Memorizing everything

January 8, 2007 at 08:40 PM · I've started noticing that I seem to play much better when I know a piece by heart and can concentrate on contact point and staying parallel to the bridge otherwise I've discovered through videos that I tend to bow in a circle--and while it may have served Oistrakh I think I'd better get it right first!

So my basic question is should I memorize everything? Sevcik too???

Replies (35)

January 8, 2007 at 09:40 PM · Don't say memorize... it's not a memory thing.

I think all really great musicians of this website has to agree, you don't EVER memorize everything.

It's actually a mix of "feelings", "muscle memory", and "general understanding" ie. the Bach Chac. has three parts.

Otherwise, you don't memorize. If you do, then there exists such a thing as a memory slip.

And seriously... You play way way better, when you feel the music and just expound it like it's a thought in your head being spoken with the most poetic or appropriate of words.


January 8, 2007 at 10:08 PM · Memorize Sevcik? Good heavens, save the space in your brain for something better than that...

As you said, the more you have memorized, the more it frees you up to think about other things (and not "hey, what note comes next?") I find that when I study a piece to the point of having it very polished, it winds up being 80-90% memorized anyway, without making a special effort. I wouldn't worry about it too much if there's something that's particularly confusing to memorize and you need the sheet music for that, unless you need to memorize for some reason.

Of course, if you're studying with Auer it would probably be in your best interest to memorize. :^)

Regarding Sevcik, actually, rather than memorizing the exercises in detail, it's probably better to break down the exercise and figure out what the point of it is -- a particular set of finger patterns, finger extensions, shifts of particular intervals, or whatever. Then you can construct your own Sevcik-like etudes for dealing with a particular technical situation as necessary.

January 8, 2007 at 10:39 PM · Hi Jay,

Of course you don't have to memorize Sevcik! Those exercises are meant to be short and repetitive so that you can look at your bow or fingers while playing what's on the page.

As far as memorizing pieces goes, however, I would say a definite yes. The funny thing about memorizing (for me, at least) is that when you learn a piece well, it seems to come naturally by memory. Basically, stay with the music until you're ready to go without it. You'll feel secure when the time is right.



January 8, 2007 at 10:47 PM · Greetings,

I agree with all the comments above. However, I would add a slant to the coonection between sevcik type exercises and memory. I think all this kind of work is counter productive without maximum mentla application. In order to do this it is , in my opinion, helpful to memorize whast one is about to practice in great deal without the instrument, even if it only one bar long.

My studemts do a lot of Schradieck and eveyrtime I give them a new exercise they are asked to break it down and describe it in a smany ways as possible away from the instrument befor eplaying it without the music.

Ibleive this approach, that in tehcnical work of a rater dry nature one shoudl never be lookiugn at music, is highly beneficial and has the effect of oincreasing the general efficienyof one`s memory as a bonus.



January 8, 2007 at 11:22 PM · Saussmanhaus uses P.O.'s idea of breaking etudes down and using them for specific problems.

It's totally agreeable, and similar to my point -- you should be able to remember all this stuff just by preparing it well. And unlike the 80-90%, I would say 100% if the work is practiced, detailed, efficient, and reconstructed well.


January 9, 2007 at 05:37 AM · I probably should have said 80-100%, depending on the piece, as some are straightforward, and others are unusually confusing. The part that doesn't come automatically for me is starting in the middle of a passage rather than at a more convenient landmark, unless I've made an effort to really memorize.

By the way, a memory exercise that I discovered once by accident (I'm sloppy about throwing things on the music stand) is to take a page of something you're learning and cover up half of it (the right side, say) with a sheet of paper, then play it, reading the uncovered part and playing the covered part from memory.

January 8, 2007 at 11:48 PM · Most blanket rules like "memorize everything" are bad ideas. However, I do find that playing things from memory helps a lot. I'm a very visual person and if I always play with music, sometimes I end up just putting my fingers down without any of the music actually going through my head (you know how you can read a page of a book out loud while thinking about something else completely?). For example, I tend to play all fingerings and bowing that are marked, but if I look away from the music I'll discover that something else is actually more natural and comfortable. I wouldn't try to memorize etudes as a whole, but when I work on my Kreutzer I try to memorize a few measures at a time so I can work on them without looking at the music.

January 8, 2007 at 11:52 PM · I'm sorry. I can't remember your question. What was it again?

January 9, 2007 at 12:02 AM · Well....I have a different opinion than most people on this board, I think.

As for memorizing non-performance music, I believe that one usually does that anyway, and I look away from the music quite a lot to look at my hands, arms,...well, all of the body. Whether in the mirror or not. Yes, it is usually patterns and repetitious-type phrases or blocks.

But for performing, I always use my music. That doesn't mean I don't memorize it. I usually do memorize, especially unaccompanied pieces such as Bach. I usually try to play it in front of a few kind friends/family using memory. However, when it comes to the time to perform on stage, I use my music. I used to think of this as a weakness, something that must be overcome, as it is generally accepted that one must memorize for important performances.

