In my last post, I mentioned the four types of music memory:
- Kinesthetic Memory, where the fingers “know” what to play;
- Aural Memory, where the performer knows how the piece sounds and can hear the music ahead of the performance;
- Mental Memory: where the performer can reconstruct the work from a mental understanding of the elements of the work;
- Photographic Memory: where through genetic luck or extremely hard work, the performer has a visual image of the sheet music in the imagination.
I try to help my students develop only the first three types of music memory. Developing a photographic memory of a single work requires not only a depth of understanding and musicianship that extends well beyond that of most high school students, it also requires a patience and focus that not even I choose to apply.
Here are some music memory tricks I teach my students:
- Choose your fingerings early and stick with them. Change them if you find a better option, but then stick with that. Kinesthetic memory develops poorly if the fingering used is inconsistent or inefficient.
- Choreograph the rest of the body early and practice that at all tempos. Make sure the arm is positioned appropriately for ease of finger motion, the arms are moving laterally at the right times, you are looking ahead for your leaps, and the body is leaning if and when needed.
- Practice slowly and accurately in notes, rhythm, articulation, technique, and expression.
- Learn and memorize hands separately before attempting to memorize hands together.
- Work on small chunks at a time, combining them into larger chunks as time progresses.
- Use a metronome. Start at a slow speed, play 100% accurately, increase the speed a tiny bit, and repeat. If you can’t succeed at a tempo, slow down. Know that there tend to be tempo markings where it takes a while to master at that tempo, then forthcoming tempos seem easy until another bump is hit.
- Use a metronome. Did I say that already? Well, if you prefer, you can use an app which can vary the tempo of a recording, and you can play along with that instead of a metronome. The advantage for younger students is that they are more easily aware of when they are off the beat, because the music does not match.
- Do everything at least three times 100% correctly in a row before moving on. If possible, visit spots you are learning at least three days in a row to facilitate long-term memory.
- Listen, listen, listen. I am a Suzuki Piano teacher, and my students who listen to their works regularly learn much faster than those who ignore my listening assignments, whether they are learning by ear or by reading. I also am amazed at how much easier it is for my Suzuki students to memorize than my transfer students. I suspect that listening is one of the reasons. So, non-Suzuki students should also listen, listen, listen. The more versions of a piece one can find, the better. And, in my opinion, avoid “dumbed down” performances. The youngest student is sensitive to performance nuances, even if it does not yet show in their performances.
- Try to play pieces by memory by listening ahead. This appears to be a difficult skill for younger children, but it strikes me that high school and older students have no problem trying it in a lesson and then relating success at doing it. Get into the habit of doing it on a regular basis. It takes practice to develop this habit.
- Develop the ear. The more a student knows what it is that is being played, the easier it is to “play by ear,” even if the piece has already been learned.
- Learn your music theory. I wish every student found music theory as fascinating as I do, but they don’t. Paper worksheets are not going to cut it for most students. In our very first two-handed song, I start talking about I and V chords, and we talk of form. We talk of question and answer phrases. We talk of how the piece is composed, the keys, the scales, the intervals, and more. We play the examples we discuss. We experiment. We improvise, and we compose. Not every child internalize it all, but those who do memorize much more easily, because they can memorize a single chord name instead of a sequence of 4 or more notes.
- Be intentional in the memory. Figure out the form, analyze the harmonies, and look for patterns and diversions from patterns. Write it down on a separate sheet of paper and memorize it away from the piano.
- Name the sections. Anything from “second theme in C” to “the squiggly section” or even “George.” Eventually, the music of a section will be associated with the name “George,” and remembering the sequence of names will help anchor the memory of the piece.
- Get the music off of the piano as soon as possible, but immediately refer to it for any questions. No trial and error allowed! This past week I put the sheet music on a music stand behind a transfer student who traditionally uses only kinesthetic memory. In the section we were memorizing, I challenged him to be 100% certain of every note before playing it. If he had any doubt, he would take his hands off of the piano, twist around to examine the music, try to remember what he was to play, and return to the piano. Within 20 minutes or so, he memorized a section and played it with more confidence than what he previously would have accomplished in 3-4 weeks of effort. For some students, I have put the music on a table across the room to intensify the intentional memorization process.
- Sing or say the note names in rhythm. (I use solfège since it is easier to say than letter names.) Funny that this one works, but it does.
- While you are playing the piece, call out chord names, section names, or other things used in memorization. Try to speak before you play the corresponding notes. This ensures that you are mentally aware of what you are playing instead of relying on kinesthetic memory.
- Be able to play any section of the work on demand. I have my students label pieces of paper with the names of sections and put them into a hat. They draw a name of a section, play that section, and repeat.
What tricks do you have in your studio?