Memorization: Why and How?

For centuries great pianists have emphasized the importance of memorized repertoire, making it the standard for “performance-ready” pieces. Liszt is known as the first “rock star” pianist who caused the trend to memorize all solo performances.  The subsequent generation of pianists, such as Rachmaninoff, Rubinstein, Horowitz, and Van Cliburn, knew the importance of memorization. The heights they took the art form of “concert pianism” solidified the idea of expressing the music to the fullest by being free from the score. In musical terms, “free from the score” means learning the music by reading the notes but then memorizing the repertoire, performing it all from memory.
Today, I have found an increasing number of students who are uncertain of the importance of memorization or much less how to memorize a piece well. Many students tend to rely solely on muscle memory or aural memory when remembering their pieces. This is the easiest way to memorize, but far from completing the memorization process.
Memorizing a piece as complicated as Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata or Schumann’s Kreisleriana takes much, much more than simply taking the score away and trying to remember it without the music in front of you.
The memorization process includes several facets: aural memory, muscle memory, visual memory, and intellectual/theoretical memory. The first two are the easiest and fastest. For aural memory, pedagogues such as Suzuki and many other method books today include CDs to encourage listening to a piece many times before learning to play it. University students continually listen to different recordings and performances of the repertoire they are learning because having the aural memory first greatly assists in learning the pieces.
If a pianist knows how to practice correctly, the muscle memory should come quite easily. Unfortunately, many students are mistaken in believing they “know” a piece when in actuality, their muscles only remember the notes. Then, when they get into performance and become nervous, they begin having memory slips and wonder why. This is because they are missing the last and crucial step to memorizing their piece: intellectual memory!
Visual memory includes seeing the notes on the page and actually being able to see the page in your mind even after the book has been taken way, almost as with a photographic memory. This is one reason why I encourage students to use good editions, such as Henle, Peters, Durand, Bareinreiter, and to use the same edition every time when working on memorizing a new piece. Visual memory also involves visually remembering where the fingers are moving to in the piece. Many times, I have seen students not look at their hands and when they started looking down they actually forgot because they had not completed that aspect of visual memory.
Intellectual memory is the key factor if you want to have a solid performance and feel confident when playing. (Not ”Oh no, I’m so nervous, I’m not sure if my fingers are going to go to the right note in the difficult section.”) If you know the notes mentally, it will not matter if you fingers forget where to go.  Intellectually knowing the piece means not only knowing the notes, chords, and melody thoroughly but also understanding the theory of composition of the piece. For example, in a typical ABA form Sonata, it is imperative to know and remember the chordal and tonal structure and development within the sections; otherwise memory slips will occur, for example, during the recapitulation section when the main theme reoccurs in the tonic key. Understanding theoretical concepts is why theory and composition are so important in piano study! A pianist must know how a piece is structured and built in order to memorize well and have a greater understanding of the piece.
In fact, great pianists and pedagogues have emphasized the practice of studying the score away from the piano (not playing) in order to intellectually memorize. This is a great way to be certain you are not relying on muscle memory and that you know the music theory and composition behind the piece.
*A note about practicing faster and slower pieces or movements: Memory slips happen more often in slower pieces than in faster pieces. Memory slips rarely happen in Etudes, for instance. Fingers are moving so fast, your muscle memory takes over and you hardly have time to think ”Oh no, I’m not sure what the next note is” and then a memory clip occurs. This is why practicing Etudes slowly is important; to make sure you also complete the intellectual memory, not just muscle and visual memory.
Why memorize? Being free from the score by memorizing the music, not reading from the page, allows for greater freedom of motion and expression. Internalizing the music allows one more self-expression and ease to create meaning in the musical performance.
How to memorize? Muscle memory may be the easiest and fastest way to memorize a piece, but it is only the first step to memorization and by no means the way to learn a piece thoroughly. To reduce your chances of memory slips during a performance and retain your memorization for longer, make sure you use all four aspects of memorization, especially the intellectual aspect. Not only will you know your pieces more accurately and thoroughly, it will also increase your confidence which will shine through in your performance.


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