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Why can't I memorize music?

December 1, 2008 at 7:58 AM

I am so ashamed of myself that I did not have ONE piece memorized after playing the violin for a year.  I went to my uncle's place, took out the violin (my old VSO and he wanted to borrow it) and start practicing some scales.  My uncle ask me to play something for him, and for the life of me, I cannot even play anything entirely from memory.  I am not a Suzuki student, and I did not memorize any of the pieces. I just realized that I cannot play without looking at music!!!  

I suddenly remembered bits and pieces of Reiding B minor, but I have not played that in 6 months.  I only remembered maybe the first page and a half... I'm very ashamed.


From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted via 71.184.114.154 on December 1, 2008 at 11:29 AM

Not to be obnoxious, but did you actually try to memorize anything or did you just expect it to magically happen?  While there may be some gifted people for whom memorization just happens automatically in the course of practicing, I don't think that's common or to be expected.

Back when I was a student I also didn't memorize pieces.  It was out of pedagogical fashion when I was that age, or something, and I didn't do Suzuki either.  I really only started trying to commit pieces to memory recently, since I started playing again as an adult.  In my experience, it isn't easy, but it also isn't impossible.  It's just another step on your list of things to accomplish when learning a piece. 

And I've found it is quite helpful with performance anxiety, even if you do end up using the music during the performance itself.  If your brain goes AWOL for a moment, your fingers are more likely to be able to carry on if you have the piece committed to memory.


From Tom Holzman
Posted via 167.176.6.8 on December 1, 2008 at 1:23 PM

What Karen said.  Memorization is something that you have to work at systematically unless you are particularly gifted.  I did some when I was younger.  At my current age (58), I cannot really do it well any more (or perhaps I do not really have the time to do it).  The system I used to use was to memorize several measures at a time and build on that.  It worked fairly well, and I am sure that there are other systems that other posters can suggest that are probably better than mine.  Good luck!


From Benjamin K
Posted via 61.122.67.57 on December 1, 2008 at 3:54 PM

For me its the exact opposite. Any piece I practise regularly I will soon have memorised whether intentionally or not. The downside of this is that my sight reading ability is really lousy because once memorised, practising a piece will no longer be of any help for improving my sight reading even if I practise it while following the score.

I guess in your situation, if you always actually need the score, your sight reading will probably be fairly good by now. I guess you need to make an effort to memorise the pieces bar by bar, and I probably need to practise sight reading with random notes.


From Laurie Niles
Posted via 75.4.228.222 on December 1, 2008 at 6:42 PM

Just because you aren't a Suzuki student doesn't mean you can't try the Suzuki trick, LOL! Ask your teacher to record for you the piece you wish to memorize. Then, listen to it, MASSIVELY, away from the violin. Like 20 times a day. You can also listen to other recordings of it. But the trick is to listen TONS. You'll be amazed at how easy it gets to learn well and memorize. Sure, you'll still have to employ various memorization tricks, but this will help immensely.

P.S. There is no "cheating" when it comes to learning.


From Elizabeth Musil
Posted via 91.38.206.40 on December 1, 2008 at 10:15 PM

I have this same problem with piano and like you, it is also really frustrating for me when people ask me to play something for them - without music, despite having played piano now for over 15 years, I can barely play anything at all. 

Apart from the usual tricks like playing the same passage over and over, listening to the music, learning the song by measure, writing it out, etc. something that has worked for me  is that whenever I have a couple of free moments, ie. while waiting for the bus, is to go over the piece of music in my mind - literally to play it in your mind without having the instrument there.  start from the beginning or from any part of the piece that you can recall, and go through the music, hearing it in your mind, and imagining how your body is moving - ie. what are you doing with your fingers - which string are you on, which position are you playing in, what is your bow arm doing?  Any place where your memory faulters or in which you are unsure can be double checked the next time you have the music around.  The first time I did this, I was really surprised at how much of the pieces I could actually remember, and was even more surprised that I could sit down and play most of a piece from memory which I could only ever play with music before.


From Paul G.
Posted via 75.169.224.5 on December 2, 2008 at 9:36 PM

That means your not practicing enough. If you play the same thing for an hour- it will be memorized. It's all about repetition and muscle memory... You can't just practice a little and hope for the best... You have to be consistent and work at it.

It will come with work!


From Mendy Smith
Posted via 72.90.121.245 on December 3, 2008 at 7:10 AM

Over the last year I have discovered that I can memorize music quite easily.  I never tried to do so, it just started happening.  What I've discovered is that when I practice a piece for a long while, memorization just seems to happen.  I find myself humming the piece at random moments at first.  Then over time, the music moves into my fingers on their own accord.  As far as I can tell, repetition is the ky to memorizaton like anything else.


From sharelle taylor
Posted via 123.200.243.114 on December 3, 2008 at 10:40 AM

I would respectfully disagree with Paul's opinion that you're not practising enough PM.

