Problem with memorizing/ retaining repertoire

Edited: January 28, 2019, 5:36 PM · I’m currently a Masters degree violin student. Today I went to try out some bows that were being shown at my conservatory by a dealer. I tried a few out- a couple were Tourtes!- just for fun. (Not currently in my budget!) However, I realized that I was only able to remember the concerto I am currently working on, Prokofiev 2, plus one or two movements of Bach that I have played a million times. I heard the other people around me seemingly playing every concerto, Paganini Caprice, Bach fugue and orchestra exerpt they had ever learned. I couldn’t even remember any of the rep I successfully auditioned for my program with last March! I guess what I’m trying to ask is: is retaining repertoire really such a crucial skill as long as you can perform your program at a high level by the concert date, assuming you aren’t a soloist, and if it is, how do you improve the ability to retain old rep? I also struggle to memorize new works quite a bit, and wonder how I can improve. I have no problem when performing from music. All of this seems very ironic to me, considering that I was brought up on Suzuki, which is supposed to endow you with a tremendous musical memory... *snort.*

Replies (31)

January 28, 2019, 5:50 PM · I am sure this must be very disconcerting. Have you always had this memory retention problem?

I am not a professional, and I do not have any real insight into how serious the problem would be for you. Certainly, if you are playing chamber music or piano-violin sonatas, you can always have sheet music present. Similarly, in an orchestra, you will always have the sheet music. So, it seems that the main issue would be either concerti or certain kinds of solo violin music such as the Bach Sonatas and Partitas. I do not know how you would be viewed if your career goal was to play that sort of music professionally. You will need to ask others who are more plugged into that world. Good luck!

Edited: January 28, 2019, 5:57 PM · The funny thing is that I have an excellent memory for most other things- I have always been an honors student, am really good at foreign languages, used to act in lots of plays and never forgot a line, etc. It’s truly frustrating!

I hope others who struggle with this can give examples of things they have done to help them overcome this problem.

January 28, 2019, 7:31 PM · Is it a matter not so much as trying to remember something that may have largely evaporated, or rather a matter of recalling something that is still there in the brain? I know from my own experience of playing Irish folk music in sessions (no sheet music allowed!) that I sometimes may not be able to start a particular tune because I think I may have forgotten it, but it only needs someone to jog my memory with the first couple of notes and it comes back perfectly.

A very simple example I must admit, but it may indicate a way forward.

Edited: January 28, 2019, 7:42 PM · No, it’s mostly gone!! I would say after 2 weeks of not playing a piece, (because I moved on to new rep, generally,) I can’t play through the previously memorized portion, (movement, entire work, etc) without significant stopping and starting. 6 months of not working on it and I can’t even remember how big sections sound, let alone play them. This happened to me with the 1st movement of Mozart 5- I recorded the entire 1st movement from memory with cadenza, and then didn’t touch it for about 2 months, after which I attempted to play through it at home and could only get through the first two pages until I was stumped and had to look at the part to remember how it continued. Another example: recently, I heard a piece on the radio. I thought out loud, “that piece sounds really familiar... what piece is that?” My friend said, “That’s Tchaikovsky 4! We performed that THIS semester!!”
January 28, 2019, 8:47 PM · I'm the same way. It hasn't seemed to matter. There are some passages (for example, opening of Don Juan) that I've learned and relearned so many times that they're burned into my memory, but it seems to take several times of playing a piece before I remember what it is or how it goes, and even then if I can recognize it I can't necessarily produce it. I tend to retain the muscle memory even if I don't have a conscious memory of it, though.
January 28, 2019, 9:26 PM · Maybe I simply need to re-visit these concertos several times, (Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Wieniawski 2, etc) and then the second or third go-around they will “stick” in my memory better. It’s just frustrating to think that you put all that effort into learning and memorizing the piece only for all traces of the effort to disappear in a few months!
January 28, 2019, 10:11 PM · I've found that memory retention depends on challenging myself to remember. So, that would be playing a piece without music, and sneaking a peek when you got stuck, until you had it memorized. I have not found that playing while reading music really ingrains the music into my memory. But I am more of a beginning player, so take everything I say with a grain of salt. Or rosin.
January 28, 2019, 10:26 PM · That's pretty fascinating.

