memorization dos and don'ts

Edited: March 27, 2018, 1:19 PM · I am playing in a studio recital in about five weeks. I'll be playing a concerto movement with piano accompaniment.

I've been working on the concerto for a while and it's going reasonably well. My teacher has suggested playing from memory at the recital. I've never done this in a recital, though I spent many years playing in rock bands (all from memory).

The movement is fairly short and uncomplicated, and I can pretty much sing the solo viola part start to finish. Actually *playing* it from memory is much different :-)

I've just started the memorization process in the past couple of days; I've played along with a recording of the piano accompaniment, which I can speed up/slow down as needed, and I've also tried playing with just the metronome. I'm surprised at how distracting this can be!. You'd never know that I spent years playing by ear/from memory - some of my mistakes are that dumb. I find that I am trying to remember what the music looks like and "read" it from a picture in my mind. When I make a mistake, I get stuck looking at that picture, trying to figure out what I did wrong, even after the moment has passed. Something tells me this might not be a good habit :-)

I realize that I've just started the memorization process so I'm not too discouraged yet, but any tips you might have (as well as suggestions of things *not* to do) would be most appreciated.

Replies (29)

March 27, 2018, 1:46 PM · I think the photographic-memory approach to memorizing isn't very effective, especially under stressful conditions.

To me, memorization is a combination of aural and kinesthetic skills. The whole piece needs to exist in your mind, which means mentally hearing the accompaniment and not just the solo part. And you should be able to visualize how you're playing it as your remember it auditorily -- the way it feels to play the whole thing.

March 27, 2018, 2:05 PM · Hi Karen,

May I ask what 'memory technique' you used in your 'rock days'? And why isn't it (if it isn't that is) working now?

A few weeks back I raised this subject of recalling music notes and made the point that I created a 'Memory Palace' to remember and call to mind when needed a particular music score. But my idea wasn't accepted generally.

However, if something works it works and the goal is to get hold of something that works, right?

Edited: March 27, 2018, 2:44 PM · I never play from memory! Seven months from now will mark the 80th anniversary of the birthday I received my first violin - I cannot remember standing in front of an audience to play from memory.. There are a few pieces I have known well enough to play from memory, just from "overwork.". The last time I performed standing in front of an orchestra I essentially played from memory, but I had the music in front of me anyway. I was going to do it from memory, but chickened out.

You could do that!

If you had more time before this recital I would suggest trying some pre-recitals from memory - or at least starting from memory with the music right there - for moral support.

By the way, which movement will you be playing from which viola concerto?

March 27, 2018, 2:55 PM · Karen, I don't know my experience will be helpful to you for your upcoming recital, but here is what I'm doing. I start to play from memory as soon as I start a new piece: I'll learn some chunks and walk away from the music stand practice, often in front of a mirror or look out of the window to listen how to sound cleaner and more musically appropriate. So basically I'd have all the notes in my hand and all the details in my head way before the time I've learned the piece. If I have to look at the music during my lesson, I consider my work is under-prepared. That does happen from time to time and I don't feel it's the best use of my lesson time.

A downside of this approach is that sometimes I would overlook something on the sheet music and need to take some time to undo it. But then this can happen even if one looks at the music all the time, as we don't always see what we are looking at. I believe that most of us can't fully concentrate on more than one thing at one time -- you either completely focus on your playing or on what's written on the sheet music but not both. I suspect it's psychological that people need music during performance something they've already learned.

March 27, 2018, 3:27 PM · For me, it is very helpful to visualize. Look at a measure and play it once. Then, look away and try to visualize the music, imagining seeing the paper and notes. It also helps to listen to it a bunch!
March 27, 2018, 4:21 PM · Thank you all for your responses so far. I will have more time later to answer your questions, but I will add this: I know the piece well enough that I barely look at the music when it's in front of me (this sometimes leads to some interesting "where was I" moments). Having the music there is mostly a security blanket.
Edited: March 27, 2018, 5:35 PM · What I do and teach my kid (and was likely taught) to memorize a piece is to break it down by the natural phrases in the pieces. Re-learn the piece phrase by phrase but now focusing on the feel of the notes - your hand position, the bow strokes, the expression you want to convey. Once familiar enough you should be able to close your eyes and play from “feel” (aural and kinesthic memory as Lydia says.)

Most people memorize music aurally (by ear), not visually recalling the score. It’s probably to same way you’ve learned to play the rock music by memory, “by ear”.

Listen to the recording, day and night. As you are falling asleep is a great way to absorb it. (but if you fall asleep quickly, try starting the recording in the middle too.) This helps prevent the “where was I” moments.

