Although playing from memory is commonplace on the concert stage, many students are never taught how to memorise, and many amateurs believe they can’t play from memory but would dearly like to. How do we learn to memorise music? If people can learn to memorise music, then there must be some tricks of the trade.
I’m hoping that the interview programme will provide some top tips from performers and teachers who already memorise or teach memorising. But there’s already a small body of literature specifically addressing this topic. In particular, Suzuki piano teacher Jenny Macmillan has written quite a few articles focusing on strategies to encourage and improve musical memory. Although she focuses primarily on piano playing, most of her recommendations seem equally applicable to other instruments. Here’s a short summary of some of her recommended strategies:
- Analyse the structure – without a good knowledge of the overarching structure of a piece, you won’t be able to create a mental map to stop you getting lost when playing.
- Listen to expert performances – to get a feel for the architecture and nuances of a piece.
- Try playing by ear – listen to a tune and try to work out the notes by ear to improve your auditory memory.
- Start small – learn to play a short piece (or a section) from memory, rather than playing the whole piece over and over again.
- Memorise early in the learning process – don’t think of memorising as a separate task to be worked on once a piece is learned, but incorporate it from the start.
- Break-down difficult passages – hard bits need more work than easy bits, so difficult sections need to be learnt step-by-step, then practised slowly and repeatedly until they are mastered. For some instruments, such as piano, working on hands separately can be useful. Then again, technically easy sections may need more rehearsal time to memorise than technically tricky sections, because tricky sections will have been repeated many times to get them correct, while easy sections may not have been practised much!
- Correct errors from memory – don’t rush back to the score as soon as you forget something! Try fixing the error from memory.
- Focus on music not technique – the technical skills required to play a piece are achieved through physical repetition, but conscious focus on this procedural memory can interfere with recall, so attention should instead focus on other musical aspects (auditory, visual, emotional, structural, etc).
- Practise in your head – mental rehearsal away from the instrument helps develop auditory and visual memory. To make it all the way through a piece in your head knowing all the notes is hard work, but well worth the effort!
- Practise starting from anywhere in a piece – one of the problems of motor memory is that it can be very difficult to re-establish and continue if something goes wrong. Practising starting anywhere in a piece (or from important landmarks) helps to develop local starting points, so you never have to resort to going back to the beginning.
- Practise in different locations – try playing in different places and on different instruments (if possible), so that memory of a piece isn’t perturbed by unfamiliar surroundings.
- Practise frequently and regularly – playing a piece from memory requires regular attention, and even several short sessions during the day can help.
- Practise deliberately – don’t just play! Work on short sections while actively listening to the tone quality, articulation, phrasing, dynamics. etc. Try to be mindful of the physical movements involved.
- Practise playing from memory – the more you play from memory, the easier it gets!
As I suspected, the key to memorising is practise, practise, practise! But it’s not just about putting in the hours. Most of these techniques can be incorporated into normal playing easily enough, and the investment will pay dividends. For example, mental rehearsal can be done away from the instrument – on the bus, or walking to the shops, for example – which speeds up the learning process and ultimately liberates time.
Does anyone have any other ideas to add to the list?