The Memorization Challenge: One Month, Three Songs

Val Blaha

Jun 2, 2017

Are you looking to prepare students for an upcoming recital, or just want to encourage them to take a step beyond learning some songs? The “Memorization Challenge” can help! This is a fun, month-long challenge that I’ve done with my students for several years, with great results.

I started the challenge for several reasons. As teachers know, students often go through ebbs and flows of energy and enthusiasm about their study. Late winter can be one of those ebb periods, especially here in the Pacific Northwest where the months of grey skies often wear us down!

So, when I considered what would be fun and helpful during the month of March, I realized that it wouldn’t hurt to get students prepared early for their upcoming Spring recitals and performance opportunities. Also, even for students who don’t have upcoming performances (I’m thinking especially about my shy adult students here), it’s great for them to have some songs ready to play when asked by parents, spouses or friends.

How does it work?

I challenge all of my students to memorize a minimum of three songs over the course of about four weeks. About a week before the challenge period starts, I explain it to each student, and send a letter home for the parents so they can support and encourage the student.

At each lesson during the challenge period, I ask every student if they have any songs ready for the challenge. If they do, I invite them to play it for me without their music in front of them. Students can choose to try multiple songs a lesson, or one each week. I encourage students to start early in the month because it often takes more than one lesson to successfully memorize a song. Very few adult students usually participate, but nearly all of my younger students do.

Music choices

The students choose which songs they wish to memorize. The main guideline is that it should be something an audience would want to listen to — so scales and exercises are usually out. I also ask that at least two of the three songs were learned recently — ideally within the past one to four months. The beauty of the challenge is that students at all levels can do it — they aren’t competing against each other, but only trying to complete the challenge at their skill level. (For more advanced students, I will sometimes let them just complete part of a piece of music.)

Assistance with memorizing

I will sometimes sit with a student in lesson and help them memorize sections of their songs. This is especially useful for newer students to whom the thought of memorizing anything seems overwhelming. If you can help them get at least a couple of measures down solidly during lesson, they’ll usually gain confidence and be able to do more at home. I’ll have another article soon about specific suggestions regarding memory work.

Judging readiness

As sole judge, I base my decision on whether the song “passes” on several criteria, including accuracy of the notes and rhythm, inclusion of dynamics and articulation, and overall solidity of the memory. I will often let the student play the song a second time if needed. If the student meets the criteria, I write the song down in a notebook I keep handy during the challenge month.

If the song isn’t quite ready yet, I talk with the student about how it could be improved, and encourage them to try the song again at the following lesson. They are not penalized in any way if this happens… it hopefully just reinforces the idea that music learning is a process, and that more time and work should achieve results.

Self-assessment

I always have my own opinion about whether a song is ready. However, I often find it helpful to ask the student to consider the question: “If you had to get up on a stage and perform the song right now, do you think you’d be ready?”

Nearly always, the student’s assessment and mine are the same. (This can be helpful if you have a particularly sensitive student who needs more time with a song.)

Rewards

The most basic reward is having the songs memorized, but I sweeten the deal by offering a treat of some kind at the end of the period for everyone who has met the challenge (gift certificates for an ice cream cone are a good choice). I also do a draw for a few gift certificates to local music, toy or bookstores, as an added bonus for all the students that have successfully risen to the challenge.

Three songs and beyond!

I occasionally have students (usually newer piano students) who are so excited by the challenge that they memorize more than three songs. I love when this happens, and welcome it.

For each additional song memorized (beyond the original three), the student can get another sweet treat. I don’t enter their name in the gift certificate drawing again because it seems to give an unfair advantage to students with shorter songs, and I don’t want to discourage my more advanced students from entering. But I love when my students just keep adding to their repertoire of memorized music!

The “Memorization Challenge” has been a successful way to stimulate energy and excitement among my students, and also accomplish the goals of encouraging them to memorize songs and prepare for upcoming performances. I hope you’ll find it useful for your students as well!

Val Blaha is a McMinnville, Oregon-based private music instructor and singer/songwriter. She teaches piano, guitar, mandolin and ukulele, and has been offering private lessons since 2001. Her original music and upcoming shows can be found at www.valblaha.com.


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