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How do you teach memorization to elementary and intermediate-level students?

Last year I attended an excellent lecture that John Ford did on the teaching of memorization. I enjoyed his extensive summary of mainstream ideas on the subject, as well as several novel ones. I asked him to share his thoughts with the readers of this publication. I suspect you, too, will fi nd his essay useful and thought-provoking.

Forget-me knots

by John Ford

The bright blue or white flowers we know as forget-me-nots are widely regarded as emblems of friendship and fidelity. As musicians, whether we are teachers, students, and/or performers, if we are to remain both "friendly" and "faithful" to the music we are performing, we most certainly need to cultivate a healthy memory. Otherwise, the smooth line of anything we are playing might be disrupted, and our performances might result in "forget-me knots" of quite an undesirable sort. 

As all musicians are aware, an otherwise strong performance can be ruined by weak memorization. We often practice pieces to perfection, but our memory fails us in performance. You might well ask: are there ways to practice committing music to memory? Fortunately, the answer to that question is a resounding, "Yes!" What follows is a practical guide to memorizing music. Even though I will limit myself to a discussion of memorization as it applies to the keyboard, the reader may clearly apply these techniques to other instruments and voice as well. 

Types of memory 

First and foremost, it is important to realize that memorizing music may be accomplished several different ways. Secondly, any individual musician will usually depend upon one method of memorizing more than another. This will be contingent upon how his mind functions best. Finally, everyone's brain will always try to travel the path of least resistance. Please allow me to explain.

"Everyone's brain will always try to travel the path of least resistance."

You might use any—or all—of these methods to memorize a piece:

  • visual 
  • structural 
  • tactile 
  • aural 

Visual memory involves mentally "photographing" either the page or how the piano keyboard looks as you play it. Structural memory involves understanding both the larger and smaller building blocks of a piece. Tactile memory takes over when you've played something again and again, and your reflexes can recall it. Aural memory involves hearing the piece in your head. 

For any individual, one or more of these types of memory probably dominates his thinking. For instance, a pianist might feel most comfortable with tactile memory. He has played a piece for several months, and now it almost seems to play itself when he sits down at the piano. The other three types of memory may or may not be part of his conscious thinking. However, if he remains insecure in his memorization, it's probably because he is relying too heavily on his touch memory. If he makes a conscious effort to strengthen the other types of memory open to him, he may find himself able to eradicate that insecurity. Thus, the more types of memory you utilize—and the better these methods are integrated and balanced—the more secure, complete, and successful your memorization will be. 

A discussion of these memory types in greater detail, and methods to strengthen each one, follows. They are discussed in order of their usefulness in memorizing music, with the first one discussed being the least viable. 

Photographic memory—music notation 

There are few people who can see complete pages of music running through their heads, at least in clear detail. If you've practiced a certain passage over and over again, perhaps that series of four or five measures will still appear to you even with your eyes closed. When I attempt to explain this type of memory to young children, they often will claim that they do not have a photographic memory. To demonstrate what I'm talking about, I have them close their eyes and ask if they can still "see" their mother or father standing in front of them. Most children will say they can do so. (If a child persists in claiming he has no photographic memory, be sure to ask him how he knows whom to go home with when he's picked up at school by his parents— certainly no one wants him climbing into the wrong minivan.) 

Photographic memory is of limited value when memorizing music because it has a serious drawback. While you may be "seeing" the page in your mind's eye, you may not be "hearing" the music. Music is, after all, sound. If your concentration is on the page, whether or not that page is in front of your eyes, you may miss articulating a phrase or playing the proper dynamic here or there (or worse), and not even be aware of it because your concentration is on seeing. On the contrary, if you feel this tool is valuable, you might enhance it by staring at a measure, closing your eyes, and then seeing it with your eyes closed. With practice you will be able to move on to two measures at a time, to whole lines, and then perhaps to whole pages. Practically, if you fi nd one or two measures that are particularly diffi cult to play, photographing just that small section of a piece might be quite useful. 

Photographic memory— the keyboard 

Most teachers have had the experience of a young student coming to them who has had no musical instruction. Sometimes a young student is able to play a fairly complicated piece without knowing any of the note names, and having no ability to read music. When asked how she learned the piece, she might respond: "I learned it from my friend. I watched her play it." Most likely, the friend played the piece a few measures at a time, and the new student patiently sat, watched, and then imitated. This sort of visual memory can help to make you feel more secure in playing a piece, if you use it to augment the other types discussed. 

Even advanced players depend upon this kind of memory, whether they know it or not. It has seemed to me that many players who are right-handed look only to the right while playing, lefties to the left. If you fi nd yourself doing this, to strengthen photographic memory, play the piece again looking only at the hand you rarely focus on. You might fi nd that you can't play it from memory looking at your weak side. Don't worry—you'll improve with practice. 

Many times visual memory depends upon tempo. If you play a piece over and over at a certain speed, you might feel comfortable visually only at that speed. To test yourself, play the piece at a much slower speed and then try a much faster speed. You may find that your visual memory needs this elasticity to be f rm. 

Structural memory 

Knowing how a piece is put together can certainly help with memorization. On the largest scale, understanding sonata-allegro, rondo, ternary forms, and so on, can help us fi nd crossroads in a piece. For instance, knowing where the recapitulation occurs in a Beethoven sonata will give you a sense of where you are, where you've been, and where you're going. Sometimes, just concentrating on these crossroads can get someone through a piece from memory. 