If you are worried about forgetting the notes, you can leave the music in front of you and open your eyes if you forget, while practicing.

If you are still working the piece up to tempo, while working on memorization, use the metronome, learn to play with it. Start slow, slow enough you can play everything correctly.

There is the old saying: If you learn (memorize) a piece fast, you forget it fast. If you learn it slow, you forget it slow.

Playing scales with your eyes closed will also help. It helps your body and ear realize what your body does to produce a particular note and it’s characteristics.

My kid gets flustered sometimes learning a new piece, so I have him close his eyes and play. It fixes so many problems when we are focused on the playing and not the notes on the page, or how things look. It helps a lot with nerves if you can close your eyes and play too.

Playing by memory also leaves the mind free to focus on expression. It is why most soloists play signature pieces by memory. It’s a level of mastery that can’t be achieved unless your brain isn’t busied with reading the music.

Good luck at the recital!

March 27, 2018, 6:26 PM · There are so many things to think about and to try. But ... if you want to be able to play pieces at recitals from memory, then there has to be a first time. And it will not be perfect. But it'll be fine anyway. I suggest you divide the piece into chunks mentally. Rehearsal letters/numbers are good for this. Then decide I'll play section C now, and play that section. Also it is good to try to play it with some distraction such as the piano accompaniment or even just ordinary noises of home.
March 27, 2018, 9:53 PM · It’s worth memorizing. There is nothing like carrying the music around with you all the time, and the satisfaction and accomplishment of making it through with no major memory slips is something you’ll have forever.
Edited: March 27, 2018, 11:10 PM · One thing I've learned from pro-oriented young players in our community conservatory is that they would practice their reps whenever they get a chance. This means that they would practice these passages from memory before and between rehearsals or during social time. It's very handy when we can practice things we are working on anywhere and any time we can get. Doing so it also helps us to play imperfectly in front of others without being self-conscious, a very healthy attitude that adult players should cultivate.
Edited: March 28, 2018, 6:30 AM · If you have a piece so thoroughly in your memory so that you can "play it in your sleep", then it's probably not a good idea to have the sheet music in front of you when you're performing. It's possible you may make little unexpected mistakes, slightly unnerving perhaps but not disastrous. I think the reason for this is that the memory part of the brain is quite happily organizing your hands and fingers without much input from you, but if you start reading from the score when you're playing from memory then the brain finds it has another task, that of reading the music from the score and instructing the fingers. I believe this causes a brain circuitry conflict between the two tasks of playing from memory and sight-reading, resulting in the aforesaid unexpected little mistakes. That has been my experience in folk music workshops where some of the sheet music placed on my stand was already deep in my repertoire.

If you're in a community orchestra, which will typically have anything from 6 rehearsals upwards, then you may find you've memorized large tracts without realizing it - that is until you're in a concert and your stand collapses (happened to me once) or there are serious page-turning issues (thank you, certain nameless publishers!) and you find that your memory takes over quite efficiently. I'm sure many orchestral players have had this sort of experience.

An example par excellence of what memory is capable of is in this clip:
The Portuguese concert pianist Maria Joao Pires expected to be playing Mozart's K467 concerto in a public lunchtime concert in Amsterdam (no prior rehearsal) but then the orchestra started off with K466 instead. Pires looked stunned, as she well might, but she pulled K466 up from her memory (she hadn't played it for a long time) to give a faultless performance. I think the root cause of this incident was probably something no more than a typo in an email.

March 28, 2018, 7:04 AM · I take the same approach as Yixi. Once I learn a section of a piece, I would polish it away from the stand. By the time the piece is polished to an acceptable standard ( for an amateur), it is memorized.
March 28, 2018, 7:34 AM · I agree with Trevor about not having the sheet music in front of you if you're performing from memory. Play from memory or play from the music, but don't try to mix. What happens too often is that the performer is going along just fine by memory, then has a moment of doubt, decides to look at the music just for confirmation, can't find where on the music he/she is, and then the trainwreck ensues.
Edited: March 28, 2018, 8:06 AM · Trevor, I've heard that story but never seen the video before. Her reaction at the beginning is stunning (and the conductor: oh, you'll be fine, don't worry! LOL). Once she gets going, though, it's humorous to watch her play the music calmly, and then during the rests the stressed look returns, and she alternates back and forth several times=)

EDIT: I'll add that I'm now a little stressed out (sweaty palms, etc) after watching her reaction and imagining being in the same situation. Musical empathy!

