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So, you think you have your piece memorized? Try these challenges!

Claire Allen

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Published: February 6, 2015 at 1:58 AM [UTC]

Memorization is an important aspect of performance. It's also the part of performance that people freak out about the most, at least among my students. Here are some tips both for basic memorization AND for those who are already memorized.

Memorization Basics

1. Start from the end. This way, you'll feel stronger and more secure as you go through your piece.

2. Start early. The first day you are working on a new piece, play a phrase twice with the music, then once without. Plan to memorize as you learn the piece.
Identify patterns and sections so you know both the large-scale and small-scale architecture of the piece.

3. Memorize in small pieces - start with a phrase, then add phrases together to make a section - rather than playing through the whole piece a lot and hoping the big pieces will fall into place.

4. Know the levels of memorization: aural (how the piece sounds), kinesthetic (how it feels to be playing the piece), and visual (what the piece looks like on the page).

Memorization Tests
So, you think you have your piece memorized? Well, can you...

...Play through your piece with NO memory slips or hesitations?

...Play your piece first thing in the morning, as soon as you wake up? No warmup, breakfast, no teeth brushing, just play your piece.

...Play your piece from memory in your concert shoes? Many of my students like to practice and have lessons in bare feet or socks, so practicing with the feeling of shoes is new.

...Play your piece with your eyes closed? No looking at your fingers, or at your music.

...Write out your piece on staff paper?

...Sing your piece while playing air violin? You still have to do all the right fingerings and bowings!

...March a steady pulse while playing your piece?

...Sit in one place, without moving your hands, close your eyes, and feel what it is like to play your piece from start to finish? Hear the sound you want your violin to make, feel the fingerings, feel the bowings, and imagine yourself playing.

...Play your piece after watching an episode of your favorite tv show? It can be challenging to switch your brain from relaxed-on-the-couch mode to focus/performance mode.

...Play your piece with distractions? Ask your family to make noise by coughing, whispering or talking to each other, unwrapping snacks, and making noise with their phones. If you don't have some distraction assistants handy, try setting timers on your mobile devices to go off at random intervals while you're playing.

...Play your piece before you go to bed, when you're completely exhausted and feel like your brain doesn't work anymore?

The reality is that very few of our performances will take place in ideal situations. We need to make sure that our pieces are so deeply ingrained in our ears, our memories, and our bodies that we can perform under any circumstances!

Originally posted on my website.

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From Trevor Jennings
Posted on February 6, 2015 at 9:29 PM
Section 3 of the advice is actually how Irish folk musicians often learn their tunes by ear. Most Irish folk tunes are usually learnt in 2-bar chunks because that is how the phrasing works - a 2-bar "question" followed by a 2-bar "answer" is a favorite format with class lessons. Most classes can learn a 32-bar tune fairly reliably in under an hour by this method.

Although the music is taught entirely by ear, the tutor can provide a print version or a link in case the lesson has evaporated by the next morning! That last sentence isn't entirely a joke - it's not uncommon for a student to be unable to recall the tune the next day or even an hour or so after the class. Note I didn't say "forget" because forgetting isn't the same as failure to recall, but the interesting thing is that the "forgotten" tune suddenly reappears in all its perfection in the student's head a few days or even weeks later when it is least expected. Must be the old subconscious doing its work.

From Paul Deck
Posted on February 6, 2015 at 9:31 PM
Nice post, Claire, many useful ideas to choose from.

Hmm, I wonder if memorization is addressed in any of Simon Fischer's books.

Something interesting happened to me. My daughter prepared the Haydn G Major Concerto, First Movement, for a recital. She played it great. I accompanied her on the piano, so I know the accompaniment part quite well. Then, I decided to prepare the violin part for a recital, and I've got it mostly polished and well memorized. Or so I thought. Now, I can't accompany myself in performance, so I found another pianist to help me. But in the rehearsal, and unfortunately in my "warm up performance" before a smaller group, somehow the piano freaked me out and I made a mistake (both times in the same spot, right before the cadenza). Another rehearsal before my main performance, focusing on that spot, should be sufficient, but it was still weird. And the accompanist did not make a mistake either, she played it fine.

That said, perhaps to add to your list, can you play through your piece from memory with your accompanist making a few horrific mistakes or blowing a couple of page turns causing them to drop out entirely for a few bars? In addition to being a memory (concentration) test it's also a realistic scenario in performance conditions.

From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on February 7, 2015 at 5:42 AM
I like your question: "Have you memorized how it looks on the page?" I have been working on perfecting a piece for a few months now, and although I know where the different sections begin on the page, I play it better when I look at the music because I see the problem areas coming up and plan how to play them. When I'm not looking at the music, they catch me off guard.

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