How to learn music quickly

Edited: October 17, 2018, 2:05 PM · How do you learn a piece of music quickly so that you're working on spending your time on phrasing and dynamics rather than just learning the notes? I'm working on the Bach Dm Partita (currently on the Giga) and it's taking me way too long to memorize it and get to performance level. Maybe it's my age, although I still have 40 years to live I'm told. Thank you.

I did see a very interesting article here:

Replies (16)

October 17, 2018, 2:24 PM · I didn't really agree with several points in the article:

1. if teachers don't hear anything until it's memorized, that means students could be learning something incorrectly. It takes longer to correct a cemented mistake than to just make sure it's done correctly in the first place.

2. muscle memory is very important. The more associations you have, the easier it is to memorize, including tactile ones. The reason the pianist could memorize on a plane is that he had already developed muscle memory. I can 'practice' by looking at the sheet music and thinking about how the notes feel without having to actually touch the violin.

3. memorizing patterns is somewhat useful, but often music doesn't follow patterns. Or the pattern changes slightly each time it's repeated, which can be hard to keep track of.

4. memorizing 5x faster- what does that even mean? 5 times faster than what?

I've always been able to memorize easily, and I've never had a student who couldn't memorize their pieces in a reasonable amount of time. I listen to my music a lot, and I ask my students to as well. Thorough knowledge of how the piece sounds makes it music, not just notes. I think listening is the best aide to memorization, and it's not mentioned in the article at all.

Edited: October 17, 2018, 3:42 PM · I just read the music and play it. Always have, always will. Probably lets me play 99% more stuff.

When I have practiced something enough for a serious performance I have essentially memorized - but I still don't trust my memory - don't have to.

Edited: October 17, 2018, 3:48 PM · Listen to it over and over and over and over...

Using just sheet music is the slowest and least permanent way to learn music.

October 17, 2018, 4:44 PM · I am with Andrew.

But also this: I mistrust any dogmatism about how to do things. When somebody says "Do it my way of you will fail" don't trust him. This article for example asserts a lot but proves literally nothing (no quotations of the science he keeps invoking for example, no example on how this works for a large number of people, nothing). The procedure works for the author of the article. Good for him. But don't impose it on others. We are all different.

October 17, 2018, 5:52 PM · In my opinion, listening is actually a bigger part of memorization than playing. That, and being able to play from beginning to end (without stopping in the middle) multiple times in a row. If you're having to stop in the middle of a piece because of technical challenges, then you aren't ready to memorize it yet.
October 17, 2018, 7:33 PM · Listen to it a hundred times, and make sure it is on while you are falling asleep. Seriously, your brain learns it really well when you are halfway asleep. This will get you to the memorization point of being able to sing/hum the piece all the way through. After that, it is typically easy to fill in the technical stuff, using muscle memory.
October 17, 2018, 9:26 PM · Listen, listen, listen.

But I think you may have an inherently flawed learning process if you are splitting up learning the notes from phrasing and dynamics. Phrasing and dynamics are inherently part of what you're learning, because what you do with your right hand (and to some degree your left) are dependent upon that. It's choreography between the hands, not just placing pitches with your left hand fingers.

October 17, 2018, 9:28 PM · I am also with Andy Victor.
October 17, 2018, 10:11 PM · Lydia, I agree, and I'm definitely trying not to divorce the learning of the piece from the phrasing and dynamics. However, it's a matter of degree--I want to learn the piece quickly so that I can work on the expression. That's my stumbling block at the moment. It takes me too long to get to the point where I no longer need to look at the music and can concentrate on my intonation, bow arm, etc.

some have pointed out the value of listening. I do believe in that, and since the Bach solos are some of my favorite pieces, it's never an issue.

By the way, maybe I shouldn't have quoted that article. That wasn't the main thrust of my post. In any case, I'm not sure that the stuff on there is "dogma." The author is mainly pointing out things that have been shown to work from research in brain science. Some are obvious and some not, and lot of them have been in practice books for a long time. It's up to people whether they want to apply them.

