Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Making Memories for a Positive Performance


A beach theme was used for the last studio recital. Can you tell?

Apparently I’m not the only one scarred by a horrendous memory black out during a recital. Riding home with fellow adjudicators from a nearby Federation of Music Clubs Festival, I discovered that others have endured unforgettable and traumatic experiences where the memory bank crashed during an important performance. As I’m preparing my students to participate in a local Federation festival that requires memorization, it’s critical for me to equip performers for NOTHING but a successful experience. I do not wish to pass along my personal past performance scars to anyone.

Playing for an audience is already risky but playing from memory for others including adjudicators could be equated to walking a tightrope.  If performers are going to tip toe on that high wire, it’s important that a safety net is below ready to catch them when, not if mistakes occur and bounce them right back up on the rope.

Designing a plan that will empower students to play through an error, find an exit, manage a detour, reroute and get back on track all within a feeling of control and not panic is essential–but not easy. I figured if I came up with as many options as possible, students would be equipped to rely on a number of fallback plans to ensure a positive performance experience. Below is my piano-teacher-not-very-scientific list for building a strong memory bank.

First, a small science lesson:

1) There are three parts to our core processor:brain on music

  • storage
  • recall
  • encoding

2) There are two types of memory storage:

  • short-term
  • long-term

In general, the goal of learning and memorizing a piece is to move all information from the short-term holding tank into the long-term memory bank. Before I proceed any further, let me make one disclaimer: There is NO scientific proof in the following ideas. What I’ve written here about the brain merely helped me to classify the steps I created to generate memory aids.  I claim no expertise in this area and can offer no money-back guarantee that these suggestions will work but they are worth a try. 🙂

Recall: Steps for retrieving memorized data

1) Get Comfy

Each student and I design a ritual of scales and chords played with dynamic contrasts and pedal to be executed prior to a performance to make friends with a foreign piano. This allows time to calm nerves, adjust the ear, settle in, check the bench, take a couple of deep breaths and focus.

2) Create a Story

One future performer and I have had such fun connecting a Pride and Prejudice scene with a Beethoven Sonata. For some reason, images of the movie popped into her head upon hearing Op 49. Amazingly, the scenes labelled throughout the score successfully triggered memory cues for her during the lengthy first movement.

3) Draw a Cover Page

With a story in place there’s nothing like connecting the dots between making music and the visual arts.

4) Record a Video

A month before the performance date,  I record videos at each lesson of students playing the festival piece from memory. I ask them to do the same at home.  A play-through with no score under the pressure of a camera simulates a real-time performance. Students are assigned to view the video twice during lab time. First they watch themselves and observe hand position, mannerisms, etc. The second time they listen and watch the score to see if they  included all the intentions of the composer. My iPad comes in extremely hand for this task!

Encoding: Steps for digging deeper ruts

1) Establish Memory Markers

As students learn a piece section by section, those become obvious landing places for building memory anchors. To ensure even more secure memorization, I require students to determine at least 10 memory markers from which to begin without the score. Once these are designated, I hold memory quizzes frequently where I call out a marker and the student must begin at the correct one. This trains the memory of the location of the section within the score as well as the content.

2) Draw a Road Map

The more details a of a piece that a performer can jot down on paper, the more the piece is entrenched in the memory system. I prefer that all students be able to write down each section label and even a broad scope of the chord progression landscape. I use pink scotch tape to mark all the dominant chords on a score. Generally speaking, those are usually where the peaks of a piece are found.

Storage: Steps for permanently locking in the details

1) Master with Metronome

Students are assigned to play a selection with the metronome and the score to boost the inner rhythmic center and to double-check the road map for dynamics, articulations, notes…

2) Highlight all Dynamics

A yellow highlighter is reserved for dynamics only. It’s amazing how these signs can be overlooked. Reserving time to highlight them during a lesson lets them pop from the score and helps them to hop into the performance and memory bank for good.

3) Complete an All About Page

Read here (and in my book: The iPad Piano Studio) for a complete description of this exercise that students complete for performance-bound pieces. In general this worksheet requires performers to notate a specific key’s scale degrees, chords and inversions and more. It’s a great way for them to dig into a tonal center and transfer this knowledge back to the score. The Octavian app serves well for this process.

BTW: Here’s a Pdf of the  Federation Checklist that my students and I have been using as we move through these activities.

There is no such thing as a flawless performance and a completely trustworthy memory bank. If we truly want students to have fun and enjoy playing for others, they must feel confident walking the performance tightrope. It’s essential to accept the human tendencies towards errors and devise adequate safety nets.

high wire 2

A truly successful memorized performance is not about perfection but perfected recovery.

Best wishes to you and your students as you prepare for upcoming spring performances! Care to share your ideas? Please leave a comment below.

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  1. Kerri Green

    Wonderful ideas, Leila. I especially love the cover page idea and the “All About” page. I’m definitely going to borrow these ideas from you, as a couple of students at my last studio recital had some memory issues. (OK, I’ll admit it. It was more than a couple…my question for you: Do you pull students out of a performance if they have not done the required work and you know their memory is not as stable as it needs to be? Or do you let them make the decision and let experience teach them? I was doing the latter, but I think I’m switching to the former.)

  2. Leila Viss

    Hi, Kerri. Thanks for the feedback and good to hear my ideas are useful. I feel VERY strongly that if I wish to build lifetime pianists then it is important that they ONLY succeed in a performance setting such as a festival. My goal is to keep students on the bench. Allowing them to fail in front of others is something to be avoided–I teach out of reaction to my own personal experience. So yes, if students aren’t ready, I suggest/we make a decision that feels right to both of us and wait til next time.

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