March 28, 2018, 10:26 AM · Playing from memory forces you to learn the piece! For me, playing from memory vs. from the paper probably uses different parts of the brain. No matter how many repetitions I have done looking at the paper, memorizing is like starting over again. Start with small chunks, when you make a mistake, stop, look at the paper, but then look away before re-starting.
March 28, 2018, 10:57 AM · Mary Ellen Goree: "What happens too often is that the performer is going along just fine by memory, then has a moment of doubt, decides to look at the music just for confirmation, can't find where on the music he/she is, and then the trainwreck ensues."

Ha! You've just described what happens to me, only with the image of the music in my mind (not on the stand in front of me). Having the image of the music in my mind is not something I'm trying to do; it just happens. And as you say, in a moment of doubt I refer back to this picture, and whoops, trainwreck. Sometimes I even linger to inspect the wreckage :-)

I am only a few days into this process and I'm hoping to get better as time goes by. If picturing the music is a bad habit, I'd like to break it before it gets too ingrained.

Edited: March 28, 2018, 1:21 PM · Still pressed for time today, but to answer some of your questions:

1) (will brooks) May I ask what 'memory technique' you used in your 'rock days'? And why isn't it (if it isn't that is) working now?:

I didn't use any technique. I just knew how the songs went, and I also knew the key signature/time signature/chord progression, and I knew my way around my instrument (not viola) really well. After hearing a song enough times, I knew it. I thought everyone did this until I met someone who couldn't. And to be honest, the songs were shorter and more repetitive than the music I play now.

2) (Andrew Victor) By the way, which movement will you be playing from which viola concerto?

The first movement of the Zelter viola concerto (plus long-ish Beyer cadenza)

3) (Yixi Zhang) One thing I've learned from pro-oriented young players in our community conservatory is that they would practice their reps whenever they get a chance. This means that they would practice these passages from memory before and between rehearsals or during social time.

Funny you mention that. I have heard people say that it's considered a breach of etiquette to practice solo rep during, say, breaks in orchestra rehearsal. I do play in an amateur orchestra, but I don't want to be *that* person :-)

March 30, 2018, 12:41 PM · Here is an update, after four days of memorization-practice.

I have a recording of the piano accompaniment. I've played the movement (from memory) with the recording at least twice each day. If I screw up, there is no stopping - I just go on. I haven't played for any people yet, but I did once make my dogs listen, and I bowed and faced them as if they were the audience (they weren't impressed). I have also played the movement through with just a metronome.

The movement is very easily broken down into discrete (and pretty short) solo sections. Each day, I've dedicated a chunk of practice time to one or two sections - playing from memory, working to tempo, also trying to include the appropriate dynamics/bowing/etc.

The first few days of this went really well, but now doubt is creeping in. There is a lot of downtime in this piece, so I spend a lot of the tutti sections standing around second-guessing myself or worrying "what if I mess up X?". I find I make mistakes I wasn't making before, and if they occur early enough in the piece I think "oh, I've blown it already". Is the memorization process linear, or is it normal to have up and down days just like any practice day?

Also, in pieces that have lots of downtime, what on earth do you do besides stand there?

April 2, 2018, 4:55 PM · I'm bumping this not to be a pest, but to ask again whether it's too optimistic to expect this memorization process to be linear (i.e., up-up-up), or whether off-days are normal. After a day or so of doubt, I had a few days where I played well from memory. Today I played from memory for my teacher (for the first time), but I had a few lapses, and my playing sounded generally worse. Are off days to be expected? It's not too late for me to go back to playing from the music.
April 2, 2018, 7:49 PM · Karen, I do think it's too optimistic to expect any learning process to be linear, but the doubt's also not helpful. My old teacher used to say we don't even think about doubt or playing badly. We don't want to go on stage with those feelings, as we don't want to project that on the audience. That said it's not all about positive thinking, but positive thinking backed up by very thorough preparation. My teacher also said the piece needed long enough to "bake". So I wouldn't worry about ups and downs, but you have to give it enough time and careful attention.
April 2, 2018, 8:32 PM · Playing from memory in the comfort of your home is very different from playing from memory in front of your teacher or someone else whom you know will be critical. You know your dogs will love you no matter what. You're comparing apples and oranges here.

I recommend acquiring and reading "The Inner Game of Music," if you haven't already. It's the very best book I've seen on the psychology of performance.

(Also, yes, practicing solo rep during rehearsal breaks is rude and inconsiderate. Don't do it.)

April 2, 2018, 8:58 PM · Karen and Mary Ellen, very good point about playing solo rep during rehearsal breaks. Yes, I understand this is unprofessional. Still, I admire the young musicians who would take whatever opportunity they get to practice in public. And I kind of believe that goofing around a bit from time to time does no harm after all the hard serous work one has put into what is expected of us to do.