I have played pieces in recital from memory before...not very difficult ones. And usually memorize cadenzas. But I, personally, usually need the music there....mentally...for focus...many reasons.

I'm not ashamed of that need anymore. Memorizing a piece is part of the learning process of the piece. Playing without the music gives more insight and a different approach. I think it is part of the process, though. Not an end goal.

Anyway. the question was about memorizing everything. I guess it depends on what you are much different music you have at a long one spends on a specific etude, how many books working out of at once. Everyone's teacher works it a bit differently, or professional kind of flexes around a bit depending on performance and rehearsal schedules.

So there isn't really an answer that can be right for everyone as "yes" or "no".


January 9, 2007 at 12:17 AM · Let's just say after seeing the urtexts you kind of don't want to memorize Auer's editions. I'll leave it at that.

January 9, 2007 at 12:57 AM · In my lessons, we are required to memorize everything we bring in to her. Usually, for an etude, we bring it in with music and work on the techniques that are emphasized and pinpointed in that etude. Then, she'll hear it memorized the next week. She doesn't want us to only think of them as etudes, but also as pieces. That way we are not only building some techniques but we are building our musicality and our performance capabilities. I've never done Sevcik or any short exercises with her, so I've never had to memorize those, but I've definitely memorized them now from repeating them in every warm-up. We also have to memorize anything we play in front of the class, which again helps with your performance capabilities. You would never play an etude with an orchestra, but the more you "memorize" and experience the feeling of being in front of people with no notes in front of you, the better you'll be when you have to play solo Bach or a concerto.

January 9, 2007 at 01:11 AM · Memorisation can have many benefits. One of the major ones I can think of is if you're working on a new etude each week, if you're memorising the one you did last week as you're studying the new one, then you're getting used to the memorisation process so that it comes second nature. This way, when you get around to memorising that concerto, it's second nature to you and it comes easily.

We practice bowing, we practice fingerings, why shouldn't we practice memorisation?

January 9, 2007 at 03:23 AM · Am I the only one who can't get through an etude in a week?

Usually, if I can truly play it, it's already memorized.

January 9, 2007 at 04:29 AM · Personally if I haven't memorized it, that means I haven't learned it, and should probably not be playing it for my teacher, much less in public.

January 9, 2007 at 05:23 AM · Memorize is such a horrible word.

Grossman, I think you're chasing a dream that will never come true. You never get through etudes. They are stuck with you for life, unless you lose your arm and then I don't know what happens after that. Maybe there is an etude tribunal that reconsiders your fate and fortunes.

Etudes... ick, "a curse" I think was the right description from a friend of mine.


January 9, 2007 at 06:26 AM · This is an interesting area for me, but not for the reasons implied by the question. I use to actually learn by memorization--measure by measure because my sight reading was pretty much non-existent.

Then on violin I began reading 'fairly' well, and it continues to improve. Now, I'm having problems making myself memorize anything!. Some of the comments about repetition ingraining into memory hit home; and, like the Boccherini I'm finding I've memorized, but nothing like I use to do--sort of like I didn't realize I was learning it?

I value the strengths and places my memory took me over the years. I usually play from a list from memory. So God only knows how this is going to pan out.

Finally, the music you really value, I have to believe you will not only memorize, but make your own forever and ever. It works this way for me: Anything I've forgotten, I'll just relax, and it comes back to me over a little time--or it hasn't failed yet.

So, I think memorization for it's own sake; and, no not as an end, is a good thing. When we're 90 this will become evident ;).

January 9, 2007 at 07:13 AM · Vince, to clarify, I wasn't dreaming about etudes. It was an idea forced into my brain by more than one person who uses the phrase "etude of the week" or something like that. I gnaw etudes rather slowly. They taste leathery.

January 9, 2007 at 09:25 AM · Greetings,

a well chewed etude should not be eschewed,


except by a prude...

January 9, 2007 at 04:17 PM · I caught Hilary Hahn/Valentina Lisitsa's recital here on Sunday. Miss H. played everything by heart. The pianist used music. The program was Janacek Sonata, Mozart K. 305, Tartini "Devil's Trill", Ysaye "Obsession" and the "Kreutzer" Sonata.

This was the first recital I have ever been to that was played all from memory. So is this now the norm for chamber music?

Then again, I was at a performance Friday night of the Berg Concerto where the violinist (not Miss H.) used music.

January 9, 2007 at 05:31 PM · Buri--SHame, shame!!!


January 9, 2007 at 05:32 PM · When I grew up all recitals were done from memory and I only remember seeing music used for the Brahms double and the Beethoven Triple--otherwise it was memory.


January 9, 2007 at 05:36 PM · i can only speak about beginner level stuff, based on the experinece of one, um, may be one and one half. memorization is fine but it should come more naturally. many beginners (one in particular) sometimes manage to "memorize" the entire piece rather quickly but fail to really take in all the finer details...miss a crescendo here, an accent there...before you know it, it becomes a mess.

i think it is a good policy to return to the scores frequently even if the piece is already committed to memory. trust no one, not even yourself:)

January 9, 2007 at 05:51 PM · OUU... there you go.

