Playing Music from Memory: Pt 2 of 3

Verbal mediation enhances musical ‘big picture’ thinking and provides a structure for learning from memory. Some people visualise the musical score as they play. Others sing the main melody in their head, imagining the contours of the music. Rehearsing the piece mentally, away from the instrument, and hearing the music in the mind are important for memory work. I use air flights as opportunities to practise my musical memory. I close my eyes and imagine playing the piano keys as I sing the piece in my mind. I do this slowly, and if I cannot visualise a note, I know my learning is not yet secure. Sometimes I take this a step further, moving my fingers on the tray table. My phone has PDF files of my repertoire so I can further analyse the structure of the music. This in turn generates more chunking possibilities. Learning from memory requires a greater time commitment than using the score as well as further time in the maintenance of memorised repertoire. Over time the ear learns to take a larger responsibility for the lack of notation, and the process becomes easier.

For many musicians, memorised performance creates performance anxiety. These become less stressful as musicians experience performance success and learn to trust in the learning process. Stress is the enemy of memory. Consequently, worrying about a memory lapse may well be the cause of it. Learning to play from memory is primarily a right-brain skill, but when musicians worry about memory retrieval the focus shifts to the left hemisphere, and the memory-rescue problem persists. Practising in nervous situations will improve resilience to stress. Sometimes I learn the most difficult parts of a new piece first and challenge myself to convert these passages into easy bits. Unlike beginner musicians I rarely start practising from the beginning of a piece but proceed from many different starting points. If I do suffer a memory lapse, I will be in better shape to recover quickly.

Some people can play a piece from memory but like to have their music on the stand as a backup. This has never worked for me. I find that it confuses my brain, so for me it has to be one way or the other. I recall an occasion when I was playing piano in an outdoor concert with the school band. As we performed, a gust of wind blew away my music, and I panicked and lost my place. What surprised me was that I actually knew my part well and had no need for sheet music. Yet when I had the music in front of me it seemed like another part of my brain was taking over and being relied upon. If only I had a button to press so I could toggle my cognitive processes between the two hemispheres.

Practising in different physical environments is an effective way to strengthen memory. As we learn, our senses are receptive to the immediate environment, and the information we want to store becomes associated and connected with this environment. Specifically, the more ways in which musical information can be encoded the more likely one is to remember the material. If your instrument is portable, consider practising in different spaces, such as the bedroom, the lounge room, the garage, or even outdoors. Pianists should find unfamiliar pianos to play, as this prepares them for real-life situations. Beginner musicians require a private and quiet environment so they can concentrate and get into the flow of their learning. Children are susceptible to interruptions to concentration, and in this age of instant communication they require encouragement regarding the self-discipline required to regulate these diversions. Advanced musicians occasionally choose to practise in a difficult environment, such as a noisy one, to test their mettle.

This post will be continued soon with Part 3 of ‘Playing Music from Memory’.

from ‘Learning Strategies for Musical Success’ by Michael Griffin

“A must read for all music educators” – Robert Adams, Music Educator, New Haven, USA.

“A must buy for every music teacher and music student” – William Bruce, Guildhall School of Music, UK.

“A deeply impressive work, the breadth of research is fascinating!” Robert Chamberlain, Team of Pianists and Monash University Piano Staff, Victoria Australia.

“I have read your book and it has made an amazing difference in my teaching and in my studio.” Beth Cruickshank, Past President – Ontario Registered Music Teachers Association.

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Public speaker, music education trainer, conductor and pianist. Author of 'Learning Strategies for Musical Success', 'Bumblebee: Rounds & Warm-ups for Choirs', and 'Modern Harmony Method'.

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3 comments on “Playing Music from Memory: Pt 2 of 3
  1. Practicing away from your instrument is an efficient use of time for developing technique too, apart from memorizing. My clarinet teacher knew that I had a long train ride into NYC to get to his studio, so he told me to practice articulations with my teeth together while riding on the train. He always started the lesson with articulation exercises, and never failed to perceive if I had been practicing on the way.

  2. Philip Martorella says:

    I find these articles interesting. In the years of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, memorization, believe it or not, was looked down upon and disapproved by the great masters because they desired for the performers to “respect the score” and “to adhere to every detail on the musical pages”.
    While I personally find memorization to be an involved process that takes quite a bit of time, I find that scanning music and listening to it structurally while scanning it helps me to remember the music much moreso than practicing slowly or hands alone. I’d rather practice with the scanning method which I am finding remarkably successful. I have to say that slow practicing doesn’t always work for me: although, sometimes, if it’s extremely concentrated, it may work.

  3. I learned to both memorize and train my ears by playing in the dark. It was “all ears.”
    The only comments I had were from my parents: “what are you doing?”
    It works both in the the dark or during the daylight.
    What works for you?

    Erik Vagen New Jersey Live Musicians LLC
    Playing and studying music close to fifty years

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