Why Memorize?

Until a piece is memorized, its musical potential cannot be fully exploited, nor can one
fully express oneself. Most importantly, when playing from memory you can HEAR
yourself much easier and better, and thus are able to manipulate tone quality, balance
between the hands, voicing of melodies and chords, timing…a whole host of musical
parameters that are restricted by our eyes. Most people are “eye oriented,” not “ear
oriented.” Playing from memory permits a pianist to look at his or her hands which
improves the ability to perform accurately and virtuosically. Once you know a piece of
music by memory you can begin to interpret it and create a piece of art out of it
according to your musical understanding, your sense of style, and your personal taste.

Four Types of Memory

• Digital (Tactile, Kinetic) Memory –– Essential for rapid passagework, but unreliable
overall since only the fingers are in control, not the conscious mind.

• Visual (Photographic) Memory –– Visualize placement of notes on the page, spacing
of measures, phrases, architectural blocks, and page turn reference points. Study the
score overall physically, not just individual notes. Study different editions of the same
piece if possible.

• Harmonic & Analytic Memory –– Frequently considered the most important and
useful type of memory since pianists must recognize chords and their inversions, and
understand modulations. Observe and absorb the underlying architectural/structural
components of a composition.

• Aural Memory –– Sing along with melodies, bass line progressions, and inner voices
during practice. The wrist should be attached to throat –– connect voice with finger

Memorization Procedures

• Formal Analysis –– Recognize form types and identify repeated phrases or sections.
Compare similar phrases or sections carefully for minute differences to avoid
confusion in performance. Understand transitions between sections. Don’t be afraid
to mark the score. The physical act of writing in the score can also be a memory aid
because it makes an “extracurricular” impression upon the brain. One must know the
music as well as the composer who wrote it. Celebrity chefs on television do not
prepare their dishes while reading recipes out of a book. They have the recipes
completely memorized.

• Fingering –– Extremely important! In order to maximize technical control and
minimize wasting time, establish the best fingering as early as possible to aid digital
memory through repetition of identical patterns during practicing, and stick with it.
Having to “unlearn” poor choice fingering is extremely difficult and frustrating. Select
fingering based on desired, appropriate performance speed, not based on slow playing.
Employ “symmetrical” fingerings when possible, and notate fingerings in the music as
needed for visual reinforcement. If unsure about fingering a particular passage,
determine starting and ending fingerings first, then work inward from both ends.

• Sections & Dates –– Memorize music in small parts –– perhaps only a couple of
measures, or a line or two at a time. At the end of a memorization session, mark the
date of completion to track your progression of work accomplished. Memorizing
works best when small bits of material are added on to one another little by little.
Memorizing is easier in the morning when the brain is undistracted and “fresh”…ready
to accept new information. Be organized and decide in advance a reasonable amount
to achieve each day based on the time available. Try to begin memorizing music from
the very beginning of learning a new piece.

• Review & Repetition –– Ideally, memorization of new pieces should occur in closely-
spaced intervals, preferably on consecutive days (3-10 days at beginning depending on
length and difficulty of piece). Avoid taking off days during the memorizing process.
The brain only retains a percentage of material learned from the previous day. So it is
important to reinforce newly memorized music as soon as possible to avoid significant
memory loss and to avoid wasting time re-memorizing. Eventually after an intensive
span of consistent, dedicated memorizing (several consecutive days), take one day off
from that particular work and test yourself with a straight run-through. This will
reveal weak spots in your memory.

Helpful Memorization Tips

• Mental practicing –– “Play” through the piece mentally away from the piano in order
to locate weak spots in the memory. Mental practicing involves a special combination
of silent digital, visual and aural memory. Feel, see, and hear the imaginary keyboard,
score, finger movement, and music in your mind with eyes closed. When you get
“stuck,” have a peek at the score to get back on track and continue.

• Select several “starting points” within a score and practice being able to start playing
from those points onward.

• “Training wheels” for memorization ––  On a grand piano, lower music stand and
practice with score at 20-degree angle resting flat on top of the stand. On a spinet or
console upright, lay music on top of case behind music stand. Refer to music only
when necessary…like being weaned from the bottle.

