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Memorization? Here are my tricks...

Hello everyone,

That's a question that comes back often, especially before Winter recitals, recitals, examinations etc.. so I thought I would give you my tricks. Please don't forget to vote and share if you enjoyed the reading and/or learn something today! Thank you.

Memorization at the piano is made of 6 elements:

  1. Visual memory of the music you read from, meaning that while you play the piece you can see the music as if the music sheets were in front of your eyes.

  2. Visual memory of your fingers, meaning that while you practiced, you watched your fingers going up and down in a certain order such as scales, arpeggios, trills, mordants or as if you are watching a path in a maze. You learn and can visualize before you play them which notes should come next.

  3. Memorization of the letter name: yes, as simple as it may look, you could learn to repeat a long sequence of letter name of any musical lines you are playing (I learned this at the famous Paris Conservatory when I was a student, and it helped me A LOT!). this sequence is not only for the melodic lines, but could be of any lines.

  4. Singing your lines: again, this might sound so obvious that no-one thinks they should do it, but besides the melodic lines, when you play any piece, are you able to sing every single lines separately by themselves?

  5. Harmonic memory. Probably the most important of all the memories, at least that’s the way I see it, and since I am writing this response.. =) Music is written following a harmonic structure (obviously here I am talking about all piano music from Baroque until early modern). You need to be able to completely understand this harmonic structure and therefore when you are “lost” now you can remember that after that “6/4” you go to a “V” then go to a “I” and now, you are not “lost” anymore.. besides there are only few cadences available, and musical phrase always use, or end on cadences!

  6. The (in)famous “muscle memory”: first off, I learned very recently (like last summer) that, in a neurological sense there is no such thing as “muscle memory”.. I was blown away, as I have been using this term for almost 40 years. the proper technical term is “Reflex”, yes reflex, as basic as that! What we are really doing is teaching the brain that after each sound we create the fingers will go here or there (on the keyboard).. so Yes, it might sound like a terminology game, but actually it’s more profound than that.. It also means that we are relying on orders given by the brain as an automatic response to stimulus we created while we practice.. but here is the HUGE issue we all encounter with that.. these stimulus are given while we are in certain emotional and physical condition which are NOWHERE close to what happens when we are on stage! Indeed, on stage we are (as it should be) nervous, and have anxiety (with different degree depending on each of us).. what is common to ALL OF US though is that adrenaline kicks in, and makes us react a lot faster than usual.. So, the result? For professionals they can play too fast (or faster that they intended to play) but they can do it because their technique, their digital abilities have been developed to the highest level, so they might not be happy with the musical results and for an audience listening it could be (too) fast. For amateurs, because they don’t have the technique to follow this new and much faster tempo than usual, they usual crash, and/or don’t understand why “it doesn’t work anymore” and come up with phrases such as: “it was so much better in the practice room”.. Has anyone reading this ever said this to their teacher, and/or any teachers have heard that from their students? =)

To sum it up, out of these 6 memories #6 is the one NEVER TO BE USED as a memorization tool. First because it’s totally unreliable, and second it’s going to be present that you want it or not, because once again, it’s a reflex that you are developing while practicing.

These are the 4 memories I work the most on because I found them to be VERY reliable: #1 Harmonic memory, #2 Singing all my lines, #3 Memorization of letter names, #4 Visual memory of my fingers. I rarely rely on #1 and I know that #6 will be there if all 4 other memory fails…It did happened to me a couple of times in my concert life, and this was from far THE MOST uncomfortable moment I ever had on stage. I felt like an acrobat perched 100 feet above the ground, walking on a string without any safety net, and not knowing if the string was strong enough to support my weight! Every time though, it went fine..phew… but inside my head? That was intense!

I hope my answer will help you.

If you want to know more about me, please subscribe to my YouTube channel where I perform and explain all 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas one movement at a time. (click on the picture to be sent to my channel).

Please don’t forget to "like" and share my answer if you liked it!

Merry Christmas 2021 to you all!

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Such interesting insights. Thank you so much for sharing with us!!

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