Some festivals or competitions require memorization. Naturally, there are pros and cons to being required to perform from memory. While some people memorize naturally after playing a piece enough times, others have to actively memorize. Here are some tips to improve your music memorization skills.
MAP out a plan. When do you have to have it memorized by? Then aim for 2-3 weeks prior to that date. Divide your music into sections and assign how ever many measures or lines by weeks you have. Then you have those 2-3 weeks to build your confidence by playing from memory.
SET daily memorization goals. Take your weekly goal and divide that into daily goals. It can be overwhelming to memorize a long piece, but if you take it in small steps, it will be much easier. Most of the time you only need to memorize a small portion each day. I’m a strong believer in setting goals.
KNOW your scales, thirds, and arpeggios. (Go watch the 1970 Disney movie called The Aristocats. There is a cute scene where the cats are practicing their scales and arpeggios.) One reason I emphasize a strong technique is because it makes everything easier, especially memorizing. If you know your fundamentals, you can find those in your music. Once you have discovered them, you don’t have to “read” every single note, you can see it as one idea, so to speak. Compare it to reading. At first you sound out each letter as in C-A-T. Then you see it as one word instead of 3 letters.
IDENTIFY patterns or notes that are almost patterns. I like to label scales or technical passages that are not readily recognizable It’s been handy when I pull my music out years later and I have those already marked in my music. Look for sequences or identify the musical form.
MEMORIZE the hard spots first. Even if memorization isn’t a requirement for a particular performance, memorizing the hard spots, like a run for example, or a tricky rhythm can make that part easier to play if it’s put to memory.
ADD a note game. Start by memorizing 3 or 4 notes or one measure. Then add just the very next note and hold it. Repeat multiple times. Then add the next note and do the same thing, all the while looking for patterns.
STOP on the note you are missing. If you keep forgetting a certain place, identify the note that is tripping you up. Play the passage and STOP on that note. Repeat this several times until you are confident that you know which note to go to next.
LOOK at it. LOOK away. Take a phrase or group of notes. Play it once with the music. Look away and try to play it without looking. Play looking at the music again. Look away and try to play it twice in a row without looking. Play looking at the music again. Look away and try to play it three times in a row without looking. Continue this pattern until you feel comfortable with that group of notes.
COLOR your music. Take some colored pencils and color the motives or phrases that are the same. Sometimes students don’t realize how many times a particular theme comes back. But when you see it in color, it makes it all the easier to recognize. Even if it’s not a full phrase or theme, even if its a pattern of a few notes (a motif) , coloring it will make it easier to memorize.
FIND a spot to look. When the blessed day arrives when you get to perform from memory, don’t close your eyes while you play, unless the music moves you to feel the music as such. Don’t stare at the ceiling or the floor either. Find a fixed place to look in the room whether that’s the top of a chair, a picture or clock on the wall. Also, don’t look directly into someone’s eyes. You can look at someone’s forehead or the top of their head and they will think you are looking right into their eyes. This convinces them (your audience or the judges) that you are confident, without the spell of freaking out that looking directly into someone’s eyes can sometimes create. Then, when you have more experience, try looking around the room and alternate where your eyes look.
PERFORM from memory. Just because you can play it from memory successfully in the privacy of your bedroom with only your teddy bear watching, or wherever you practice, doesn’t necessarily mean you are ready. Practice performing from memory in front of at least 5 or 10 people in 5 or 10 different settings. Ask grandma and grandpa, neighbors, friends, etc. if you can come to their house to practice performing. They will love it and it will help you gain confidence in your memorization.
Map, Set, Know, Identify, Memorize, Add, Stop, Look, Color, Find, Perform, and REJOICE in your success. Good luck!