It’s funny, when teachers tried to tell me how to memorize, I got silly suggestions. “Pretend there is a silver thread connected from your brain to your fingers….just hear the notes, and your fingers will play them”. Meanwhile, I have to stand on stage relying on a freakin’ analogy like a silver thread???
The breakthrough on memorization for me came, ONCE AGAIN, in my Suzuki Teacher Training. Of course, I could sight-read nearly all 10 books, and had no plans to memorize them. First of all, I didn’t want to take the time, and second, I didn’t need to because I could read just fine.
But it was required! Oh crap.
The Secrets to Memorizing Music
My teacher trainer, Ed Kreitman, broke down some of the pieces of Book 1 for us, breaking them apart by their form. (AABA’ etc.) This was incredibly helpful. I had always thought of Form as being really really complex, because I always associated it with music theory. But it’s not complex…it’s just figuring out (1) where the major junctions are in the music, (2) what parts are similar (and if there are any differences, what they are), (3) versus what parts contrast or have totally different material.
Then, memorize each section separately. Memorize the bowings. If you get off anywhere in the bowings, figure out how you are getting off, and memorize the spot where you get off. If you miss a note somewhere, figure out what note you are missing, and memorize that spot.
If you miss different notes all over the place, then you simply DO NOT KNOW THE MUSIC WELL ENOUGH. You must know it well enough to be able to get through the music making somewhat consistent mistakes.
That brings me to another suggestion:
Learn How to Memorize Music with Easy Pieces
By the time I first started memorizing pieces, I was playing major concerti like Sibelius and Mendelssohn and unaccompanied Bach!!! I was NEVER able to memorize those pieces successfully. They were too big, too complex, and I didnt know how to break them into manageable parts.
If you memorize a bunch of little fiddle music tunes like jigs and reels, it will help prepare you to learn big repertoire or major violin music like Sibelius and Bach.
Once you know how to break a simple tune apart, memorize it, identify the problem spots, and memorize little problem spots (memorize a key to get through it), then you can memorize the big stuff too. Because all you do is break the big stuff into little pieces, then glue the little pieces together.
Also consider memorizing different elements at a time: Go through and memorize the notes, then go through again and memorize any special fingerings of left hand things, then go through and memorize any special bowing things. Finally go through and memorize dynamics. I’m assuming you memorized any ritards, fermatas, or repeats just in the process of learning the tune. This is a good tactic, because each time you go through the tune to memorize different elements, you are also solidifying your memorization of the other elements.
Once again, if you don’t know a piece of music well enough, then the job of memorization is 50 times harder, and it will make you think you can’t memorize well. When all along it was just that you didn’t know the tune well enough.
Here are some tips to help you decide if you know a tune well enough to memorize it with ease:
- You should be able to play it perfectly with music. (some people memorize as they learn a tune, and that’s a whole different ball of wax…I always memorized AFTER the piece was learned)
- You should be able to sing it from beginning to end (if it’s singable)
- You should be able to blunder your way through without the music, even if you make mistakes, you should be able to get back on track with a couple tries.
A Memorization Formula
And, as a summary, here is how I would approach a piece to memorize it:
- LEARN it well, make sure # 1, 2, and 3 are checked off above.
- As you learn it, analyze the form. Figure out where the A part is. How many bars is it? Does it repeat? Is there a B part? A C part? Are there any “prime” parts? (this is a part that is similar, but not identical to another part. If so, HOW EXACTLY is it different from it’s twin? Write your form down.
- Memorize the notes. Try to get the bowings and fingerings, but it’s ok if you miss them.
- Memorize the fingerings, if there are any special shifts, memorize where they are.
- Memorize any special bowings.
- Memorize dynamics, and any musical markings you still need to remember.
- Play through BY MEMORY one section at a time. (Part A, Part B, etc.) Take note of spots that cause you to mess up, and memorize a key to getting through it.
- Practice any “primes” plus their twins TOGETHER. Get used to comparing and contrasting.
- Play the whole thing by memory. If it helps you to slow down, that’s fine.
- Slowly work it up to speed.
Keep in mind…..memorization is like a muscle. The more you work it, the stronger it gets. Not only that, but the more you memorize things, the more skillful you become at making the mental markers YOU personally need for YOUR own style.