With the right concepts and skills, any musician can successfully learn music by heart, as Gerald Klickstein explains
Is memorising worth the effort? For most musicians, it probably is. Not only do performers report feeling greater artistic freedom when playing from memory, but audiences also prefer memorised solos to those played from scores. Still, we need inclusive preparation if we’re to perform confidently without notation in front of us.
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 – say, when phrasing is unclear – the confusion undermines any attempt at memorisation.
Although deep learning is essential, there isn’t any ideal memorisation method. We should be flexible about when in the course of learning a piece we start to memorise. 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 at a slow tempo. In that way, they promptly establish habits of playing without a score.
Memorisation is fundamentally a matter of storage and recall. It’s helpful, however, to conceive of storage in stages – perception, ingraining and maintenance – with recall functioning as the fourth and culminating stage of memorisation. That is, when we memorise a piece, we first perceive its expressive and technical features. Next, we deliberately ingrain it in our minds. After that, to keep the music vivid, we review. The more skilfully we carry out each aspect of storage, the more fail-safe our recall will be.
The strategies described here are organised under these four stages. To try these strategies out for yourself, prepare a short, unfamiliar piece to the point where you can comfortably play it from the score, then apply the strategies to your selection step by step.
Rich perception makes for vibrant memory. When our understanding of a piece is multi-layered, our playing resonates with meaning, and recall can seem effortless. Here are strategies that boost perception:
- Clarify the compositional structure
Grasp the style and form of a composition. Locate the boundaries of phrases and sections. Look for melodic, harmonic and rhythmic patterns.
- Renew your interpretive plan
Reflect on where phrases peak and repose, and write in expressive cues such as articulation and dynamic marks. Also connect with the emotional substance of the music – sing melodies and cultivate images or storylines.
- Re-examine your technical map
Be sure that your fingerings and bowings are definite. Pencil in any necessary reminders.
Ingraining is the methodical process through which we etch tracks in our memory. Deep ingraining equips us to perform expertly because it instils potent mental records that we can recall even if we feel jittery. In contrast, shallow memorisation – commonly rooted in mindless repetition and ‘finger memory’ – readily splinters under pressure. Employ these strategies to ingrain a robust memory:
- Plan your practice
Schedule regular, concise memorisation sessions that forestall fatigue; maybe work in 25-minute instalments with ample breaks in between. You might begin your memorising with the initial bars of a piece, or you could start elsewhere. Either way, divide the music into segments that you can ingrain as units.
- Learn deeply and efficiently
As a general process, ingrain a segment as follows. Without looking at the music, and at a slow tempo, mentally image the act of playing a segment two or three times; then, execute the segment two or three times on your instrument. While doing this, sing note names or counting syllables and make small-scale playing gestures. If you can’t conjure up a segment from memory, image it using the score, and then image and play it without the music. Be not only accurate but also creative as you repeat – playfully shape the dynamics, mould the articulation and so forth.
- Link segments
If a piece comprises 32 segments, for instance, after you ingrain segments A and B individually, play A–B once. Ingrain C then D, execute C–D, and then play A–B–C–D (if your memory falters, separately re-ingrain the problematic segment, and then repeat A–B–C–D). Master the next four segments, then play the eight-segment chunk two or three times. Memorise the subsequent eight segments, then play the 16-segment span. Tackle the second half of the piece, unite the halves, and then steadily increase the tempo as appropriate. Alternatively, you could start memorising with the last segment of a piece or section, and then add on segments in the reverse order of the previous example.
Limit the amount of music that you memorise in one sitting. If you overreach, much of what you ingrain could become muddled. Get plenty of sleep as well – during sleep our brains consolidate what we’ve learnt.
- Incorporate different types of memory
To foster aural memory, as you play one musical gesture, mentally hear the following one (discern both your part and any accompaniment); if you don’t perceive a passage plainly, stop playing and sing it. Augment tactile and movement awareness by imaging and executing each hand individually. To enhance conceptual memory, as you image, vocalise melodies using solfège syllables or scale degree numbers; then, while playing, sense where you are in the musical structure. Support visual memory by picturing how phrases appear on the score or notating some excerpts.
Ingraining carves tracks in our memory, but if we don’t maintain those tracks, the mental pathways that we construct will gradually disintegrate. What’s more, our recall of a piece is most lucid when we enliven our playing with interpretive and technical improvements. Maintenance, therefore, isn’t merely a process of upkeep but one of ongoing innovation. Here are some strategies to reinforce memory and invigorate artistry.
- Rehearse mentally
In your mind, run through a whole piece or selected phrases; choose tempos that range from slow to performance speed. Sing expressively as you rehearse, and mime the playing motions. If any passages seem vague, re-ingrain them.
- Practise performing
With an audio or video recorder as your audience, play a piece from memory. Then evaluate your performance and rework any unclear phrases.
- Go over the details
Scrutinise the score to retrace a composition’s structure and inspire new interpretive ideas. In tandem, practise challenging excerpts both with and without the score. Also explore the components of a piece: you might play hands separately or singly execute the voices from a multi-voice passage.
Effective maintenance procedures revitalise stored music and test recall. The strategies here bolster recall in performance settings:
- Ready yourself
Your recall is most stable when you’re focused and poised, so warm up thoroughly backstage, jettison irrelevant thoughts, and fuel your enthusiasm for presenting your programme.
- Image ahead
As you perform, conceive of each passage before you execute it. If your memory misfires, improvise in the character of the music until you can regain the musical thread (to rehearse dealing with slips, simulate them in practice, then ad lib for a bar or two).
- Be positive
While on stage, transmit confident body language, trust in your preparation, and play your heart out.
Performing from memory can bring abundant rewards. When we memorise deeply, we can enjoy unfettered music making as well as an unobstructed connection with our audiences. Even so, facility doesn’t arise overnight. With intelligent practice, though, all of us can acquire the knack to step on stage, free of the printed score, and share music from our souls.
This article was first published in the October 2009 issue of The Strad