Hilary even admits that she is old school. Maybe she was thinking that when she decided and thought, "hey, I'm going to show off and play everything from memory -- and then some schmo on is going to think, 'Hilary even admits that she is old school.' Then I'll be known for it -- woo hoo! More slow practice for me!"

That witch! Oh by the way, Hilary does some of the most DETAILED practice regiments; plus she's probably played these pieces hundreds of times. I'm sure if it were a new Tan Dun piece or something, she'd have music in front of her -- for security.


January 9, 2007 at 05:53 PM · Oh by the way? how was the second movement of obsession? so pretty...

January 9, 2007 at 05:50 PM · There was something I was going to say here, but I forgot what it was.

Oh, yes, now I remember. As has been noted, there are different kinds of memory. This includes the kinesthetic or physical memory of the movement of the fingers, auditory memory, and so forth.

But what we usually think of when we talk about memory is visual memory - memorizing the page of music visually. Most people have a decent enough facility to memorize visually that it becomes a useful tool.

However, I don't. My visual memory is very poor. I can hardly remember what a room looks like when I leave it. Yet I never had a problem memorizing music - in every other way but visually.

Go figure.

Cordially, Sandy

January 9, 2007 at 06:08 PM · > trust no one, not even yourself:)

No, no. It's "trust, but verify"!

January 9, 2007 at 06:13 PM · ok peter, feeling agreeable today....verify no one, not even yourself:)

January 9, 2007 at 09:39 PM · Sandy...

That's what I meant, I think...can't remember.

Anyway. That is the issue I have with memorzing for performances.

Some people just don't have very strong memory skills. It is just one of those things that differ from person to person.

The violin world often does not have much leniency or relaxation of "rules" for people who learn or function in anything less than at the accepted standards, in the accepted fashion. That can be really frustrating.

Being mostly an orchestral musician, giving recitals for enjoyment and pleasure, I really have not had any situation where I HAD to play without music.

It might help some people, but others really are handicapped in their performance without visual cues.



January 9, 2007 at 10:07 PM · Jennifer, though I'm a memory person, I can imagine a world where the music in front of me helps with performance jitters. I intend to use that little epiphany...

January 10, 2007 at 12:00 AM · I'm a bit stunned at the amount of response to what I thought was a relatively uncomplicated question. As a singer in an opera I always had to memorize my music and my lines so although I was rather expecting people to tell me to just bite the bullet and memorize I'm a bit taken aback by the wide variety of opinions. Thank you!

January 10, 2007 at 12:00 AM · Is it really true that most people memorize music visually? Wow, I hadn't considered that before.

I had thought I was sort of average in my ability to remember music. Not good, not horrible, but with some weird, somewhat useless, savant-ish tendencies to be able to remember 20- and 30-year-old orchestral violin parts virtually note-for-note (that Anton Stamitz viola concerto in D comes to mind. I remember almost the entire first movement of the first violin tutti part, and the last time I played the piece or even thought about it at all until recently was 1983).

Nonetheless I think that when I do make the effort to commit a piece to memory it does help my playing, so I'm going to try to do more of it in the future. But, I have to say, that there is virtually *no* visual component to my memory of music at all. I think I'm one of those people who can't even remember what the music looks like when I'm away from it. It's all kinesthetic, non-verbal kind of stuff. Which is actually why I think "memorization" helps me play better. In order for me to really memorize it, the muscles in my fingers, and the nerves that innervate them, have to know it.

January 10, 2007 at 12:19 AM · Greetings,

>Is it really true that most people memorize music visually?

No. Some people can call up visula representations, others may use a strong verbal or analytical component.There are many differnet kinds of memory. There is a good section on this in a book called Your Body is Your Instrument, by Lieberman.



January 10, 2007 at 12:52 AM · "There was something I was going to say here, but I forgot what it was.

Oh, yes, now I remember. "


I've asked a bunch of players what memorization consists of because I wondered what other people were doing. I got all kinds of responses but of the people I asked, the best players with the best proven track records said sort of what Vince does in his first post. That requires lots and lots of repetitions, which would be one good reason for a teacher to ask for everything to be memorized :)

January 10, 2007 at 03:39 AM · While I do think that most people play better when a piece is memorized, it's almost beside the point. As a practical matter, pieces need to be memorized and this should be taught along with other aspects of playing. Some have to work at it more than others, but that's true for everything.

January 10, 2007 at 04:53 AM · i don't think i've ever consciously tried to memorize anything for an occasion, unless it was a very last minute competition that requires a different solo work than the one i have in my fingers. generally i find that, even with etudes, i "end up" memorizing whatever it is that i'm working on a week or two into it because the fingers and muscles just pick up the notes after enough drilling. I do have to sit down with a pencil and score and mark up sections for cohesiveness, colors, harmony, phrasing and dynamics and the such and have to "memorize" the all these elements to supplement my fingers - otherwise i'd just be plowing through pages of notes.

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