To watch a soloist, or an ensemble, perform without the score, without any physical partitions, and with a steadfast memory of the work, is incredibly compelling.

No doubt about it.

However, the goal of memorization is one that too many of us rush into without consideration of the harm it might be doing.

Memorization is a frequent topic of interest and curiosity that I get questioned about and, as with sight reading, it is simply a matter of time, dedication, and perseverance that will get us to our destination. There are no real short cuts.

This article is not intended to arm you with tools to improve or speed up the memorization process. I have already addressed this quite comprehensively in the membership and in the podcast. Rather, I want to present to you the idea that memorization should not be a goal, or something that is pursued, but rather a natural process that comes about through a deep understanding and familiarity with a piece of music. I would put to you that rushing into memorization not only produces a superficial and shaky result but also blocks us from musical development and creativity.

Hello, lover…

A holiday romance makes us feel like we have found the perfect partner. We have spent every waking moment with our new found love (over the past week) and our kindred spirit is matched only by our incredible synchronicity in favorite movies.

When the holiday is over, however, and we begin to explore the relationship over time and through a variety of experiences, only then do we realize how much there is yet to learn about this relative stranger.

So goes it with a forced memorization.

After hundreds, thousands of repeats, our hands are faithfully moving in the detailed choreography that we have hammered in. These movements are based on kinesthetic memory (muscle memory), only work when starting from a certain point (like the beginning), and are highly prone to interruption by distraction or a change in environment.

The immediate problem is that in our rush to “memorize” the piece we have developed a superficial understanding that will unravel with the slightest presence of stress or nerves. This leads to the ubiquitous phrase: “It sounded great in my bedroom!” or some variation that indicates that our forced memory functions in only the most familiar and comfortable setting.

In terms of performance, be it for a teacher or friends, this can lead to a devastating result.

Remember that compelling idea of a steadfast memorized performance at the beginning of the article? In contrast, a spotty memory can lead to a painfully awkward performance for both performer and audience. Even though, in the grand context of our lives, a performance riddled with memory “slips” is no big deal, it feels like one and can damage our enthusiasm for music, which is a real concern.

The second problem with rushing to memorize is a little more insidious and less often considered.

The Straight Jacket

Let’s dive back to the tenuous, yet entertaining analogy of a holiday romance…

After an intense period of infatuation followed by a sharp jolt of reality, chances are we will never see our holiday beau again, except in those late hours of reminiscence pondering alternate realities. There is a temptation to think that this was “the one” that we let slip away, but only because our one dimensional image is augmented by our own imagination.

(stay with me here…)

The point is, we have an image of this person, frozen in time, that is stuck and doesn’t evolve.

So too does our forced memorization keep us stuck.

Our experience with repertoire is very much like a relationship. It changes over time and grows as we have new and varied experiences. A piece is changed after we have performed it for the first time, and again after the fifth time. It is colored by understanding structure and harmony. Moulded by research into performance practice of the period and influenced by hearing a variety of renditions by other musicians.

If we have hammered in our kinesthetic memory via thousands of mechanical repetitions (which does work eventually) we are making it very, very, VERY, difficult to change and evolve over time.

So, no matter how far we evolve as a musician, our stubborn muscle memory will maintain a fingering, articulation, and execution that is inferior and less than our current capabilities.

What a shame, and what a loss!

In contrast, if we let the piece evolve over time we remain open to a long term relationship that changes and morphs along with our musical development. Many pieces we work on are masterpieces, do we not owe them the humility to allow time and understanding?

Fixed fingers

The most concrete aspect of our forced memorization will be fingering. Our fingering will be a mix of a few things:

  1. The first (and not necessarily the best) edition of the music we found
  2. The easiest solutions we could find
  3. Mistakes that crept in and will continue to haunt the piece

I am sure you have had the experience of finding a new fingering for a passage that either made more musical sense or ease. When you have already forced the memorization you either reject this new fingering because it is too much effort to change, or spend three times as long to overwrite and re-set the new fingering (that could change again next week…)

Fingering is not something to have set in stone. It reflects musical choices and only through experimentation over time will we settle on something that works for us. One fingering that works in the practice room may not be secure enough for performance. One fingering that works for your current instrument might sound different on another. Most of all, one fingering does not let you be creative. It is a straight jacket that restricts your musical imagination.


Don’t lose the treasure map

A score is incredibly complex. When a student comes to me and says “I have it memorized now” what does this actually mean?

Following this statement I will often ask what the harmonic progression is in the second phrase? Or, what the dynamic markings are in the coda? The answer is always a blank look.

This is because the score contains more information than just where to put the fingers. It is a veritable treasure trove of information that reveals itself over time.

You need time to explore the score, and if you respect the music you will give it that due time.

Like our holiday romance, would we be satisfied with just a printout of their bio and CV?


Are you sure?

Finally, let us acknowledge that our memory is not as good as we think it is. If you dig around, there are some fascinating accounts of how people’s memories morph over time to create sometimes dramatic results. (I am thinking of all those harrowing stories where people get falsely identified in police line-ups!)

The proud mark of memorization is to play without the score. And, unfortunately this also translates to practicing without the score. To do so is to neglect yourself of ongoing discoveries, inspiration and also maintaining a solid connection with what the composer wrote.

People pay good money, and travel great distances to have masterclasses with other musicians (that then point out what is on the score). Well, consider the fact that the composer is providing you with a masterclass right in front of you, on a small sheet of paper that is full of wisdom. Keep it there, all the time.


A beautiful relief of urgency

Normally the conclusion of my articles would provide you with a set of exercises, ideas to carry out, or techniques to adopt. This time is a little different, and beautifully simple:

Let memorization happen on its own, let it be a reflection of a deep and continuing relationship between you, the instrument, and the music. Let yourself off the hook and use the music for practice and performance until it is such a familiar friend that you just simply don’t need it anymore.

Or… keep the music there, as it might reveal one more treasure.


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