Taking the Mystery Out of Memorization

taking the mystery out of memorisation

By Chrissy Ricker, NCTM

Will your students be participating in recitals, festivals, or competitions this year? If so, chances are that they will be required to memorize some, if not all, of their music for these events.

Performing from memory is a relatively new practice in the history of music.

Prior to 1800, performers rarely played from memory. In fact, it was seen as somewhat pretentious for a performer to play without the music, as it put the focus of the audience on the prowess of the performer and not on the music itself! However, that perception changed in the mid-1800s, when performers such as Clara Schumann, Franz Liszt, and Niccolo Paganini began dazzling audiences by giving solo concerts completely from memory. Thanks to them, the notion of a virtuosic soloist performing entirely from memory became common practice.

Despite the practice of memorization being a relatively new one, there are many benefits to memorizing our music. The process of memorization encourages us to look for patterns in the score that can lead to a greater understanding of how a piece of music is constructed. Memorization can also make it easier to execute difficult technical passages since performers don’t need to keep their eyes on the music as they play. Because of these two benefits, many performers report feeling a greater emotional connection to the music and more artistic freedom when performing from memory than when playing from a score.

However, performing from memory can be scary--like walking a tightrope without a safety net. Most musicians have a horror story about a performance featuring the dreaded “memory slip.” Because of this fear, the added pressure of memorization can make the idea of public performance even more stressful for our students.

So, how can we take the stress out of memorizing? Here are my tips for making the process of memorization easier for your students:

Tip #1: Have students practice memorizing and performing from memory throughout the year--not just at recital or festival time.

Just like playing an instrument, memorizing is a skill that takes practice! By memorizing many simple pieces throughout the year, students learn the skills they need to memorize more complex works when recital or competition time rolls around.

Challenge your students to play short sections of their pieces each week from memory--even if it is just the introduction or the coda of a piece in progress. Encourage students to have two or three of their favorite repertoire pieces memorized at all times, so they will be ready to perform from memory in casual settings, such as for friends and family.

Tip #2: Make sure students are using multiple types of memory when memorizing their music.

Often students rely on muscle memory when memorizing their pieces--playing a piece over and over until their fingers remember the notes. While muscle memory is important, it can also be unreliable. Other types of memory that students should be using include:

  • Analytical memory: Help students analyze the form and harmony of their music, and help them look for patterns in the melody and harmony that make memorizing easier.
  • Visual memory: Students should be able to visualize details in the score from memory. For example, what is the starting note? What is the starting dynamic level? It can also be helpful to visualize patterns on their instrument, such as chord shapes on the piano.
  • Aural memory: Students should be able to think through a piece away from their instrument, imagining how each note should sound. Students might find it helpful to practice singing the melody or tapping the rhythm to a piece from memory as well.

Tip #3: Give students tools to test their memory, so they feel confident a piece is memorized securely before a performance.

Have your students try the following ideas to test their memorization of a piece:

  • Ask students to mark several spots in the music where they can begin playing from memory. Quiz students by having them start a piece at one of these “memory spots” at random points throughout their lesson.
  • Have students “perform” a piece silently on their instrument from memory--for example, touching the correct piano keys without making a sound.
  • Have students play a piece very slowly from memory.
  • Ask students to play hands separately from memory
  • Ask students to explain a memorized section of their piece in words. For example, “This section starts quietly with a half note C, followed by staccato eighth notes that step up.”
  • Ask more advanced students to write out a short section of their music on staff paper from memory.

By using these tips, you can help take the mystery out of memorization for your students--as well as give them a confidence boost for their upcoming performances this year!