Published in the Alfred Sheet Music Club Newsletter, Fall, 1995

Dr. Virginia Houser, Kansas State University

  • "A Hopeful Approach to the Ordeal of Memorization"
  • "Memorization Techniques Designed to Lessen Trauma in Performance"
  • "Memorization--Is It Worth the Effort?"
  • "Memorization: A Hedge Against Public Humiliation"

Do these tongue-in-cheek titles ring a note of truth for your students? Do your pupils perceive reliance on memory as uncomfortable and undependable?

I am sure the thought has run through the minds of every one of my students "why memorize at all"? When this question was asked in my early years of teaching, my answer was simply that tradition required that pianists memorize. This notion of following tradition, however, was not a satisfactory reply; it did not convince students that they would benefit from memorization.

Years of formulating ideas about memory process and using those ideas in my own practice have strengthened my conviction that memory development should be on par with the musicianship areas of written theory, ear training, sight reading, and improvisation. Yet, in the typical piano studio, is memory work regularly included in the training of students not working towards a specific performance date? Most likely not.

Consider the following types of students: (1) the young beginning piano student who plays his/her weekly assigned pieces from memory without looking at the score; (2) the student who memorizes with no apparent problems and plays from memory with relative ease in the home and studio setting but experiences problems--from small stumbles to outright stops--in public performance; and (3) the older student (and occasionally young beginner) who is convinced he/she cannot memorize--it's too scary, too hard, too complicated. As different as these pupils are in age, level, and problem, they share a common weakness: they have no systematic approach to memorization which serves their own learning style.

While there is no one foolproof system for memorization, there are specific ideas worth keeping in mind as you implement memorization procedures into your studio's musicianship program:

Convince your students that strong memory skills do not result from magic, wishful thinking, great intellect, or good luck. They can be developed like the other aspects of playing.

Demonstrate to your students and have them experience memorization as an ongoing dynamic process that can be interesting, creative, enjoyable, and satisfying. Each piece requires its own approach and process.

Encourage students to trust and use their ears in memorizing. From the earliest lessons, students can be challenged to play portions of their pieces by ear before the fingering patterns become a physical habit. On the other hand, for the student with a naturally strong ear, memorization solely by ear must never be allowed to replace note-reading as a way of playing. In the case of the first student described earlier, care must be taken to insure note-reading skills develop alongside memory skills that incorporate conscious, deliberate steps of learning.

Build memorization skills on whatever theoretical knowledge the student possesses, no matter how elementary. Theoretical concepts become interesting when seen as building blocks of a real piece. Memory skills are strengthened when based on a theoretical grasp of that piece.

Teach students that the tactile side of playing from memory--finger habit--is the least trustworthy element of the memorization process, although it may come with the least effort. The quickest way to tell if a student is primarily relying on this aspect is to have he/she play the piece from memory slowly. This immediately requires the student to rely on more than habitual motor skills.

Work with your students in the private and group lessons on developing a hodge-podge approach to memorization for variety and effectiveness. After dividing a piece into manageable sections, focus on one area at a time and decide which approach(es) to use with each. These can include singing and playing the melody (with and without score), marking and playing repetitive patterns, identifying and playing basic chords, and slowly playing portions in a combination of hands separate and together. I highly recommend Rebecca Shockley's mapping process in which students create a "picture" of the music using their own symbols. This approach is fun and it helps the student learn the music thoroughly.

Have students begin memory work in the early stages of learning those pieces to be performed without score before tactile memory becomes too ingrained.

Encourage students to approach memory work as a process involving focused concentration on short segments and consistent replaying of memorized portions. Also, students can choose to memorize later sections in their pieces first or do work on several sections simultaneously. A sample schedule:

  • Day 1: section 4, first phrase (mm 1-4)
  • Day 2: section 4, review first phrase; add memory on following two measures.

Make short memorization exercises a part of every assignment.

It may seem incongruent with my strong commitment to memorization that I admit I have relaxed requirements on the number of pieces my students memorize yearly. I would rather see them memorize a few with a careful process than many haphazardly.

As important as anything else said here, challenge yourself to memorize music on a regular basis using the techniques you teach. There's no better way to stay in touch with the challenges your students face!

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This page was last updated November 4, 1996