TOP 10 TIPS for Memorizing Music

Alexander Technique musicians

Apollo’s Fire, the Cleveland Baroque Orchestra

In my last post, I spoke about my current challenge, which is to memorize two pieces to perform with Apollo’s Fire, the Cleveland Baroque Orchestra, at Tanglewood this summer on July 2nd. Here’s one of the pieces I need to memorize: Glory in the Meetinghouse. (You can read here about my shotgun surprise performance of that piece last fall: Living Through a Musician’s Nightmare.)

As promised, here are my top 10 favorite tips for memorizing music under the pressure of a deadline, all of which I’m applying to myself these weeks:

1. TRUST that you can do pretty much anything you set your mind to, if you eliminate what’s getting in the way of accomplishing your goal, and you clarify the steps you need to take to get there. I haven’t memorized anything new in a long time, so I’m feeling a tad anxious about this challenge, honestly! However, I am refusing to let any negative thoughts linger, because I know that negativity breeds unhelpful excess tension, and that kind of tension makes everything harder, including breathing and thinking clearly! If I want to memorize well and quickly, I definitely need to be able to breathe freely and think as well as possible!

2. MAKE A PLAN. Be clear about exactly what you need to accomplish, and exactly how much time you have. I have about 4 weeks to learn two pieces of music, but many of the days during this time-period won’t count as practice days because I will be travelling and occupied with other things, such as participating in and presenting at the American Society for the Alexander Technique’s national conference in Boston next week.  So, I actually have more like 3 weeks of real practice days available.

Decide what your personal ideal deadline is. My first rehearsal is June 27th, but I want to make sure I have both pieces fully memorized by one week before that, so that I can solidify what I’ve learned during the last week.  Because I want that extra time at the end, it will be more helpful to think of my memorization deadline as 2 weeks from now. I’ve gone through my agenda and marked mini-deadlines for learning specific pages, to keep myself on track.

3. TAKE CARE OF YOUR GENERAL MOOD. It’s much less productive to practice when you’re frustrated or upset, because you’ll be bringing the accompanying mind-body tension into your practice session, making everything more difficult from the outset. If you’re not in the best mood, make immediate self-care a higher priority than the memorization task at hand. To memorize efficiently, you need to be at your best. That means giving yourself time to free your mind-body-soul-spirit FIRST. Bring that freedom into your practice session, and you will fly through your practice session with great results, and save a lot of time and anguish!

alexander technique musicians

Listen to your music and watch videos of performances often

3. LISTEN, LISTEN, AND WATCH! If you’re lucky enough to be memorizing a piece that has been recorded and/or videotaped, spend a lot of time listening to it, and watching the video (that helps with bowings if you’re a string player). Thankfully, the two pieces I’m working on have been videotaped by my group (I wasn’t there at the time), so I can learn a lot about the articulation and details of articulation required by watching. I can also practice along with the video. I am doing this daily now.

4. SHORT, FREQUENT PRACTICE SESSIONS. Personally, I find short sessions of memorization to be the most helpful, multiple times a day. I’m talking about anything from 5 minutes to 30 minutes. Sometimes I do more than that at once, but rarely more than an hour, and most sessions are less than 30 minutes. This way, I am approaching the pieces I’m wanting to memorize with a fresh mind every time. I think a lot of the actual brainwork of remembering the music happens when I’m away from the violin as my brain wires those neurons together. Touching the pieces multiple times a day – early in the morning, a couple times during the day, and again before bedtime – ensures that my brain is getting lots of exposure to the music. Repetition throughout the day is key. Stay fresh!

5. BALANCE SYNTHESIS WITH ANALYSIS. I make sure that I play through the whole piece of music (using the sheet music) every day, to enter into the flow of the piece as a whole. But the nitty-gritty work of memorizing happens in much smaller chunks. If there’s a passage that’s giving me a bit of trouble (remembering quirky bowings, for instance), I may only practice one or two measures at a time. I go back and forth between playing with the music and without, and between longer chunks and small bits. I also make sure I can play sections slowly, not just fast; and quickly, not just slowly. I also need to know what the other musicians are doing in the rests, at the time I’m not playing, so that I know when to come in.

