On Memorization by Tegen Davidge

Recently in Studio Class, the discussion topic was memorization, as suggested by Tegen Davidge.

Because I was curious to hear from my colleagues how they approached playing from memory, in a recent Studio Class, I posed the following questions: 1) How do you memorize? 2) In performance, do you think about memory, and, if so, what do you think about?   A lively discussion followed producing many highlights.  With thanks to our scribe, Stephanie Galipeau.


Some memory facts worth noting:

– “Memory is just “part of the package” in the process of learning a piece.  It is something with which even people in other fields struggle and have to address. Recognize some pieces are naturally easier to memorize, and others just take more work.” (Will Bender, Daniel Getz, Abby Elder)

– “Be aware that memory happens in both your conscious and subconscious levels; it is usually when we trust entirely in the subconscious that we end up making mistakes.” (Bryony Gibson-Cornish)

– “Discover which method of learning you’re best/worst at (visual/aural/tactile) and use your strengths to your advantage. However, also work to strengthen your weaknesses.” (Will Bender)

– “Remember — Nervousness and mistakes in performances are almost always due to a lack of some form of preparation.” (Will Bender)

– “When a piece is prepared enough for all musical ideas to be executed comfortably and consistently, then the piece is memorized.” (Matt Lipman)

– “It can be exceptionally beneficial if you have a piece in your ear even before beginning the learning process because this takes care of the aural subconscious level of memorization.” (Deanna Anderson)

– “The key to good tactile memory lies much more in the left hand fingers than in the bow; the bow will follow if the left hand is sure of itself.” (Misha Amory)


Helpful tips for the practice room:

– “Start with smaller units and work up to bigger ones, alternating between playing with the music in front of you and playing without it.” (Stephanie Galipeau)

– “Create a roadmap of ideas and stories which can be associated with different areas of the piece.” (Abby Elder)

– “ I would recommend breaking any movement you have to memorize into a number of sections (for example 3 sections for the first half of Allemande of the Bach Suite #6, 3 more for the second).  Perhaps to give an overview of each section, name to yourself the key area(s) it inhabits.  Then without bowing, play the section with left hand only, explicitly mapping the the physical path of your fingers in your head as you go.  Repeat several times, being a “mental observer” of the left-hand process, before going on to the next section.  Take especial notice of changes of melodic direction, and big leaps (which are often the culprits in memory struggles).  By the end, in your mind you should be able to consciously trace the itinerary of the left fingers, which is a much more thorough state of memorization than just letting your fingers do the walking.  I find that the key to good tactile memory lies much more in the left fingers than in the bow; that the bow will follow if the left hand is sure of itself.

– “Do chord analysis! This is especially helpful with Bach.” (Jennifer Seo)

– “Work at memory while you’re away from your viola. Try to sing through the entire piece while mimicking playing – all in your head.” (Madeline Sharp)

– “Record run-throughs and then take note of where memory slips happen; be sure to practice not only those problematic measures, but also the measures directly before and after.” (Abby Elder)

– “Study the score and take the time to become comfortable with the piano part in relation to your own part! Don’t be in a position to let the piano part surprise you and throw off your focus during a performance.” (Will Bender)

– “Isolate musical lines with similarities and take the time to determine and take mental note of the differences in order to avoid confusion.” (Deanna Anderson)

– “Focusing on the vocal and rhythmic aspects of the music can foster  a connection to the feeling/emotional side of your brain.” (Heidi Castleman)

– “Regularly use part of your practice time to practice performing!” (Heidi Castleman)


Hints for the stage:

– “In preparation for a performance, find a quiet place in which to mentally go through the emotional road map of the way your want the concert to be, including going to the concert hall, warming up, walking out on stage, playing the whole program (including transitions within a movement from one section to the next, going from one piece to the next), concluding the concert, going out to celebrate afterward — the whole journey.  During this process should you encounter an emotion you do not wish to have, go back and replace it with the feeling you would like to have in a particular moment.” (Heidi Castleman)

– “Positively focus your mind on the music making rather than on negative thoughts of ‘don’t mess up.’” (Marie Daniels)

– “After so many hours and hours of practicing – your body really does know what it is doing!” (Abby Elder)

– “Focus on aural and tactile images of what comes next. This focuses you on preparing for what comes next and will free your brain from panicking about the present or any mistakes made in the past.” (Stephanie Galipeau)

– “Have faith and confidence in your skill and preparation. The moment you allow yourself to second guess or doubt, that is the moment you start to trip.” (Matt Lipman, Molly Carr)

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