Understanding smaller structures within a piece is also essential for success. Music is almost always made up of repetitions and variations. Learning patterns is key to a structural analysis and is the cornerstone of structural memory. 

Some people who like to memorize this way mark their findings on the page with different colored pencils. However, that really may not be necessary because if you take it to extremes, you might not be able to see the page by the time you're finished. I believe it's always better to note these patterns mentally rather than physically—memorization should exercise your mind, and drawing on the page is to some extent only strengthening your visual memory. 

When using structure to help with memorizing, I am always selective about my focus. For instance, when teaching Kabalevsky's "Toccatina," Op. 27, No. 12, a standard piece from the intermediate repertoire, you might be tempted to ask a student to notice that all the chords in the right hand are in first inversion. However, that might not even "speak" to the student's memory. Instead, if I emphasize the fact that almost all of the melodic notes of the left hand are immediately imitated atop the chords of the right hand, I might have an immeasurable, positive impact on the student's ability to memorize the piece. Taking pieces apart structurally is using your brain very much like a computer. For the most part, it is quite easy to dissect pieces of the Classical period. Keep in mind, however, that some twentieth-century pieces do not lend themselves well to this kind of analysis, and you'd be better off leaning on a different type of memory to succeed in a performance. 

Tactile memory 

It could be argued that structural memory is more important than touch memory when memorizing music. Perhaps they are equally important to you—it really depends on how your mind (or your student's) functions best. Whatever works is most important, no matter what kind of memory that may be. Still, for many young children and beginners of all ages, tactile memory is often the only option they tend to use naturally. Not only that, but I'm sure you'll agree that all of us need some kind of touch memory to play the piano well. 

Adult students sometimes claim that if they play a piece over and over during practice, it improves that day. Yet, when they come back to it the next day, it's like starting all over. An extreme example is that of a forty-year-old student who played Für Elise quite well after six weeks, but once I took the music from her sight, she literally couldn't play beyond the first phrase. These adults lack a strong touch memory, and piano isn't easy for them. You'll often find that they have trouble playing anything at a fast tempo because they attempt to think about every note. To play any passage quickly, the playing itself must become at least partially a reflex. 

On the other hand, many children play a beginning piece two or three times and the piece will be memorized. They can catch the overall sweep of the music right away, and quick tempos are no problem. They generally have a stronger touch memory than adults. 

What is this touch memory, and how useful is it? In simple terms, when you play the piano the brain and fi ngers send impulses back and forth to one another. After repeating this process over and over, a recognizable sequence is somehow recorded in your mind. Pianists tend to call this process "getting the piece into your fi ngers." The more often you play the piece, the stronger this memory becomes. 

But there are two dangers here. The first is that this really is a sequence of gestures, and once the sequence is broken, it's hard to get back on track. A student may be playing a piece perfectly from memory at a lesson or even in a recital, and then suddenly freeze. Depending so thoroughly upon this sequential memory tool, he has only one option—go back to the beginning and start over. The second danger is that the piece might become so much of a refl ex (so ground into the fi ngers) that the student fails to think through and even listen to what he's playing. In this instance, the performance can really suffer. 

Despite these drawbacks, touch memory is an essential part of playing any instrument. To strengthen this memory, while at the same time forcing the student to think and listen, I may do several things. I first have him change the tempo. Since the sequence is learned at a certain speed, touch memory depends upon that speed to sustain the sequence. Playing the piece excruciatingly slowly or way too fast breaks that sequence. Once again, a certain elasticity in approach ensures success. Secondly, I teach my student to be able to start anywhere (especially not at the beginning), no matter how hard this might be when fi rst trying it. Thirdly, I have the student play the music on a tabletop with and without the score, studying how the hands move. 

Aural memory 

Without question, of all the ways to memorize music, aural memory is the most essential. I must say it again: music is sound. While integrating all the different ways to memorize, if you leave out your ear, you may still end up with a poor representation of the music. 

One of the best ways to strengthen this type of memory is to use the last exercise mentioned under touch memory: playing the music on a tabletop with and without a score, attempting to hear every note in your head. Slow down enough so that you can hear every note, and don't let any details slip by you. I suggest a tabletop rather than playing the piece silently on the piano because if you sit at the piano, you may be relying on your visual memory too much. When you feel more secure, take away the aid of your touch memory by not playing at all. Close your eyes, fold your hands in your lap, and hear the music in your head. Later, open your eyes and try the same process. 

Often the left hand may be lost during a performance, while the right hand continues playing. Perhaps the performer is relying too much on his right hand touch memory. Or, because the right hand usually carries the melody, the student's aural memory might very well be too focused on that hand. To gain mastery over memorization, I suggest playing either hand by itself from memory. While the student is doing this, I encourage him to practice hearing the other hand in his head. If he reports that he can't hear every single note, I put the score in front of him and have him study the measures he couldn't hear. 

As a preliminary to this exercise, I try "shadow playing"—playing one hand, and skimming over the keytops in the other hand without making any sound (also called "ghosting"). If I don't hear every note in my silent hand, I need more work. When I feel more secure, I may stop shadowing altogether. 

When it comes to memorization, there's no substitute for practice. Nonetheless, understanding the options open to you is an important step to success. After that, choosing the right mix for you or your student will help you succeed. In this way, your performance cannot help but belong to the forget-me-not variety you're seeking.

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