart from the following chords, memorizing the bass line by note names.

Sing each part.

Conduct each phrase, each section, each movement, then the entire piece.

Visualize the score and your movements on the keyboard away from piano.

Learn a section plus the next chord ~ this helps you feel secure, saving guesswork (and increased anxiety) between sections.

Can you hear the piece in your head just by looking at the score?

Can you hear the piece in your head away from the score, while you are doing something else?

Learn new sections first (when you’re most alert), then review previously memorized sections every day. If you’re like me, you won’t enjoy starting over!  The material you are reviewing may not be perfect, but you will remember more and more from day to day.

Learn the music better than you have to.

Start memorizing early, NOT the day before your jury!  If you put it off that long, you will not be a happy person.

How do you memorize music?  Please share your tips, tricks, the advice you give your students, etc., in the comment section below!

Many thanks to my friend Jane for the great blog post idea!   🙂

Read “Goal-oriented Practice” now in an E-book and in Print!  You’ll see great reviews and wonderful readers’ comments when you click on the link.

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