Monday Mailbag – Memorization Strategies

I have been pondering how to teach memorization to students who have a different learning style from me.  I know exactly how I memorize, but if visualization is not working for one of my students what can I try?

This is a great topic that I hope others will weigh in on as well! Most of my childhood recital horror stories are related to being required to perform from memory and then going blank somewhere in the middle of the piece. Mostly this was because although I was required to perform from memory, no one ever taught me how to memorize. The most common memorization technique of playing a piece until your fingers remember how to play it even without having to read the music anymore (muscle memory) is also arguably the least effective.

In her book Thinking As You Play, Sylvia Coats outlines a strategy for memorization that works wonders! I know this because she is my teacher and the one who actually taught me how to memorize. I use the same approach – or various elements of it – with my students to help them develop this important skill as well. Ultimately, you want every relevant sense to be fully engaged in the process so that the memory is as secure as possible. On top of that, the brain has to understand what is going on and be able to communicate important information to the necessary body parts when the nerves hit in a performance situation. Here are a few tips I’ve learned when it comes to memorization:

  1. Start early! I want students to feel comfortable performing from memory when they get older, so the best thing is to start young so that they can learn the techniques and establish good habits in this area.
  2. Identify form and patterns. Starting as early as the primer level books, I discuss the form of new pieces with my students and have them label the sections and point out patterns that look the same and sections that look different. We also relate pieces back to the pentascales and chords as often as possible so that they are connecting with something that is already familiar to them. This aids in establishing mental pathways in the brain that are incredibly helpful for memorization!
  3. Verbalize intervallic relationships. A perfect example of a piece where I do this is Kaleidoscope Colors in the Piano Adventures Technique and Artistry Level 1 book. I would have the student identify the fifth that remains the same in the left hand throughout the first line and then point out the descending interval pattern in the right hand. Then I take the book away and ask if they can play that line from memory. Since they haven’t even played through it yet, this usually takes them by surprise! But after a minute of reflecting on the pattern they just described to me, they are usually able to pull it off. I, of course, make a big deal about memorizing an entire line of music in a matter of minutes and without ever having played it! We follow suit and memorize the rest of the piece at the lesson, then I assign them to play it by memory during the week.
  4. Establish key starting points throughout the piece. The student and I usually go through the piece and place numbers to indicate separate starting points. Often these align with the form of the piece, but there may be more or fewer starting points, just depending on the piece. I write the same numbers on little slips of paper and then draw a random one and have the student practice starting at that starting point. We continue until they’ve played through every section of the piece. This helps create a musical “road map” they can follow as they perform and gives them places to get back on track if they should happen to blank out or lose their place.
  5. Insist on consistent fingering. I believe this is critical to effective memorization! When students are memorizing, they must memorize the fingering along with everything else and then drill it in until it is second nature. Failure to memorize the fingering and play it consistently can ruin the flow and artistry of a piece of music that a student might otherwise play beautifully. This is especially hard for students like me who are very visual and tend to rely on seeing those fingerings written on the page to keep us on track.

Those are a few of my thoughts, but I’d love to collect some more memorization tips to use for myself and with my students, so please share away! 🙂

Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!

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