In general, my childhood repertoire is well-retained if it was something I listened to frequently -- Suzuki repertoire, major repertoire works, but not the violinist-composer stuff (Viotti, deBeriot etc.), and only some etudes. Things I've learned in adulthood, less so -- learned less thoroughly, though. Listening makes a huge difference; things that I know "by heart" in terms of aural retention generally stay in my fingers much more readily.

Stuff I used to know comes back easily with practice, though -- as long as I'm in sufficiently good shape technically.

So my advice would be: Listen to repertoire, a lot.

January 28, 2019, 10:27 PM · I've always had the same problem. One idea: come up with a list of your core repertoire, say a couple of concertos, some Bach, a Paganini or two. Keep revisiting them on a cycle, maybe every couple of months.
You have to just keep at it.

I think some of it has to do not with memory per se, but with confidence. I believe the works you think you're "forgetting" are actually in your memory. But you have a phobia that you can't remember them, and when you're put on the spot, nerves interfere with was was memorized.

I know a graduate pianist who said she didn't feel she really know a piece unless she had played it 1000 times from memory. Maybe better memory and confidence in that memory will simply require many, many more repetitions.

Edited: January 29, 2019, 12:35 AM · It might be a structural issue of the brains.

Ive been thinking about this a lot as my young girl has great problems in keeping old Suzuki repertoire memorized, in essense she sannot remember the old repertoire, it just does not stick. And I had problems in memorizing (Im not a pro, just an amateur pianist, but I could have become a pro had I wanted to).

Some people say that it is just a matter of repetition and in a way it of course is. But we require so much repetition to retain the past pieces that it is not possible to do. Both of us have a very good memory otherwise, certainly above average. Music is the only thing that I have ever had problems in memorizing.

One thing may be that my brains have all through my life produced their own tunes meaning that I can ” hear” my own partial compositions and the pieces I have learned mix with these tunes and loose their own integrity. And my daughter also seems to prefer playing her own tunes instead of just repeting the piece practiced. So this may be a part of the problem. I believe it is structural and not lazyness.

If you are not planning to be a soloist, what does it really matter if you need the music in front of you? Suzuki fanatics and those that memorize easily wont understand and if one is brought up with Suzuki then one may value memorizing skills very highly as some Suzuki teachers continually tell how important it is to play all the songs by memory (at this point Im quite sick of this actually).

January 29, 2019, 5:58 AM · Anyway, playing without music is more a matter of custom and tradition than anything else. Although concert pianists generally perform without the music (there are exceptions) a concert organist and double concerto players will. On a few occasions I've seen a solo violinist have the music in front of them for a concerto; in particular I remember seeing live on TV a long time ago Kyung Wha Chung performing the Korngold with the music in front of her.

I recommend following the advice of other posters and see how it works out, but don't make too big a thing of it, which could be counterproductive.

January 29, 2019, 6:21 AM · I usually spend about an hour or two a week reviewing old pieces. I never know when a performance opportunity for something random will come up, so I try and have a lot of rep ready to go.
January 29, 2019, 6:30 AM · There's a jazz pianist on Youtube called Aimee Nolte who talks about memorising and learning music. In one particular video, she says something along the lines of (referring to a song she had to learn many, many years ago) "if I'd just pulled out my book and played the song from there, I would have forgotten it like all the others. But because I took the time to learn it by ear and figure it out myself, it sticks with me to this day".

Again, not an exact quote, because I can't be bothered to find the video (pretty sure it's a newer one about the Real Book. Won't be hard to find if you're interested). That's essentially the jist of what she said, though.

