Sometimes I am asked how it is I can play so much music from memory. It’s not a question that I find easy to answer. My usual response was to say, ‘It’s a bit like learning to ride a two wheeled bicycle. At first it seems impossible but after a whole lot of practice and determination you eventually get the hang of it. You stop thinking about making it happen and you know how to ride instinctively.’ However, there is a bit more to it than that.
One of the main things is to trust yourself while completely believing that memory works and can be relied on. If you don’t have that belief and trust, you might not get the results you hope for. You also need to be realistic. We are human beings and occasionally things do go wrong. Even the greatest musicians can suffer memory lapses during a performance. You have to accept it and be prepared to start again and finish the performance no matter what. There are strategies to help you cope when things go wrong and you lose your place.
You have to understand and follow a process to achieve memorisation of a piece of music. It requires discipline and focus. Of course, results vary from person to person. Some people might be more open to memorising music than others. Personally I find it depends on the music too. There are some kinds of music that I find too difficult to memorise and others than sink in very easily.
So far nobody knows exactly how the brain works (although they are working on it!) but there is one thing that is well understood. If you have a healthy lifestyle, eat well and exercise regularly, the brain (and you!) will benefit. I believe it is true as some years ago I tried running and going to the gym on a weekly basis and really noticed an improvement in my memory.
One important thing to realise about music memorisation is that you are doing more than just memorising notes. What is or should be happening is that you are memorising the sounds, hand and finger movements as well as your emotional responses to the music.
There are practical things you can do to help the memorisation process. The obvious one is practicing regularly and consistently with a well thought out practice routine.
Divide the music you are learning up into manageable sections. This is often done for you by the composer and it is usually obvious where sections begin and end. Use them as signposts and make sure you have a secure image of those signposts in your mind. They come in handy if you lose your place somewhere. If you slip up, look towards the next signpost you can think of. Only the most astute audiences will notice when this happens and those who do will usually admire the performer for a successful recovery!
Don’t always begin your practice from the first bar of the piece you are learning. Practice starting from those signposts mentioned as well. Mix it up a bit and practice different sections at a time or even in the reverse order. Get to know all the sections as well as you know the opening bars of the piece.
There are other details that help memorisation. The better your understanding of music theory, the easier it will be to recognise key moments or important features of the piece. You might for example notice chord sequences, different types of scales and cadences, as well as being aware of start and end notes of phrases.
Also of great important is how well you have thought out your left and right hand fingering. Progress with memorisation can be hampered if you haven’t made definite and sensible fingering decisions. You must have complete confidence in your fingering choices and avoid memorising errors.
When I was studying for my music diploma, I remember hearing about the flute students who were expected to be able to write down an entire score from memory. That was the flute professor’s way of helping the students to firm up their memorisation and really know the music inside out.
Another way to firm up your memory is through visualisation. Try playing the piece you are learning in your head while going for a walk. As you do, try to visualise your left hand fingers stopping the frets and/or your right hand fingers plucking each string. It’s difficult at first and takes practice but is a really good way to test yourself and understand where more work is needed.
You can test yourself when playing the guitar too. Have the sheet music on hand but hidden. See how far you can get without the music. Don’t give up and do keep going as far as you can until you feel you are completely lost. Then immediately refer back to the sheet music. Go over the areas where your memory was not reliable then hide the music again and try playing from memory. You might start from the beginning, or pick up from where you left off. It’s up to you to experiment and discover the process that works best for you.
I’ve heard it said that a good time to work on a piece to aid memorisation is in the evening, an hour or so before going to bed. It’s also a good idea after a time (perhaps a week or two) working on a piece, to let it rest. Leave it a few days and then go back to it.
When you have convinced yourself that you have completely memorised a piece, the next step is to be able to play it from memory in front of an audience. The first performance is always the riskiest and might not go as well as you might like. The thing I have found is that the act of performing a work in a concert can actually assist the memorisation process. There is something about the stress of performing that sharpens the mind and more often than not a piece seems more firmly embedded in your mind afterwards. If all the preparatory work has been done properly then things should steadily improve through each performance.
Don’t forget too, that just because a piece is memorised it doesn’t mean that you must perform it without sheet music in front of you. If you have doubts or nerves are a problem, it can be helpful to have the music on a stand nearby as a reference. In the end, it’s up to you to find what works best and that knowledge will come with experience.