• Re-read the score from time-to-time after memorization is completed. You will see
“new” things (dynamics, accent marks, etc.) that you overlooked while memorizing,
and/or you may notice a few small discrepancies (e.g. misread single note in a chord or
passage, or a different chord inversion) that crept in inadvertently while memorizing
due to misidentification of notes, symbols, markings due to the overwhelming amount
of new information processed at the beginning of learning.

• Listen to recordings and live performances of the piece you are trying to learn and
memorize. The more you absorb the work into your brain, the easier it becomes to
memorize. By listening repeatedly you develop an instinctive expectation of a work’s
architecture, pacing, speed, volume, and overall style. You can “pre-hear” how a piece
should “go” before playing just by becoming familiar with it by repeated listening

• Stage Fright –– Stage fright is the natural result of our desire to do our best in front
of an audience. Stage fright often precipitates memory slips. It cannot be eliminated,
but it can be reduced by increasing the frequency of performance and by knowing the
score as well as the composer who wrote it.

• Hands separately –– Practicing hands separately is extremely helpful. Memorize
tricky or awkward left-hand passages alone. Always let the hand with difficult
passagework be “the leader.”

• Slow practice –– Absolutely essential for discovering weak spots in the memory.
Always include dynamics, articulation, phrasing, and other expressive markings
during slow practice when possible. Practice without pedal in order to evaluate
accuracy of execution. Use a metronome to effect a controlled increase of repetition
speed:  from slow to fast, two notches at a time. Plenty of drill must accompany
memory work. Amateurs practice until they get it right. Professionals practice until
they can’t get it wrong. Stop practicing when you are not able to concentrate anymore.
Unfocused, aimless kinetic practicing can permit mistakes to creep in. Take frequent
breaks while drilling. Get up from the piano, walk around, stretch, then sit down and
try again. Nerves convey brain signals to muscles and become “tired” during
repetition. Brief respites allow nerves (and muscles) to recuperate and prepare for drill
practice again.

• “Recomposing” music –– For troublesome passages (memory-wise, not technically),
copy out the music by hand onto blank music staff paper…three to ten times. Simply
duplicate note-for-note what is in the printed score. This is similar to rewriting notes
taken during a class lecture in order to prepare for an exam. This forces you to become
a composer and think actively and creatively about the placement of notes on the staff.
The physical act of writing imprints the information on your brain.

• Extra-musical sonic associations –– Say tricky things out loud while practicing. The
“extracurricular” vocalization of instructions becomes part of the fabric of the music.
You will hear yourself talking and directing yourself during performance like a GPS
voice speaking directions while you are driving.

• Learn to adjust –– Every piano is like a blind date. Seek out opportunities to practice
and perform on as many different kinds of pianos as possible. This will help you learn
to adjust your technique to accommodate the limitations (and virtues) of various PSOs
(“Piano-Shaped Objects”). Different key top sizes and appearances, internal key action
responsiveness (or lack thereof), sound quality and volume (especially in a small vs.
large room environment), bench height, temperature, and lighting can all precipitate
memory slips. Change your practice environment as often as possible to become
accustomed to being uncomfortable and having to adjust.

• Mock recital –– Modify your normal practice environment to resemble a stage
setting. Open the lid of the piano, remove the music stand, use a different bench or
chair than usual, turn off lights in room and put a spot light on the piano, and perform
for either an imaginary audience or for a small group of family and friends (even via a
live Skype performance). If no live audience is available, set up a recording device and
perform for a microphone. The microphone strikes fear into every musician’s heart.
Besides revealing potential weak spots in memory, a recorded performance is also
valuable for evaluating one’s sound quality and interpretation.
New York concert pianist, classical piano,
Steinway, Baldwin, Chopin, Ravel, Gershwin,
recital, NY pianist, virtuoso, Carnegie Hall,
Richard Dowling
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But I Could Play It at Home!
Memorization Techniques at the Piano by Richard Dowling
Copyright ©2017 Richard Dowling. All Rights Reserved.