Edited: October 17, 2018, 11:52 PM · Fellow SLOW music reader. So, so slow. I blame the early ear training and my subsequent reliance on it. Trying to get better now but in the meantime, I listen---a LOT. I guess still doing as I was initially trained: always be listening to the piece you're currently working on as well as the one you'll be doing next. Be able to sing the notes! If you can sing the notes, you can work out playing them.

Then when I'm slowly puzzling through the notes, suddenly I recognize the phrase and I can work it out much faster. If I don't recognize the exact phase, it's a theme or variation on an idea I understand from the piece. And listen all the way through, not just the section being learned.

October 18, 2018, 12:37 AM · Repetitive listening will help the passive memory of the piece, but not the active memory that you need to play the piece. There are 4 stages to learning a piece 1) sight-reading, to find out if you want to play it and whether it is within your technical limits. 2) choreography - working out your personal fingerings and bowings. 3) repetition and polishing to turn those motions into habits. 4) memorization. To reduce the time you can move directly from stage 2 to 4, active memorization. Learn very short phrases, NOT looking at the paper while playing. On successive days connect the short phrases to longer sections. It takes many days in succession - not skipping days. Some of the learning happens when asleep. It is hard work. To be simplistic: memorization forces you to learn how to play the piece. Memorization of the standard works is best done while the brain is still young and uncluttered. I can testify that it gets 3 times harder after age ____.
October 18, 2018, 9:37 AM · Shankha,
Wish I had the "magic bullet" you're looking for. It would be like asking "how can I start running a 5-minute mile quickly" or "how can I perfect my tennis serve quickly?" When I was in college, I did so much weight lifting in such as short time that I got permanent stretch marks. If you try to memorize music too quickly you may get stretch marks on your brain.*

Bach is notoriously difficult to memorize. I don't think I've ever seen a student recital that didn't involve a major memory slip, or even a couple of total meltdowns. In a way, performing Bach from memory is a rite of passage. Like giving the 13-year-old cave boy the spear and saying, "get out there and kill that mammoth by yourself. And good luck, we're all starving..."

I've struggled with memorizing Bach my entire life and have probably, at one time, been able to play all of it.
Like Joel, I believe that simply listening has limited value. It doesn't hurt, but it may not help you memorize it. I can hear plenty of pieces in my head, but performing them from memory is an entirely different matter because it involves many other non-aural matters like bowing and fingerings.

The only things I can add are:
-have respect for the difficulty of the task. There are no shortcuts.
-When memorizing, practice short sections SEVERAL times per day. Constant reinforcement at short intervals.
-Periods of intense memorization followed by periods away (weeks or even months) seem to be more effective than unrelenting memorization on the same piece.

*not sure what that means.

October 18, 2018, 1:28 PM · For me, a properly memorized piece can be played in my head without the music. That is, I can hear the work in my head and internally feel myself playing the work, in detail. Anything that feels "blurry" in that process is not securely memorized.

I also find that this can sometimes be a guide to how I want to play something, if technical difficulty were not an obstacle.

October 18, 2018, 10:00 PM · This is rather an interesting thread. One thing that surprised me was this idea that one memorizes a piece in order to afterwards being "free" to work on phrasing, dynamic, expression.

When you play in an orchestra the conductor expects you to follow dynamic and articulation markings (plus the bowings that are hopefully marked in the music) even when sight reading. When you sit together with friends to read some quartets you are also expected to play the required dynamic and to phrase adequately.

It is perfectly possible to work on musical issues while having to read the music. Those of us who have trouble memorizing music should not despair.

October 18, 2018, 11:02 PM · ---One thing I discovered for memorization is that the clever fingerings and bowings I invent frequently don't work when playing up to tempo from memory, then it gets revised again to something more primitive or traditional.
October 20, 2018, 3:26 AM · I don't memorize a story just to realize how happy or sad it is, afterwards.

I memorize bit by bit with the music in front of me, and turn away trying to play what I've just learned - as complete as possible, be it just a short 2 bars phrase. Set a goal, or simply know when it's enough for the day. Usually, the next day, I'll try to play what I've learned the day before, before setting up music stand and scores.

A bit like watching a series. You watch an episode, and digest the stories and emotions. And get prepared to new episode.

I sometimes try to recall the fingerings and bowings when I'm listening to recordings, visualizing in my head as if I'm actually playing - which is similar to what Lydia suggested.

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