Edited: January 29, 2019, 6:51 AM · In any case we don't "read" the score so much as glance at it as a reminder, and the hours of practice do the rest. Like glancing at a road map on the passenger seat of one's car while driving.
January 29, 2019, 8:07 AM · During the YouTube video of the lunch Hilary Hahn has with Brett and Eddy of TwoSet, she says that she has trouble memorizing repertoire for the following year's performances while she is performing this season's repertoire. She doesn't elaborate on what she means exactly, though.
January 29, 2019, 8:15 AM · Aside from practicing a piece many times, practicing slowly, practicing away from the music, listening to the piece many times, etc does anyone have any other specific techniques for memorization that seem to really make a piece stick?
January 29, 2019, 8:38 AM · What about understanding the form very intellectually? so that the chunks which you need to remember are smaller and more manageable, but connected to each other by a larger structure that you can keep in your mind?
January 29, 2019, 8:41 AM · Look up "The Four Memories Cedarvillemusic" on YouTube. Explains how memorizing music is done most effectively.
Hope this helps.
January 29, 2019, 8:46 AM · No discussion concerning memorizing and recalling repertoire can be complete without this video and its comments:

The Portuguese concert pianist Maria Joao Pires expected to play Mozart's K467 in a public lunchtime concert in Amsterdam, but then the orchestra started playing K466 . . . See what happened next:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CJXnYMl_SuA

January 29, 2019, 9:21 AM · I have never had any memory for music I have played - I have always played with the music on a stand in front of me. All I have memorized are the beginnings of the few things I worked on hard and for a long time. In fact that faulty memory is why I switched from chemistry to physics after getting my bachelors degree.

However when I have gone to try new instruments or bows I have assembled a brief agenda of musical fragments that contain the notes and strokes that I want to use in testing the items I will be trying. And that is the repertoire I have used in testing unless the items lead me to some additional improvisation.

January 29, 2019, 10:12 AM · I once took a memory course which basically teaches you how to tie everything into something else familiar, so that if you meet a person who's name is fishinato you might tie that into the image of a fish or an event in your life that might have involved fish.Or similarly making connections based on things happening in succession, for instance if you practice music you always practice it in a certain sequence so that you begin to remember what comes next.
Similar to Trevor I have like 1000 Irish Traditional songs I need to memorize. I am finding that if I mix them up I have a harder time remembering them. I am beginning to put these into sets that don't change and I think this helps.
If someone else plays a familiar song I might wait out the first few measures until I get a feel for their tempo and the way they are playing it since it seems no two people ever play these exactly the same.Sometimes the music is so radically changed I don't initially recognize it.
Strong emotional bonds tend to solidify memory. We don't get emotional over things we can't remember, so I might try to tie memories into those kinds of moments.
Lastly, sometimes our minds are full of too many unimportant things.We need to take some time to trim some of that input away.Your mind only recalls what it thinks is important to recall. If most of your day is spent doing mundane things tied to more unimportant mundane things my guess is most of your brain is busy with all of that and might miss an important mental note.What was once regarded as important has now become a routine and is likely deleted from memory. The only problem with that is the relegation is all wrong and the good stuff is slipping through the cracks. In order to fix this we need to make sure that we tell ourselves that certain things are indeed important. Personally I see everything as important and this solves a lot of issues.
Edited: January 29, 2019, 11:53 AM · Trevor - I believe something similar happened when a violinist was due to play Mozart 4 with orchestra, but they tried to pull a prank on him by playing the Mendelssohn, but it backfired when he switched gears and went along with it. I think they just ended up playing the entire Mendelssohn, not sure whether they still played the Mozart.
Edit: Cotton is right - his response is right below mine.
January 29, 2019, 11:12 AM · He was set to play the Prokofiev, and tbe conductor started the Mendelssohn. When the soloist entered without a hitch, they stoppd pretty much immediatly.
Edited: January 29, 2019, 11:51 AM · Memory is an area where I've done a lot of research and personal experiments.

The most reliable way to memorize music is photographic memory.

When learning a new piece, don't even pick up the instrument. Look at a small segment of the music, try to memorize the IMAGE of the segment and imaging playing it, with the sound of violin. After you have a good feel of it, put the score away, and imaging the image of the segment, and practice from reading the mental image. Work in small segments.

Seeing the image in your head is DIFFERENT from seeing the actual score. The image does not have to be razor sharp photos. Just vivid ENOUGH to recall the music.