I think that when we start to learn a string instrument, there are many many things that we are memorising, not the least of which is the kinaesthetic memory for where in the heck our left and right limgs and hands are, and how to navigate the music.  

My own experience was that it took about 3 years of consistent practising before there was enough left in the memory stores to allow me to remember the music, adn like others who have replied here, then it just started happening.

I went from, at 18 months, not being able to memorise even 2 consecutive bars, despite determined attempts, to, 4  years of learning and realising I had memorised the entire 1st and 2nd movement of the Handel sonata in D maj, after only a few weeks of practise and without any specific intent to memorise. it hasn't been difficult at all to remember the 3rd and 4th movements subsequently, adn that includes shifts, fingering, bowing, dynamics. 

I think that you have to just allow that for a while, a LOT of attention has to be given to the technique learning, adn then that reaches some critical mass, and there is space left over to recall other facets of the music, including the score.

I think you have learnt a tremendous amount in a very short time, and you certainly have nothing to feel ashamed about, quite the opposite!

I agree with Elisabeth above, that visualising the piece away from the instrument leads to memorising.  I can visualise myself playing, sort of see the left and right ahands working together.  wherevere I reach a note that in memory I flub, you can be sure that its a section I haven't memorised and in fact often bluff though even with the score.  That's werhe I put my attention first when I come to practise with the instrument.

And in addtion to that, is learning how to break the diffiuclt to recall part down into the chunk the chunk before and the chunk after.  This seemed so obvious to me, and yet for ages it didn't help.  Lately my teacher has been instructing me on WHERE to breeak the chunks up, and it usually isn't where I have automatically done it - she can analyse the situation and knows where the error occurs, adn that has led to me understanding an analysing better as well. Afdter doing that chunk work, memory is pretty fixed up.


From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted via 71.184.114.154 on December 3, 2008 at 11:57 AM

Wow, there's more variation than I thought in whether memorizing "just happens" or not.  I thought it was rarer than this.  It doesn't happen to me, it takes concerted effort on my part and not just a general "more practicing," but practicing aimed at memorizing. 

Sharelle, that was an interesting reply.  I think you're right, there are a lot of things to memorize at the beginning, that may even just be unconscious, that you have to do before you can learn the rest of it.


From sharelle taylor
Posted via 123.200.243.114 on December 3, 2008 at 7:58 PM

Hi Karen, for me a practise with the intent of memorising usually doesn't have much effect except for entrenching those chunk problem rectifications - this might be as little as 4 notes, where I just don't imprint the correct shift finger, or direction of the bow without chunking.  Until I realised that, I would get so frustrated! I remember trying to remember ;) some little mendelssohn piece for the one and only exam I ever did [the one that goes da da da da da daa da, da-a da, da-a da, da da-a daaa].  It was about 30 bars long, and I dwelt on it for ages, and only ever got the that first line barely. Nothing worked, and now I realise it was because I had no mastery over any of it at all (teaching saga, all fixed)

Otherwise, I seem to do my memorising away from the instrument. 


From PM Rolf
Posted via 76.126.120.67 on December 4, 2008 at 5:47 AM

Sharelle, that's very interesting.  It's not that I can't memorize music, because I know I can still play Beethoven's pathetique on the piano and I honestly did not put in any effort in memorizing it. 

The violin, on the other hand, since it's a new instrument for me, there are alot of other things that kept my mind busy, keeping my bow straight, my elbow height, my stupid double jointed pinky curved, bow speed, intonation etc, my mind isn't really ready to memorize the music!

It is true, however, though, I will be able to play whatever piece I'm practicing (maybe half a page) from memory.  The thing is, I can't remember the fingering, I know how it sound like.  I would forget to shift (I had to shift because of the trills and turns, not because the note is high, if it's because of higher notes, I will remember to shift), I forget the bowing patterns too.  But I know how the piece sounds, so I would make up my own fingering which is totally wrong, and wrong bowing.  I rather not do this and mess up my practice at least in the initial stage of learning the piece!


From Paul G.
Posted via 75.169.224.5 on December 4, 2008 at 4:28 PM

Sorry Sharelle...

I just meant that's how I see it with myself. If I practice a piece enough, and regularly, it will become memorized. With being sick, I haven't practiced for four days... This is the first time since I picked up the violin that I missed a day, let alone for... There goes that record =(

So since I haven't been playing I'm probably going to lose half of my memorized repertoire!!


From sharelle taylor
Posted via 123.200.243.114 on December 4, 2008 at 8:34 PM

Paul: its cool :)  I wsn't personally offended, just offering a difference of opinion.

I wonder if you have a faster trajectory for assimilating  complex knowledge, and you are at an age where you can focus more intensely on some areas than perhaps an adult learner also, so you may not have noticed any difference in what you memorised when you have practised.  [I have been playing nearly 5 years, and have never managed to practise every day and in fact often have gone for a week recently, and months early on, because things just got in the way.] 

BTW, Paul, I hope you're feeling better soon, you've been badly under the weather haven't you.

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