For many musicians, memorizing a piece can be a frustrating experience because it is hard at times to gauge progress. We can spend several hours on solidifying memory of a piece, only to find that the effort we spent did not transfer completely during performance. Confusing and frustrating, indeed. Here are 5 quick tips to help streamline the process:
1. Dissect the piece and examine each component thoroughly
This is the most important and helpful advice that I can give. The process of memorizing a piece should be like how one practices: slowly, separate hands/textures, and in small sections. Without taking the piece apart and examining its finest details, we will only know the piece on a superficial level.
2. Do not solely rely on muscle memory
One of the most common memorization methods is to repeat sections of the work several times, first with score and then without it. While doing this in small doses can be helpful, excessive amounts of this type of approach may be more harmful than good. When it comes to the old adage, "practice makes perfect," I think it can be a bit misleading. Instead, I prefer "practice makes permanent." When we repeat certain passages, we should always aim to question why we choose to work the way we do. Maybe it is memorizing a fingering pattern or sequence; or perhaps, understanding the larger phrase structure. Without this state of consciousness, the memorization process becomes mindless and repetitive, thus allowing bad habits to settle in––making it harder to undo later on.
Keep in mind that muscle memory is the least reliable and will be the first to fail us during a public performance when nerves and anxiety kick in. Memorization should be a creative process, which leads me to...
3. Be imaginative and employ creative practicing techniques
For me, memorization takes place during the initial learning process of a new piece. When I utilize some of my creative practice methods, I find that part of the memorization occurs as an unintended consequence––a more natural phenomenon, rather than something forced.
4. Do not forget to test your memory in trial performances
I am constantly amazed at how many tend to overlook this crucial step. We can spend several hours practicing and working hard on the memory, but we won't really know for sure how secure it is until we perform. If you have a recital date already scheduled and are performing new works for the first time, try building your "endurance" by organizing a series of test runs in various environments at least one month in advance: first few performances by yourself; the next stage play for a friend or two; and finally, try organizing a house concert, or a larger gathering, etc. This is also a really good way to build confidence in controlling your nerves.
5. Accept that there will be hiccups in the progress along the way
"Without a struggle, there can be no progress." ––Frederick Douglass
One thing that can be frustrating with memory is that one can spend a considerable amount of time on a passage thinking that it is secure at that moment, only to find that there are still unresolved issues the following day. This is quite common and I think it is OK. It happens to all of us.
After doing trial runs as I outlined above, try to evaluate where the memory slips occurred. Why did they happen during the run-through and not in practice? Every performance, good or bad, is a learning experience, so pay attention and don't miss out. After evaluating, make adjustments for the next performance and continue to remain optimistic.
I have an example outside of music that best explains this: when you are trying to hang a painting on a wall, it is rare that you are able to place it perfectly the first time with the proper positioning and alignment. You have to walk back and forth at various distances and angles––constantly assessing and making adjustments until it is perfect.
Think of memorization in a similar way. Lower your expectations that it will come easily. Hopefully, this will lead to less frustration and disappointment.
I hope you found this to be helpful. Happy memorizing!
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