If I sit down and play “Yellow Submarine” by the Beetles, does that mean I have it memorized, or does it mean I played it by ear?

MANY players have their pieces memorized through aural memory, meaning they can sing the song without music; but they are unable to play them on their instruments, which requires kinesthetic and intellectual memory. (See my earlier post in this music memorization series about these different types of memory.)

This is the difference between being able to sing your piece from memory and being able to PLAY your piece on your instrument by memory. It’s simply a matter of teaching your fingers where the notes are that your voice and ears already know.

If you can sing your piece, then you have it halfway memorized, automatically. How easy is that?! If you are really good at playing by ear and finding the notes you are singing on your instrument, then you have it 100-percent memorized, just like magic!

Most people cannot get to 100 percent memory that easily. For most people, and for more difficult pieces such as classical concertos, there is usually another layer of memorization in addition to form analysis, singing, and playing by ear, and other techniques we have discussed. This layer is the intellectual form of memory, and there are many tools you can employ within this memory type.

Tool #1: memory caches

This is where you might have to memorize where certain shifts are, or special bowings, or other things that ear training and singing alone would not instruct you to do. No big deal, just map it out, write out a sketch if you need to, and then memorize the sketch.

“Memory cache” is just my fancy mountain-man word for “mental notes”. A mountain man “caches” the supplies he will need and stores them until he needs them. If you need them, it will be there for you. Often, a memory cache will help you out during a performance when the unexpected happens. Sometimes during a performance I experience problems in spots where I have never had trouble before. At those times, I call upon my memory cache, and find myself saying, “here is a tricky string crossing, relax”, or “next phrase shift to 4th position on the Bb”. If nothing else, using a memory cache can help you retain your focus and prevent you from becoming distracted.

Tool #2: memory pillars

Often it is necessary to put “memory pillars” in place to help you avoid memory traps. Memory traps are usually found where sections of a piece are similar to other sections, but they may turn unexpectedly. The tendency is often to follow the more familiar section, sending you off into the wrong part of your piece. Memory pillars are your solution to KNOWN problems, whereas “memory caches” are conscious memories stored “just in case”.

As you are playing your piece, you must train yourself to turn your focus when certain passages are approaching, to be mentally present and aware of a danger zone and then consciously navigate your way through it using pillars or caches. Other passages might be pure enjoyment where you can just sing your heart out and be in the musical moment. Always know when a memory pillar is approaching, and use all your memory caches you have stashed.