I’ve been at my parents’ house for a week, dog sitting my fur-sister, Maxine, so I’ve had a lot of time for practice! However, I’m a little on edge because I have a lot of music to memorize, which includes a full concerto and Bach’s C Major Fugue. This has given me a great opportunity to confront one of my greatest musical fears, and try to develop strategies that work for me in terms of memorizing all of this music.
I would like to preface my writing by saying that I am simply sharing what I have found works for me, and if you have other memorization strategies that you prefer, by all means stick to those. I hope that by sharing what I have learned so far, it will help and/or inspire others to also memorize their pieces without anxiety.
Strategy #1: Writing in the Music: Less is More
I’m one of those people who writes in their music a lot, mostly when I’m first learning a piece. But, I had a realization the other day that after awhile, I’m not even reading what I wrote in the music! It becomes extra information for my brain to process while I’m playing, and most of it isn’t even helpful. Honestly, I think most of the time, all of my extra writing actually detracts from my concentration and overwhelms my brain, even though the ideas are essentially helpful.
A couple of thoughts if you also have this habit: make an extra copy of your music from the start so that you can mark it up at first, but once you internalize the ideas quickly wean yourself off of it, adding only markings that you deem essential to the real copy of your music. Or, have a separate medium like a journal where you can write your ideas for each piece so that you have an outlet for your thoughts, which doesn’t sacrifice the music in front of you. I’ve found that when I switch to a cleaner copy of music when I’m attempting to memorize it, I already have a better outlook because there’s just less information that I feel I need to internalize. If we start from this point of a clean score, this could help greatly with our brains’ willingness to memorize what’s on the page from the start.
Strategy #2: Develop a Mental Roadmap
In something like unaccompanied Bach, I feel like it is absolutely essential to have a mental roadmap of the movement before you attempt to memorize it. This can be done without your instrument; what I have started doing is just writing out a list of sections in ways that make sense to me, and, especially in the case of solo Bach, knowing how they differ when things repeat.
For example, I’ll think to myself “this exact passage of chords appeared on the first page, but since it repeats on the third page, I need to remember that the second time I play a 3rd finger on the D string instead of a 1st finger on the E string to keep myself going in the right direction and avoid looping back to the beginning.” For things like this, I will use an (erasable!) colored pencil to visually show me how these passages differ, and what the important pivotal aspects are for me to remember. These are also places where I like to picture the music in my head, which is a general memorization strategy that I use a lot.
For something like the Prokofiev Concerto that I'm currently in the process of memorizing, I use a similar general technique of memorizing specific patterns and how things change, but I tend to refer to an overall structure of the movement in my head and tend to go by larger sections, so that I know which section comes next. This leads into the next memorization strategy; chunking.
Strategy #3: Chunking
The last year of my Masters degree in San Francisco, I took a wonderful class entitled “Training the Musical Brain,” taught by a neuroscientist who is also a conservatory-trained vocalist. One of the biggest memorization strategies we discussed was chunking, which is basically just as it sounds; memorizing things in chunks. This cuts down on the amount of material our brains have to process separately, and lets us retain more information by sorting it into groups.
You can observe immediate effects of this strategy by looking at a string of, say, sixteen numbers, and realizing that it takes a lot longer to memorize each number on its own than by grouping them into groups of four, 4-digit numbers. A way to apply this strategy to memorizing music is by practicing chunks of sections of a piece in isolation. But, when using this strategy, make sure that you put them back into the context of the piece fairly quickly so that the chunks/sections are not isolated in your head for too long. This is also a great way to play through & review the bigger part of that piece as a whole.
Strategy #4: Plan, Plan, Plan
Especially when memorizing a piece, it’s a good idea to have review material and new material in each practice session. A way that I accomplish this is by outlining a plan for the next session at the end of my current practice session; that way, I don’t get stuck in any one part of the piece for too long. It’s super easy to practice the first two pages a million times, and completely neglect the rest of the piece.
What I like to do is start by reviewing something new that I had covered in the previous practice session, and after solidifying that a bit more, continue by beginning to memorize the next new section of music, then finish by playing through a large chunk of music from that same piece, some review, some new material from that session. Have a goal for material that you would like to have covered by the end of that practice session; if you get there, great! If it takes you longer than you anticipated, no problem; know that you’ll reach that goal by the end of the next session or two, and that there’s no need to feel anxious. This is another reason that it is really important to start early in the memorization process, if possible!
I hope that these strategies that I am sharing help those of you who also struggle with memorization. My piece of advice is to start today! Don’t let it scare you; the earlier you start, the more time you have to work. Your goals don’t have to be huge at the beginning; even if you memorize one line each day, know that you’re making progress towards your goal and that’s significant. Happy practicing (oh yeah, and happy holidays)!
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