Memorizing Music

My high school teacher once told me that the pianist became afflicted by the requirement of memorization because of the habits of Clara Schumann, a renowned concert pianist of her day and wife of Robert Schumann.

Wikipedia summarizes her life thusly:

Clara Schumann (néeClara Josephine Wieck; 13 September 1819 – 20 May 1896) was a German musician and composer, considered one of the most distinguished pianists of the Romantic era. She exerted her influence over a 61-year concert career, changing the format and repertoire of the piano recital and the tastes of the listening public. Her husband was the composer Robert Schumann. She and her husband encouraged Johannes Brahms, and she was the first pianist to give public performances of some of Brahms’ works, notably the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel.

At any rate, the trend/curse is now inviolate, so we musicians must learn to memorize.  In this post, I’d like to share with you a few of my memorization tricks learned over the years.

1)  Start memorizing the day you start learning the piece.  Don’t practice for weeks and weeks relying on the music because you’ll only find it harder and harder to break you dependence.  Furthermore, unless you’ve developed sophisticated page turning methods, you will probably not be able play the piece fluently until you are off of the page.  Maybe that’s why Clara insisted upon it . . .

2)  Divide the piece into reasonable chunks for learning sessions.   Always work in musical phrases.  Mark these sections.  As you practice, these sections will become so firmly ingrained that if performance, if you make an error, you will be comfortable picking up again at these points.   So they are advantageous in the memorization process and later in the performance/memorization link up.

2) Memorize measure + 1 note by measure at first.  Always practice a beat further than the measure you choose to work on, to help your memory make connections between learned parts.  The first time you practice a measure (+1), play it through a few times paying attention to what you are doing.  Then take the music away.  At first, this will be a slow and painful process, but ultimately, you will find that you learn the music in a more firm way and that the rewards will be worth it.  Try reciting the notes to yourself.  You can start hands separately if the music is of the type where that would be beneficial.  Play it 20 times in a row, with a metronome, until you can play it without hesitations.   When you start the next measure, begin on the +1 note of the previous worked on measure and play through to the next plus 1.

IMPORTANT:  Don’t just learn the notes here.  Learn the articulation, ornamentation, and dynamics here and use them every time you play.   Articulation can be exceptionally hard to change after the fact.

3)  String memorized measures together to learn whole phrases.  Play over and over again until you can hardly stay it anymore.  Use a metronome and build up tempo slowly.  For simpler pieces, you may be able to start with whole phrases, but make sure you play the whole phrase, plus a small portion of the next phrase to aid in fluency.

4)  Employ penny practicing.  Take a stack of ten pennies and place on the left side of the piano.  Pick a phrase to work on and pick a manageable metronome tempo.  Play the phrase through with the metronome perfectly or until it is perfect.  For everytime you play it perfectly, move a penny to the right of the piano.  For every time you play it incorrectly, no matter how small the error, move all the pennies back to the left side of the piano.  Move the metronome a tick or so faster every time you think you can do it without losing all of your pennies.  For more difficult passages, this might mean after you have moved all ten pennies across the piano.

Even without noticing, you will stop using the music as you do this and you will be able to play the whole measure without any hesitations.  A further benefit of this style of practicing is that it can be sort of meditative and help you to practice mindfully, concentrating only on the task at hand.

Do this step until you are at maybe 75% of the goal tempo for the piece.

5)  Start joining phrases together, using penny practicing.  You will need to smooth out the hesitation spots in the music, where you have not been playing straight through.  You will not need to start the metronome at as slow of a tempo as you ended up using in step 4, but it will be slower than the tempo you used to start step 4.  At this point, you should be working toward the ideal tempo for the piece, as best it can be approximated with a metronome.  If you are working on a piece where a lot of rubato will be employed, it is best to play most of the passages as fast as your fastest section (judgment calls are needed here).

The metronome practice will make sure that you can play through the piece section by section by memory without any hesitation.

6)  Analyze chord structure and other structural elements of the piece.  This step can be employed at any stage of the memorization process.  If you are comfortable and well-versed in harmonic analysis, this can be particularly helpful in memorizing pieces such as Chopin Waltzes (the left hand) or alberti bass lines from Classical pieces.  Often, virtuosic passages are merely varied arpeggios.  Learn them as such and you will remember them much more easily.

