Memorizing 101: Tips for Teachers and Students

Val Blaha

Jun 14, 2017

Aah, the “m” word… memorize. This word filled me with fear as a child pianist, especially when faced with the daunting challenge of memorizing a several page long work by Mozart or Chopin. I don’t recall specific instructions about memorizing from my youth, or even from my three years of studying music at a university. But as an adult performer I’ve had to memorize hours of music, and so over the past few years I’ve worked with my students using methods that I’ve found helpful, so that they can gain confidence and skill at this very important part of music learning.

Conscious Memory vs Muscle Memory

Many students find that they memorize songs just by playing them many times. This is part of memory work and it is useful, but usually it’s not enough just to have the song “in your hands”. When a student gets into a higher anxiety situation like a performance, they may find that they blank out or can’t recall sections of the music. I often can identify when a piece is in this state of memory because the student will try to play faster, willing their fingers to remember the music.

When working with students, I distinguish between muscle (or what I call “unconscious”) memory and conscious memorizing. Conscious memorization occurs when a student goes through a song section by section, learning each one well enough that their brains — not just their fingers — are fully and consciously engaged.

Short Sections Are Key

Memorizing short sections is helpful because students are more likely to memorize all the detail. It also provides “safe” places where a student can go back to if necessary, and gives students achievable goals. Memorizing a two-page song may seem overwhelming, but deciding to start with a line of the song is a more realistic, immediate goal.

The length of a section depends on the difficulty of the music, and on the student’s ability. For easy songs or younger students, often a measure or two is long enough. For more advanced students, focusing on phrases is usually a good idea, because it makes sense musically.

I encourage students to play a section looking once at the music, and then once looking at their hands (or closing their eyes), and repeating the passage several times without looking at the music, unless needed. Once they are confident, repeat this with the next section, then put the two parts together.

This is like using building blocks — students just keep adding to what they have memorized until the whole song is done.

Slowing It Down

An excellent way to determine how solidly a song is memorized is by slowing it down to half speed or less. Often, if a student has relied too much on muscle memory, or didn’t take enough time memorizing specific sections, when a song is played at a slower tempo, mistakes and memory lapses will show up. Students can discover the areas in their songs where they need more work using this method.

Memorizing During Lessons Equals Confidence!

Occasionally, I have young or newer students who lack confidence and doubt that they could memorize a song. For these students, I work with them in lesson. I’ll say something like: “Before you leave today, you’ll have memorized this line of music”. (They will often be very doubtful!) Pick a goal you know the student can achieve (even if it’s only a measure or two). Work with them, using the ideas from above.

Often, students will achieve their goal in only five or ten minutes. When that happens, I make sure to point out how little time it can take when they are practicing using helpful methods. The satisfaction and confidence boost that a student gains by actually achieving a goal during lesson is priceless. It will usually inspire them to go home and continue the work on their own, which is a great outcome!

Playing for Family and Friends

We all play so much better when we are alone! My adult students will attest to this. When they play for me in lesson, so many will say: “I did it much better at home” — and I fully believe them! Playing for an audience, whether it be a friend or a teacher, often brings out any unstable sections in a piece of music. That’s why I encourage students who have memorized a song to play for their family. Ideally, any trouble spots will come out during these performances, and the students will know where they need to focus more time.

Lesson As Rehearsal

If we are preparing for a recital, I’ll create a mini “dress rehearsal” (minus the dress) in lesson. I’ll even sit in a different place in my studio to try to recreate a performance situation where adrenaline or anxiety might cause a student to stumble. I’ll do this in the final few lessons leading up to a performance, and I’ve found that my students are usually prepared for anything that might happen on the actual performance day.

Stuff Happens

Even with the best preparation, our memory can slip. Perhaps someone in the audience sneezes loudly, or a baby cries. Maybe we get distracted by our hands being slippery because it’s hot in the room. We can’t control everything in our performance environment, but by helping your students prepare and solidly memorize their songs, they should be able to do a performance of which they can be proud. And more than that, well-learned music will usually stay with students for many years to come.

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