The art of memorising can be mastered by even those who believe they have no apptitude in the area, writes Edwin H. Pierce.


Every violinist who makes any pretensions to being a soloist realises the advantages of playing without notes. The absence of the unsightly music-rack, the freedom from turning pages, the greater attention to the instrument itself, and the increased sympathy with the audience, are certainly a suficient recompense for the drudgery that must be undergone to memorise a concerto.

To some, indeed, this is by no means a difficult task ? as soon as they have practised a piece sufficiently to overcome the technical difficulties they find it already well fixed in their memory, from the first note to the last; but there are others (equally good musicians, and, indeed, often the best at sight-playing), to whom memorising is so arduous and uncertain a task as to be dreaded and avoided wherever possible. For this latter class this article is written.

Now, though there is much in natural aptitude, it is possible for anyone to acquire the art of memorising, provided they know how to set about it. The writer speaks from experience ? too many find it hard to memorise, because, having heard that moss-backed old saw 'repetition is the law of memory', they imagine it to be the only law, and set about their task like a schoolboy learning a spelling-lesson. A true, and far more important law is this: Nothing is ever forgotten wholly ? we need not memorise so much as acquire the art of recalling past impressions.

But how to do this? As follows: Select your piece (if it is your first attempt at memorising), let it be something with clearly defined rhythm and attractive melody) and practise it with the utmost care and attention to intonation, time, phrasing and nuances, but without any special attempt to memorise. Decide as early as practicable just what fingering, etc, is to be used in any doubtful passages, and once decided, don't vary from it without good reason. Notice the structure of the piece ? if the principal theme return, notice what changes are made in it on its reappearance; if it returns more than once, notice if the same or a different passage leads up to it. Above all, if two places are nearly but not quite alike, have it perfectly clear in your mind which is which, and in what order they occur. Count the rests also carefully, just as though playing with accompaniment. If possible, play little or no other music until the plece you are at work on is learned entire.

Now stop practising and rest a few minutes; take a walk in the open air: when you come back take up your violin and try to recall such parts of the piece as you can. There will surely be some running in your head ? perhaps only a bar or two of the beginning, or a striking motive here and there; never mind, play these over again and again, and try to recollect what comes next. Find out just how far you can play without forgetting, and then at last open your music and see just what was you first forgot. Mark this place with a pencil, and when you next practice, work at this place with special care and much repetition.

Repeat this each day and you will soon master the whole piece. If discouraged at first at the small amount you learn each day, you will presently be happy to discover that the amount you can learn in one day's practice increases largely as the days go by. Now the whole piece is learned, get some musical friend to listen to it, and check on the notes you mistake, if any. You may find that you have not learned as accurately as you supposed, but don't give up; a few hours of practice with careful attention to your friend's corrections will banish the errors, and then ? Finis coronat opus ? the end crowns the work. After this a pleasant surprise is in store for you. When you have once learned the art of 'recalling past impressions' in this manner, you will find that you begin to remember, also, pieces which you formerly practised but never tried to commit to memory, and with only a very little work may add these to your memory repertoire.

One hint more: in order that the impression on the mind may be strong and distinct, and therefore the more easily recalled, one must be in a good state of general health. Memorising done when fatigued and dull is uncertain and inaccurate; the impressions made on the brain at such times are not so lasting nor so easily recalled.

This article was first published in The Strad's December 1894 issue. Subscribe to The Strad or download our digital edition as part of a 30-day free trial. To purchase single issues click here.