Playing from Memory - Techniques?

September 15, 2006 at 11:25 PM · I started to think about memorising music recently. I had my exam a week ago and about 3 months before the exam, I could play from memory for 3 of the pieces and 3/4 of the 4th piece. In the week before the exam, I started to have memory slips. The memory slips happened at different places at different times. In the end, I had to start learning to play with sheetmusic again, which screwed up my performance during the exam (not too seriously).

When I memorise a piece, I don't necessary memorise the notes, but I had the music played in my mind and the violin stimultaneously, and then the fingers and bowing just take over. There is more expression, freedom and showmanship playing from memory. But when I start to think of the notes, I slip. I wonder what is the proper "technique" to play from memory. Any tips?

Replies (22)

September 16, 2006 at 12:48 AM · I wouldnt know "the proper technique", I have an excellent memory. It does'nt take me long to learn songs from memory, not my Suzuki ones anyway.... Its a gift I guess. :)

September 16, 2006 at 01:17 AM · A former teacher of mine insisted on memorizing photographically. I found that it didn't quite work unless I played with my eyes closed. What I found helpful was to practise as follows:

1. divide a piece into small sections

2. pick a section randomly and play from memory starting from that section

Repeat 2 as many times as you can afford.

This won't guarantee memory slips won't happen. But it forces you to be able to recover from a memory slip. (This is where point 1 comes in. If you have a memory slip in one section, you can recover by starting to play from the next.)

This exercise was actually prescribed by an adjudicator at a local Kiwanis piano competition many years ago because there were TONNES of competitors who had memory slips, got stuck, and had to start over. (Memory slips seem to be contagious.)

September 16, 2006 at 02:11 AM · "Memory slips seem to be contagious."

Haaa! You just reminded me of a story. Apparently the day Szigeti was to make his US debut, playing Beethoven in Philly, he was even more nervous than usual so after the dress rehearsal that morning, instead of going to get a nice lunch and relax all afternoon, he went back to his hotel room to practice. A little while later, Carl Flesch drops in. "What's going on, Joska?" he says. "Why are you practicing now? You should be relaxing, there's no need to worry! Even if you do make a mistake, what of it? Why, just last year I was playing this same Beethoven with this same Stokowski in this same hall, and I had a terrible memory slip, I just utterly lost my place for a few bars. You know the place, it's right around--" and to Szigeti's horror, Flesch begins humming the part he forgot. "Well, I got back on track after a few bars, and look at me now--a solid career, I'm director of Curtis: nothing at all came of my mistake! So don't worry!"

Of course, kindly, well-meaning Carl Flesch had only succeeded in giving poor Szigeti another thing to worry about: that HIS memory would also fail him in that precise spot that Flesch had hummed.

September 16, 2006 at 02:27 AM · In your playing, tell the story of the MUSIC and not of the MECHANICS.

Nowadays, people have it the other way around.

September 16, 2006 at 02:34 AM · Not Yura Lee and Ye-Eun Choi! Did you get to listen to the finals tonight? That was great stuff! :)

September 16, 2006 at 03:32 AM · Try memorizing using as many differeny techniques as possible. for example: photographic, aural, kinisthetic, and analytical. I use as many different way to memorize a piece as i can find. Small sections, studying the score away from the instrument, slow practice from memory, altering the rhythm, dynamics, etc. in order to throw off tactile memory/reviel problem spots. And if all else fails, end on an authentic cadence in the corect key!


September 16, 2006 at 04:16 AM · ...or "shave and a haircut, five cents!"

September 16, 2006 at 06:59 AM · hey,

i think it's also important to carry on reading the music even though you have a piece memorised, my weakness use to be that i used to practice from memory quickly without ever looking at the music.

September 16, 2006 at 03:39 PM · There is a story I once heard from one of my teachers about Jascha Heifetz. Apparently, at the rehearsal for the U.S. premier of the Prokofiev 2nd Concerto, one of the orchestra violinists came up to Heifetz during a break and told him that he was playing a wrong note - some inconsequential note in one of the very rapid passages. Heifetz assured him that it was correct and was in his score. But the violinist told Heifetz that he was at the premier in Europe, and assured Heifetz that the original manuscript had a different note.