Alexander Technique musicians

Look for patterns and memorize visual cues

6. USE VISUAL AND AUDITORY PATTERNS. When I’m using the music, I’m looking for visual patterns to help me keep the music organized in my mind. I need to pay attention to all the details. Where do I see the bowings?  Which notes begin the phrases? Which direction to the leaps go in? Which segments happen in a sequence? What are the dynamics? I memorize what I see AND what I hear. I also pay attention to what string I’m playing on. How many notes are happening on which strings? How many times do specific things happen? It’s so important to understand the music intellectually, as well as through the senses. When you use more than one sense, and also have an intellectual understanding, approaching the music from many angles, you’re more likely to remember it, and less likely to get stuck if you mess up briefly. Do NOT just rely on muscle memory. When you’re nervous, your muscles may be more tense and everything will feel different. That different feeling can throw you off if you haven’t done the important work of connecting everything through your other senses and your intellect.

7. DON’T EVER LISTEN TO THE ‘DOUBT-MONSTERS’! If you find yourself doubting that you can do it and starting to think negatively about your progress, you need to go to war and nip those thoughts in the bud, immediately! Do NOT allow yourself to hold onto those thoughts. Let them come and let them go, but pay no attention to them whatsoever. Instead, TRUST! See my post about the ‘Doubt-Monsters’ here: Don’t Let the Doubt-Monsters Get You!

8. MENTAL PRACTICE. If you’re following my suggestion in #4 and practicing frequently, you will probably find that the music is starting to run through your head even when you’re away from your instrument, so that you are literally working on the task of memorization when you’re not technically practicing. That’s GREAT, and really important. In fact, one of the best things you can do is to practice mentally on purpose.

Some good times to do this: before you fall asleep at night, while taking a walk, when you’re travelling as a passenger (I did this last night on a fight to Boston),  and during Constructive Rest periods. You can also put your instrument down and simply practice in your head without the instrument. Or sing. This is a great way to find out where you don’t know the music well enough yet. It will show up where you need to practice more. Practicing mentally is much harder than practicing with your instrument, by the way, so don’t worry if this is hard for you. It’s a skill that requires practice. But it’s very much worth being able to do this, because once you can play the music in your head without messing up, you can rest assured that you really know it. Added benefit: doing this with relaxed muscles will also help you combat performance anxiety.

9. WORK AHEAD. If the memorizing is going well, by all means move on and work ahead of schedule. The earlier you have it memorized, the more time you’ll have to practice without having the music in front of you, and the more solid the memorization will get.

10. TAKE EVERY OPPORTUNITY TO PLAY FOR OTHERS, AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. Even if you only know a few lines, take every opportunity to play what you’ve memorized in front of people – your family, friends… even strangers. This will help ease the pressure of being in front of an audience. You don’t want to be caught off-guard in the real performance because a bit of performance anxiety is putting addition stress on your memorization.  Doing this from the beginning will also serve to show up more clearly where your memorization isn’t solid yet, so you’ll know better what you need to focus on.

BONUS TIP: Make sure you’re enjoying the process, every step of the way! Stop while you’re ahead, and don’t let yourself get frustrated! Have fun! 🙂

What are YOUR favorite tips to memorize music, especially under a deadline? I’d love to hear them! Share your comments with our community below!

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Comments

TOP 10 TIPS for Memorizing Music — 7 Comments

  1. I don’t play a musical instrument Jennifer although parts of this blog can be taken into many other areas of my life along with the Alexander Technique. Thanks for taking the time to share, I always look forward to reading your blogs.

  2. Thanks for sharing this memorizing technique. Indeed when you play without looking the music notes you have played it better by expressing and feeling through out the piece.

  3. Great tips! I’m a jazz guitarist. I suggest that you practice memorizing often, even when you don’t have to, so that you can exercise your brain “muscles.” I’ve never had to memorize a large piece of music, but I spend time each day memorizing something, and I have quite a catalog of songs in my head ready to be performed when needed. Over time, I’ve found that, over time, it’s become easier and easier to memorize music.

    Another thought…looking for patterns and repeated sections. That’s pretty easy in jazz tunes, which are commonly in AABA or ABAC form, but classical musicians can look for recapitulations, motifs, etc.

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