Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Some Thoughts on Memorizing Music

Whether the act of committing a piece of music to memory comes easily or with difficulty, most teachers agree that memorization is one of the best routes for students to make the jump from studying to performing, from learning to mastery. One of my annual journeys as a teacher is to find new vocabulary and methods to teach students to memorize music more effectively and reliably. Some students get it without much fuss at all, but many require detailed instruction on just how to find that magic combination. 

I’ve already written several articles on memorization, including 30+1 Ways to Help You Memorize Music Flawlessly and 5 Reasons to Memorize Music, but I’m always observing professional musicians for even more varied and interesting ways to explain to students how they can build a better memorization practice.

This past month I’ve been working with some of the brilliant singers of Toronto’s Tapestry New Opera Works in Opera To Go, a program of five new operas (one of which was performed unannounced in the lobby prior to the show). I had the privilege of seeing these operas grow from their earliest stages in a January workshop to their finished form in the production rehearsals that started in early March. 

During this time, I also watched the singers in the opera as they wrestled with learning challenging new works (often under constant revision) and memorizing them for staging and performance. One morning, I had a revelation about teaching memorization to pianists: what if they applied some of the techniques that singers habitually adopt?

Here are some thoughts on the memory toolkits of singers and what they have to offer instrumentalists:

Gestures and Movement

Once operatic singers are onstage working with a director, they not only need to sing from memory, but move and act at the same time. One of the first things taught in acting classes is that the body forgets nothing. Singers take advantage of this concept to remember physical motions alongside singing the vocal line. We can do the same as instrumentalists–not just listening to our sound and remembering what the music looks like, but being in our bodies, understanding, and memorizing the physical sensations of playing, whether large movements (ie. hand crossings and quick changes in hand position) or small movements (that tricky ornament or elusive fingering). And more often than not, the body’s memory can often be solid and grounded enough to stand up to our conscious mind’s inevitable nervous twitterings when in performance.

Multiple Start Points

When you rehearse anything in a theatre, you repeat scenes and sections of scenes. And repeat. And repeat. But to be able to do this, singers (who are already off-book at the start of rehearsal) need to be able to jump right in and start from a large number of points in the work while the director is staging and perfecting the action onstage. Instrumentalists can learn to do this as well. Don’t just learn to play a memorized piece from the beginning. Find multiple start points throughout the piece where, in the event of a memory meltdown, you can easily skip to, perhaps seamlessly enough that the audience won’t event know you just had a minor slip. These start points can all be built in when practicing.

Subtext and an Individual’s Journey Through a Work

Common director’s question: “So whaddya really mean?” Often a sung line and its text will have a deeper intent and meaning just under the surface. This is called subtext. Singers can use subtext to create much more varied associations and expression with a specific knowledge of just what they are saying at any given time. They also need to create their own personal narrative through arias, recitatives, ensembles, and entire roles. Where do you start? Where do you end up? How does a character change throughout the course of an opera? When working on a piece, instrumentalists can also create subtext and personal journeys through their piece. For example:

  • Where are your favorite moments of the piece?
  • Where are the high points of the piece?
  • Where are the low points of the piece?
  • Where are the arrival points of the piece?
  • Are there mood shifts between sections? Within sections?
  • Are there mood shifts during rests or pauses?
  • When themes return, how are they different? How is the context different?
  • How do your emotions change throughout the piece? 

What are some memory techniques you’ve developed in the last while? Where have you learned them?

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5 Comments

  1. Richard Ferreira

    I’ve really enjoyed reading this, it is simply brilliant!

  2. Chris Foley

    Thanks, Richard! The experience of memorization is so different from discipline to discipline, and I would love to hear from more readers about how they tackle memorization, both from the teacher’s and the performer’s point of view.

  3. Dora

    Thank you for the useful advice. I think it is not the problem to memorize the music score. I can play sock off my repertoires however, to learn it and to present it, it is totally different skill. I have been making myself to play in front of people most of my music without the scores. Of course, I have made lot of embarrassment moment, in the middle of the performance, I just play one wrong note, and I can\’t remember to continue the whole piece. I have to the audience that sorry I have a mental block. The most important thing, not afraid to perform to different group of people. If I see a piano, I just play anything to test my memories. It doesn\’t matter whether it is in the music shop, friend\’s place, Pub. It is hard to find enough performance that I can perform freely without feeling making a fool of myself. Or finding someone is willing to sit and watch for me to play whole sonata without being bored.

  4. vincent

    I’ve really enjoyed reading this, it is simply brilliant!

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