According to the story, Heifetz completely panicked and became almost entirely unnerved: "But I practiced it this way."

That night, however, Heifetz played it with the correct note.

What a perfectionist.


September 16, 2006 at 04:16 PM · apparently when Milstein had to play the same concerto every night for a week or something, he would combat boredom by switching among three or four different sets of fingerings--and was always consistent! Now THAT'S a memory!

September 16, 2006 at 04:57 PM · *Yawn*

When I'm on tour I like to switch it up by stringing my violin backwards...or playing the concerto on an entirely different the trumpet.


September 16, 2006 at 05:08 PM · Child's play! When I'm practicing, I can magically transform any piece I'm working on, no matter how serious or solemn, into some sort of Hungarian Rhapsody. :-D

September 16, 2006 at 05:17 PM · Sander - That orchestral violinist even had a better memory than Heifetz since he managed to remember that note after seven years!

September 16, 2006 at 10:54 PM · gReetings,

mattias, that was me. But it was the -only- thing I rememebered. Ever.



September 17, 2006 at 03:33 AM · Memory slips can happen to anyone but if you don't have a piece memorized that means you don't know it... once you know the notes, just play through it multiple times... memorized...

September 17, 2006 at 03:43 AM · Memory slips seem to occur more often when performing than in a practice room, at least in my experience. It helps me to play for friends at least a few times before a concert.

Also, I usually memorize things visually (to some extent I'll have a picture of the page in my head) but it's different for everyone. Try thinking of it in different ways.

September 17, 2006 at 03:47 AM · Indeed, the only way to practice for concerts is to play in concerts.

I also found simulating the concert or exam environment when practising helps. For instance, trying to play the same piece in an unfamiliar room or hall can help one getting used to playing in a new environment.

September 17, 2006 at 02:12 PM · I usually remember a piece of music after practising for 2 - 3 months, then I'm always reluctant to look at the musicsheet again. For months I was playing for my teacher from memory and other than once or twice, I always nailed it. But when I start to panic and doubt myself, I start trying to remember the notes and memory starts to slip.

I welcome the idea of memorising in different ways (audio, visual, kinetic etc.). I also think it's a good idea of just picking different sections and play through them. I guess once in a while I should revisit the musicsheet to make sure I don't forget about the little things here and there (dynamics, rhythm etc.)

Thanks for the helpful comments.

September 17, 2006 at 02:52 PM · In concert, the best thing you can do is just not think TOO hard. Often times I get nervous mid-piece and start thinking "oh crap, what is the next note?" and instead of just playing it like I have a million times already, I worry about it--and then inevitably THAT's where I have a memory slip. Arrgh....

September 17, 2006 at 03:22 PM · Hi,

If I may be scientific about this... Memorizing, like learning, depends on what is your primary way of relating to things. Are you an auditive, kinetic or visual person? Auditive people tend to remember the "tune" so to speak, while visuals see the printed score while playing, and kinetics remember primarly the mechanics of bow and fingers and how it feels physically.

No one is better than the other. However, ideally, you need to get all three laid down, with your primary way as solid as possible and the others to back up in case it faulters.

I think that the reason people make more memory mistakes in concert than practice is because we think too much about other things and involve ourselves more in self-talk (never good) while playing in public than we do in practice. This creates distractions more likely to take attention away from what one is doing because you have to focus on listening to yourself talk to yourself. This creates more likelihood of some lapse in concentration. Self-talk should be kept to a minimum or better yet, avoided altogether.

So, in the end, there is no one way. However, by making sure that you are aware of your primary means of learning, and having that part of your memory solid, and insuring that you know the others, you have more likelihood of avoiding a memory slip.

With that in mind, practice with and without the score is advisable at all times (one should not forgoe the score) in order to keep all aspects of your memory fresh.


September 17, 2006 at 09:00 PM · Read in "Practice" by Fischer, section 237, "Mental rehearsal", p. 290 through section 246, p.296. These five pages are excellent.

September 20, 2006 at 06:55 AM · The "Practice"! Yes, why didn't I think of that. I got the book 2 months ago. Will read what it has to say about playing from memory.

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