Since you are memorizing an image, you can also include all the notes on the page.

Next thing you want to do is to LOGICALLY reduce the number of images you have to memorize. If the piece has ABA sections format, you need only to memorize only 2/3 of the music. Within a section there can be other LOGICAL arrangements that can help you to RELATE to photographic memory, such as memorizing the main theme, secondary theme, repeats, or chord progression. I call that theory memory.

Photographic memory may not be enough, you need to combine it with music memory, muscle memory, and theory memory. If you draw a blank image while playing, you can use music memory to "fill in" the blanks. When one type of memory fails at a given moment, you have another type to fall back on.

Because the brain will want to avoid hard work, and photographic memory the most difficult, you want it to be formed first. If you have memorized the piece with muscle memory first, it is more difficult to memorize it photographically.

Number each measure, and include the measure number in your photo memory. While you practice, you can randomly pick out measure numbers to play. That's a good practice to reinforce photo memory. If you want to go one step further, you can try to pick out random measure and play a few notes backward. You have to have photographic memory to play a few notes backwards. Practicing from random measures also help in recovering errors while performing, and recovering is a good skill to have.

Some other tips:
You may practice at a fast tempo to have more repetitions per unit time, but the very last run of the day should be a slow practice.
For large pieces/major work, break it up into smaller segments, avoid playing from the beginning to end too many time. I'm not saying don't practice from beginning to end. You need to make a judgement call on how you want to practice.

DON'T need photographic memory if reading the score is acceptable for performance, or pieces that can be easily memorized with music or muscle memory.

While many instrument playing abilities have to be formed when a person is young, and almost impossible to acquire after sixteen or so, but memory is not one of them, and requires no special talent. With some practice, almost any age can do it well, and it doesn't take it long either. Six months to two years should be enough.

Final note: there are international memory competitions, and the top winners can be a very forgetful person. They have to remember to use the tools to memorize the things they want to memorize. They admit they often forget what they want to get after opening the refrigerator door…

January 29, 2019, 11:52 AM · Oops. Looks like I had a memory lapse of my own.
January 29, 2019, 11:54 AM · Maria Lammi: what you said really resonates with me. I find I am often ‘composing’ all the time in my head, and will sometimes ‘re-compose’ a piece of music in my mind, and then it just sounds ‘wrong’ the way it is actually written. For example, when I was studying the Bach G minor sonata, there were a few places in the fugue where I kept playing the wrong harmony at a cadence and then modulating the next section into a different key!! It just sounded more ‘correct’ that way to me! The way it was actually written just sounded weird. I also remember playing the first movement of Tchaikovsky for my teacher when I was 16. She stopped me at some point amd said gently, “my dear, you have modulated into a different key than what Mr. Tchaikovsky wrote. However, you did it without missing a beat, which was quite amusing.”
January 29, 2019, 12:34 PM · I mean, you really only need to have something memorized when you are performing it from memory. I wouldn't worry too much. The people that can keep a bunch of full concertos memorized at any given moment are probably pretty rare, and I'm sure that most top performers make sure to bring concertos back when they perform them for the first time in a while.
January 29, 2019, 12:50 PM · Let's see now, what were we talking about?
January 29, 2019, 12:55 PM · I gave up on my memory. I always play with the music in front of me except for Paganini, which I rarely play anymore.
January 29, 2019, 1:03 PM · Hey, being able to modulate is an excellent skill - very useful, and unfortunately not enough people are able to transpose on the spot.
If that's a strength, you could probably become extremely good with improvisation. Transposing and ornamentation are pretty much the most basic forms of improv...
You should try improvising/take a class/look it up on YouTube sometime. Classical improvisation is starting to grow again after being dormant for more than 50 years.
January 30, 2019, 2:12 PM · I do improvise quite a bit! Used to have a steady Saturday night gig at a nightclub in Tribeca performing with a jazz band. Funny thing is, I never felt nervous performing jazz solos, but I always feel incredibly nervous performing classical music such as Bach, Paganini, Tchaikovsky, etc. I suppose it’s a whole different mindset.


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