On Memorizing

Committing a piece of music to memory is the final step in learning the piece, and the first step in playing it. We memorize music not for the accomplishment of being able to from memory, but rather to insure that we really know it. In addition, playing from memory helps free us from the printed score, which frees us from the deception that the music is actually in the score.

Many students will have memorized a piece simply by going over it enough times to be able to play it well. It is helpful to make memorization a conscious step to “fill in the gaps” that might be left behind with this approach.

Some students read so well that they never really learn a piece, they just continue to read it over and over again. In these cases, memorization is a critical step, and should be undertaken even if the student continues to play from the score.

Some students memorize as they learn, because their reading skills are so poor the only way they can play a piece is to memorize it. These students can use their memory skills and their innate physical sense of the instrument to help their reading skills by working with very small sections of music and keeping the eyes on the music as they play at slower tempos.

Memorize in small sections – a phrase or two at most, even if you are capable of getting more material. This makes you really know every little bit of the piece, rather than allowing your kinesthetic or rote memory to take over and get you through the sections which aren’t really strongly memorized. This also provides greater security from memory slips, as you will have given yourself more “landmarks” to help out if you should have trouble.

Working from the end of the piece towards the beginning is an excellent way to reinforce your memorization. Start with the last phrase or two, and when you are confident that you can play that from memory, add the phrase or two before that, playing always to the end of the piece. When we memorize from the beginning, we are always playing away from the material we know the best. By working from the end, we play into the stuff that is most solidly memorized. This is a great boost to confidence, especially in performance. After a piece has been committed to memory, try starting at different places in the middle of the piece, rather than always at the beginning. This technique also works very well for learning new pieces.

Being able to describe a passage verbally can help you to memorize it as well. This does two very important things. First it forces you to look beyond the patterns that are ingrained in your fingers and ears. By describing in words, you will tend to look more carefully at what is really there in the music, rather than whatever subconscious patterns you have imprinted. Secondly, it helps you to condense many discrete pieces of information into one generalized thought. Rather than having to remember seven different pitches in a line, it is very helpful to be able to think of a certain scale. Rather than having to remember five pitches in a chord, it is helpful to be able to name the harmony. This is where knowledge of music theory comes in handy. Even if you don’t know the textbook name for a structure, it can still be very helpful to name it in your own words.

Working without the guitar is also an excellent tool for helping with memory. It is a very powerful tool to be able to think through a piece from beginning to end without the guitar or the score. This is also a good tool to use in places where the memory is a little weaker. Use your mind to figure things out, use your hands to play.

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