Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Why & how to memorize music

When reading through other blog posts on MTH this month I notice that the focus is on ‘back to school’ for most of the writers. Down here in the Southern Hemisphere we’re in the second half of the teaching year and my students are currently in the thick of the eisteddfod/competition season and are looking ahead to the end of year exam sessions in a few months time. Consequently, the focus in my studio over the past month has been memorisation.

There are many reasons to memorise music. Firstly, when music is known from memory students are usually able to perform with more freedom and fluency. Secondly, memorising the music is good performance practice (and traditionally, tradition is as good a justification as any!). Thirdly, it presents a good image for your audience. I personally think it is a gracious gesture to the composer and audience to show that you have put enough time and effort into a piece that you are able to present it from memory. And lastly, it’s a great workout for my students’ brains!

So how do I go about teaching memorisation? I integrate memory work in my studio from the early lessons, so that students never question why they need to do it, and they don’t doubt that they can do it. If you start early on, when students are learning short pieces that usually contain a lot of repetition, it isn’t as daunting for as being asked to memorise for the first time ever later in your musical career (I speak from experience here). I also make sure that students memorise as they learn, rather than leaving it all until the end of the piece. So they may memorise the first phrase or section of the music weeks before they have even started to learn the rest of the piece.

Before the memorisation process begins, I make sure that students can play the section of the music complete with every detail, consistently. As well as knowing the notes & rhythms, this also includes knowing correct fingering, phrasing, style, articulation and dynamics. This seems obvious to a teacher, but many students seem to think of these details as secondary. I always explain to my students that incorrect dynamics, phrasing, articulation or style sound as ‘wrong’ to me as incorrect pitches sound to them.

The next step in the memorization process is to spend time with the score, away from the instrument. Analysis is vital. Students need to have a thorough understanding of the form of the piece. Look for repetition, sequences and other patterns. A good understand of harmony will help your fingers head to the correct chord shapes. Listening to recordings is also useful, as it teaches you ear what to expect next. Once your ear knows the music, the fingers will follow.

When it comes to physically sitting down and playing from memory, the result is influenced by solid preparation and student confidence. For students who struggle to believe that they can play a piece from memory, I usually just take the book away from them while they are playing and see how far they continue playing before they realise and stop. This is a great way to prove to students that they know more than they realise. Some students find it helpful to try to imagine the way the music looks on the page as they play. The need for this mental image diminishes as their confidence grows.

Before every attempt at playing from memory, spend a few minutes familiarizing yourself with the score. Not playing, just looking. Do this prior to performing from memory also. Think of it like looking at a map before you set out on a trip. You’re reminding yourself of the overall geography and general direction you need to head, the order of the towns along the way, rather than specific roads and details.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that you also need to prepare for the worst, because memory slips happen. All of my students choose ‘landmarks’ in pieces that they can begin from if a memory slip happens. So in a lesson if a student’s memory fails, I ask them to pick it up from the next landmark in the piece. This encourages them to think ahead in the music (rather than retreating to the previous landmark) and more often than not in the process of thinking ahead they remember where they were up to and can continue on without jumping to the next landmark.

My final tip is the one that I find the most fascinating. Once a piece is thoroughly learnt from memory, I ask students to write certain parts out for me. So I might ask them to write out the first and second subjects from a sonata they have memorized, or to write the final few bars. This seems to be particularly challenging at first for students, but it increases their confidence greatly if they can do it!

What are your best tips for helping students memorize music? Please leave them in the comments box below.

Image: digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

About the Author

Nicole Murphy
Nicole Murphy is a pianist and composer residing in Queensland, Australia. She has been teaching both piano and composition privately and in schools for over 8 years, with students currently ranging in age from four years to eighty-five years. She holds a Bachelor of Music (Honours Class I) from the Queensland Conservatorium of Music and is currently working towards a Masters of Music. As a freela... [Read more]

3 Comments

  1. Valerie Kampmeier

    Thanks, Nicole- an excellent article. I haven’t required memorization when working with my students, as I had such a stressful time with it myself growing up, but you’ve encouraged me to try it with my students again.

  2. Mike Murphy

    Hi Nicole,

    This really is a nice post. My tip is pretty simple but effective. Once a student can read the piece all the way through with the sheet music, I close the music and ask them to play as much as they can from the beginning. When they get stuck I open the music up again and have them play from the beginning beyond the point where they got stuck. Repeat.

    This might get tedious if the student is having too much trouble so, at some point, I will have them just read through it again with the music, then go back to the memory work. I find the smaller the chunks the better, even if it is one or two notes. I like to call it “progressive addition” because you take the known, however small it may be, and just keep expanding it. Nothing revolutionary there, but it works.

    Another simple but effective thing is to encourage them to listen to the piece often with headphones on when they are relaxed and can completely focus on the music. Letting the piece play while going to sleep is especially good to. As I wrote in one of my recent books: “Give a song enough attention and you won’t have to worry about remembering it – it will remember you!”

    I really enjoyed the article and I love the layout and the overall look of this site!

    Sincerely,

    Mike Murphy

    Author of “Grow, Teach, Repeat” and “Choosing Notes.”

  3. Paul

    One thing that needs mentioning is the importance of correctness for its own sake – not just as part of putting together an artistic whole, like a piece or passage, but because it encourages intense, efficient focus on multiple things at one time. You can render a beautiful and sensitive performance once you know the sheet – and yes, that’s one of the goals of memorization – but the real mental exercise is to force the process. Say, “I am ONLY going to learn the notes,” and stop when you begin to get expressive. Alternatively, say “I am going to render ALL instructions given me,” and stop when anything at all is missed.

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