7)  Identify patterns and adopt fingering that follows a pattern.  Where passages form patterns that can be played with the same or essentially the same fingering, take the time to figure that fingering out.   It will make your motor memory 100% easier.  Also take the time to determine what the exact pattern the composer is using is.  Is it a harmonic progression?  Are the same intervals used repeatedly?  Understanding these parts will enable you to commit the section to memory very quickly.

8)  Learn your scales and arpeggios in all keys proficiently.  Practice regularly.  I believe at Julliard the piano students have to know them all at metronome speed of 120 with 4 beats per tick (too lazy to insert music symbols, sorry).  Aim for that goal.  So many virtuosic passages will be built upon these scales and arpeggios.  Practice your arpeggios and scales in 6ths and tenths.  Learn scales in thirds (where one hand plays the scale in thirds).  Learn your chords in all the common variations employed in the Classical era.  (I’ll add musical excerpts later).  Practice these regularly.  Although not a favorite among pianists, it is so very important.  If you can understand what is going on with a piece both intellectually and in terms of motor memory, learning will come much more quickly.
9)  Practice mentally when you are away from the piano.  Visualize the piece and what your hands are doing.  Take note of blind spots and pay extra attention to them when you can consult the music and your piano.
10)  Develop a story for the piece.  In the later stage of your process with the piece, it is helpful to develop a narrative or a series of related scenes or imagines that will make your understanding of the piece more natural.  To take a simple example, if you imagine the piece the Erlkonig, you can directly associate the story that the piece tells, n very specific detail, with all musical passages in the piece.  This will turn what might become tedious memorization into building a story.  It will also help to really animate your playing.  Here is the piece being performed by Kissin, for your reference.
As you can see, the pieces is, er, involved.  Understanding the story will make remembering it simpler.
11)  Know your source material and influences.  On that note, if a piece has a history or is an adaptation, such as is the case of the Erlkonig, learn it.  Often, understanding what the composer was trying to communicate or why he wrote the piece will help you memorize it or understand it better.  For example, the Erlkonig is a Liszt transcription of a song by Schubert.  This song has a text which can be learned and understood (despite being in German.)    In fact, in this case, the text is actually a poem by Goethe.  Listen to the song.  It will help you understand what Liszt was trying to do.   In this particular piece, you’d realize that the song has three distinct voices, a father, a son, and the Elf King.  They all have different moods and messages; you are playing three characters.
Here’s is a performance of Schubert’s Erlkonig by Jesse Norman.
Here’s another one, which was orchestrated, performed by Anne Sofie Von Otter
12)  Study the form of the piece.  If you are not familiar with the features of a waltz or a sonata or the like, you will have more trouble committing the piece to memory.  Familiarize yourself with the form generally and identify how the form specifically functions in your piece.  Does the composer do something surprising or different with the form that makes it unusual?  Notice these things.  Of course, where the piece has no form, this might not be possible, but always give it a try.  You may be able to notice the repetition of certain motifs, phrases, passages.  You may notice where a composer has used patterns or tricks to disguise a theme from earlier.  Some composers have been known to take a melody and then reprint it in the music later, turned upside down or played backwards or three half-steps higher.  (read Serialists).  Finding these types of things will help you commit the piece to memory.
14)  Make like Simonides.   I’ve never personally tried this but I just learned of this memorization technique which is employed by World Champion memorizers.  It was invented by a Greek guy named Simonides.  Basically, you envision a house or some other structure, and you put everything you need to remember in the different rooms of the house.  That way, as you walk through the house, you can “see” what’s next and what it is. Be specific about the house and what it looks like and what is in it.  That’s essential to its effectiveness apparently.  I would try putting different sections (the ones you made above) in the different rooms of the house.   Experiment with this technique, and if you find it works or doesn’t work, please let me know!  You can read a little more about the technique and its origins in the NYTimes article linked below.
Unfortunately, no one said this memorization process would be easy, but if you follow my advice you will KNOW your piece and will be able to handle whatever nerves might cause your memory to become less secure.  So happy practicing.  Remember, working slowly is ultimately going to make the overall process take less time.  Try to practice mindfully and patiently.  If you are pressed for time, develop a schedule for learning each section.  I would recommend taking whatever time is needed to learn a section, but sometimes it can be helpful to set a goal to learn section A this week and section B the next.  Just don’t get too tied to the schedule that you fail to get firm results.
Happy Practicing!  And don’t be mad at me when you get frustrated, get mad at Clara!

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