pianist Andre Watts

Andre Watts

“I’m very mistrustful of tactile memory. I think it’s the first thing that goes.”
–André Watts, pianist
The Musician’s Way, p. 82

Have you ever been blindsided by a memory lapse? Maybe you felt secure in practice, but, during a performance, you blanked on a passage.

I suspect that every musician has felt the jolt of memory slips.

I also believe that memory glitches could be far less common because secure memorization involves concepts and skills that any musician can learn.

This post summarizes a 4-part framework that helps both singers and instrumentalists become masterful memorizers.

All of these ideas are fleshed out in Chapter 4 of The Musician’s Way.

The Four Stages of Memorization

Stage 1: Perception

Deep perception makes for solid memory. When we grasp the inner workings of a composition as well as how we want to shape each phrase, those rich connections lead to steadfast recall.

In contrast, shallow perception – especially that rooted solely in muscle or tactile memory – readily falls apart under pressure. Here are strategies that deepen our perceptions of a piece.

a. Clarify the compositional structure. Identify where sections and phrases begin and end; look for rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic patterns.
b. Fashion a vivid interpretive map. Explore the emotional feel of every phrase; pinpoint where phrases peak and repose; write in dynamic and articulation signs.
c. Form a robust technical map. Before you begin to memorize, verify that fingerings, bowings, tonguings, diction, and so forth are unmistakable; ensure that you can easily execute from score. If you feel flooded, choose easier music.The Musician's Way book cover

Stage 2: Ingraining

Ingraining is the means whereby we lay down enduring memory tracks. But beware: ingraining necessarily involves repetition, yet only mindful repetitions will do.

a. Plan your practice. Schedule frequent memorization sessions in which you restrict the amount of music that you memorize – if you exceed your limit, much of what you absorb could become scrambled. Also get ample sleep to help your brain to consolidate what you’ve learned.
b. Combine imaging with executing. Mentally image a portion of music from memory before you attempt to play or sing it; if anything seems fuzzy, review with the score. In general, execute a portion securely from memory three times in a row, then steadily link portions.
c. Employ diverse memory types. Memory types include conceptual, aural, kinesthetic, and visual. To highlight different types, you might play hands alone, re-examine chord progressions, sing bass lines, recite song text without singing, or write out tricky passages. As you ingrain, explore subtle interpretive variations, and savor every phrase so that the music vibrates with meaning.

Stage 3: Maintenance

Even if we ingrain deeply, unless we maintain our memory, the mental connections we form will gradually disintegrate. Here are strategies that keep memories strong.

Photo of Zoom H4n Recorder

Zoom H4n

a. Rehearse mentally. Periodically run through a section or complete composition in your mind. Instrumentalists might vocalize and mime playing motions; singers could mouth words and act out a song.
b. Practice performing. Record your practice performances and then re-ingrain any slippery passages. Recommended recorders: Zoom H4n | Video: Zoom Q4n.
c. Review in detail. Reinvigorate your interpretive-technical map by going over the components of a piece and its execution. You might revisit fingerings, do a fresh harmonic analysis, and so on, incorporating new interpretive ideas in the process.

Stage 4: Recall

The following strategies help optimize our recall in performance situations.

a. Ready yourself. Attain a performance-ready state using tactics such as 2-to-1 breathing and the other backstage techniques described on pages 162-170 of The Musician’s Way.
b. Feel ahead. As you play or sing, direct your music making with soulful awareness. Avoid sliding into mindless execution.
c. Be positive. Trust in your preparation, and then play or sing your heart out. If slips occur, maintain the forward motion and improvise until you can regain the musical thread. To rehearse dealing with slips, simulate them in practice and ad-lib through them.

As you experiment with the strategies described in this article, bear in mind that we all have distinct learning styles, so no single memorization routine will suit every musician. It’s up to each of us to adapt these and other ideas according to our needs and personalities.

But whatever memorization strategies we opt for, we should energize our work with playfulness because when our practice is infused with spontaneity, our performances resound with that same expressive spirit.

Related posts
2-to-1 breathing
The benefits of accessible music
Feeling ahead
Mental imaging
Practicing performance

© 2010 Gerald Klickstein