BTW Karen, are you interested in join the Summer String Academy here at the Victoria Conservatory of Music this summer? I hope so. Registration has already started.

April 2, 2018, 9:05 PM · Sidetrack, but the problem with playing solo rep during rehearsal breaks isn't that the offending musician is "goofing around." It's that everyone else who is also on break is having their peace disturbed.

Rehearsal breaks are necessary to maintain a high level of concentration during the rest of rehearsal, and being forced to listen to somebody playing the opening of the Brahms concerto at triple fff is the opposite of a break. It's neither restful nor restorative.

Sorry, carry on.

April 3, 2018, 2:30 AM · I think there's two types of solo playing in break: 1) showing off (please don't, everyone will hate you), and 2) someone really pressed for time for practice and trying to solve a technical problem discreetly (doesn't bother me, I find it fascinating to hear how your brain is working at the problem). Although personally I would find Yixi's scenario to fall into category 1...

For me, I find to perform by memory with confidence, I must be able to practice it by memory at ease but with the mindset of being on the concert stage. It's very easy to go into autopilot in the practice room, and then freak out on the stage. All the phrasing and bowings decisions are my roadmap. If my mind starts to wander into self-doubt about notes, then I'm in danger. Focusing on my tone, checking with my body in places where they tend to get tense, reacting to other musicians if I'm playin with someone else, all these mental directions keep on me focused on things that'll help me instead of self-doubt, which is not very helpful.


Don't have music in front as security blanket. Either do it by memory or read from music.

The photographic memory approach: wow, maybe you're like a real-life Seiji Ozawa myth. Props to you if you can actually do that. I'm sure plenty of brain scientists would want to study your head...


Know where you derail. Especially in Bach...and especially in his's so easy to loop back on a similar figure. Have done it on stage and it's awful. Know those spots and just commit the fingerings to your analytical memory and don't just rely muscle memory in those danger spots.

April 3, 2018, 6:57 AM · Sometimes when a student is struggling with taking the wrong memory track on a similar-but-not-quite-identical phrase, I will have them play the first iteration just up to where the phrases differ, pause, announce out loud the next note (or fingering, or string--whatever helps the student most), and finish the phrase--then do exactly the same thing with the second iteration. This is one method of getting those similar figures into the student's analytical memory as Dorian recommends.
Edited: April 3, 2018, 8:17 AM · Noa Kageyam's "Wish You Were a Better Memorizer? Why a Little Bit of Verbalization"is very interesting too.
April 3, 2018, 10:55 AM · I am at a very basic level in my playing right now, but almost everything I've learned had the intent of eventual memorization. In an Irish folk music session people seldom bring music along to look at. It's kinda tacky to do so. Granted much of the music isn't terribly difficult when compared to some classical music violin solos.

My method has been to look at the notation and learn it, then switch to ways I could tie in my motor responses and remember them so I then begin to associate the tune with finger moves instead of notation. Some tunes are easier to do that with than others.
Recently my teacher has been trying me out learning entirely by memory and only then looking at notation. This hasn't gone too well so far.I can play it with her ok during practice. By myself though I find I'm needing the notation as the start point and then I pull away from it to the finger positions.
Memory is all about association. If you can associate the same thing in a sequence every time you have it down.
Like Mary said, I can't switch back and forth. It takes away mental focus for me. I prefer the notation in the beginning though as a blueprint for the whole idea.

April 3, 2018, 12:10 PM · I find that thinking too hard about how it's done makes it harder. Concentration, deliberation, but not being too consciously analytical, makes it go faster for me. It'll happen anyway if one practices enough.. I recall an old story about a centipede who started to analyze in what order he ought to place his feet, and ended up by not being able to walk. Self-doubt will make you freeze in performance.
April 3, 2018, 1:00 PM · I think sometimes we might not practice in the same way when we are attempting to memorize. Like, the spots that need work regardless of whether you have music in front of you, those should be practiced slowly, in rhythms and all the other stuff you normally do to really nail a section, but all away from the music.

I think a possible check for if something is really committed, is if you can play through that section in your head, imagining all the motions, or at the very least, the left hand work. If you draw a blank somewhere, that may be an indication of a place that needs more work.

Also, if you get some rehearsals with the pianist (rather than with the tape, which sounds like a great tool), that raises the stakes a bit too, so you can really get a sense of what needs fortifying, because stuff that didn't mess with you in practice or with the tape will be a bit more vulnerable with the pianist.

I'm trying to transition to memorizing my etudes, which I've kind of done in the past, but generally chickened out on for lessons.

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