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7 tips for performing from memory

Guidance from The Strad’s archive on performing and practising from memory – and how to deal with memory lapses

August 20, 2015

Memory-playing is your next step towards advancement in music. It will open up many new and bigger opportunities to you as well as a higher standing and recognition.
Reginald Foort, The Strad, March 1928

First take a precise mental photograph of the bar as it looks in case your idea of the sound should not be trustworthy; secondly, when you have considered each detail of the passage, trust your fingers. When the student is about to perform in public for the first time without notes, let him leave his music in the dressing-room, because he is liable to feel, suddenly, that he cannot get on without it.
L.H.W., The Strad, February 1910

With the right concept and skills, any musician can successfully learn music by heart. Secure memorisation rests on a foundation of deep learning. Adept memorisers absorb the musical and technical ingredients of a piece from the outset of practice, and they remain aware of those elements throughout the mastering process. Conversely, when a musician’s practice isn’t thorough the confusion undermines any attempt at memorisation.
Depending on the composition, some performers begin memorising at the outset of learning; others practise for weeks before they break away from the page. Nonetheless, I’ve observed that many students do best when they memorise a solo as soon as they can play it as a slow tempo. In that way, they promptly establish habits of playing without a score.
Gerald Klickstein, The Strad, October 2009

The anxiety of performing from memory comes not from a fear of memorising but from a fear of forgetting in public. Practising it may be hard work, but it is probably not stressful.  A memory lapse at the concert, however, can happen to the inexperienced player as well as to the seasoned artist.
Laurinel Owen, The Strad, March 2001

Playing from memory is indispensable to the freedom of rendition. You have to bear in your mind and memory the whole piece in order to attend properly to its details. Some renowned players who take the printed sheets before them on the stage play, nevertheless, from memory. They take the music with them only to heighten their feeling of security and to counteract a lack of confidence in their memory – which is a species of nervousness.
Josef Hofmann, The Strad, March 2001

Once you can visualise an entire piece note-by-note, without hesitation, you will never worry about your memory when playing that piece. The places in your mental rehearsal where you hesitate, wondering what the next notes, bowings or fingerings might be, are the points at which you are most likely to have memory slips.
Simon Fischer, The Strad, May 2008

Have patience when you’re memorising. It’s not a contest: it’s about an intimate relationship between you and the music.
Mitchell Stern, The Strad, March 2001

Read The Strad’s article: How to memorise music for performance.

1 Comment on 7 tips for performing from memory

  1. Unfortunately, only Jerry Klickstein’s and Simon Fischer’s comments offer any practical advice here. In his book The Dragons of Eden, astronomer Carl Sagan analyzes musical memorization as either Serial Memory (depends on linear flow in order) or Random Access Memory (can be ‘dipped into’ at any point). Serial memory can be easily interfered with through ‘internal mental conversations’ during performance. RAM – which can be visual, harmonic, analytic, or intellectual – is the memory that needs to be beefed up in order to counteract that “What comes next?” question that can be so terrifying and debilitating during a performance.

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