If I Only Had a Brain Alternatives to Memorizing Music

For many students of music, performing without the printed music in front of them can be a stressful venture. Over the years I’ve eliminated the word “memorized” from my teaching vocabulary – at it has helped my students tremendously. However, for the sake of honoring the tradition I’ve included the word “memorize” from time to time in the post – this is the first of a series of posts on playing without the printed page.

I find that the word “memorize” forces a method on students that doesn’t effectively communicate what we are really asking them to do. Somehow we’ve taken the goal of not depending on a written page so that we can focus on communicating the piece as effectively as possible to the audience to “memorize your music by the recital”.

I believe that it’s never enough to have a student do something simply because it’s the way things have been done. Yes, performing in many settings traditionally involves not using printed music on the stage or instrument (in the case of keyboard instruments). But more importantly, being free of paper allows us to tell our musical story in the moment without having our senses occupied something that doesn’t serve the performance. It gives us the ability as performers to focus all of our devices on the sound and the performance.

When we memorize or ask our students to memorize it is often presented as a visual task. For example, picture the notes on the page and play from the page that is in your mind. If reading music stunts the communication of the piece to the audience, then why would we be adding a layer to the process by having the written page printed into our minds somehow? That could take just as much time as learning the piece in the first place.

I will often use a visual element as a primer to memorizing a piece (to be covered next post), but ultimately I’ve found there are way more dependable methods that get us sounding great quicker than “memorizing” the visual representation of the music on a page.

This post will focus on the early stages of learning a piece.

First, let’s cover vocabulary. Instead of saying “memorize this section (or piece) by the next lesson”, I’ve changed my request to “be able to play this without the music by the next lesson”. Language is subtle and this may not seem like a big deal. But it really has had huge results for me – especially with kids who have traditionally struggled with memorizing their music. By replacing the word “memorize” with “play”, it sets a tone that reflects our intent – which is to get them playing loose and free (without the page). It also leaves it up to them on how they are going to process the information so that it becomes internalized. Some of us our visual thinkers. Some of us rely on patterns. Some of us rely on sound. This encourages them to go into the process using their strengths.

It’s always a fun part of the lesson when I say, “Have this by the next lesson without the music.” And they look at me funny (especially if they’re transfer or older students) and ask, “You mean memorized?” I simply respond, “No, don’t worry about all of that. Just be able to play it without the music.” They usually feel really relieved when they hear that response. Not only that, they often seem excited to go home and start… Afterall, playing is something that’s fun.

Aside from not using the word “memorize” with my students. Another change in approach helped the students tremendously… I stopped making it a step in the process. It is simply a part of every step in the process. We are always taking baby steps towards increasing their independence from the page, their pattern recognition, their retention and their ability to perform at all times. This happens through all aspects of the lesson.

For example, let’s say a student is opening a Hanon book for the first time. I will ask them to start sight-reading the first exercise while the metronome is starting to click. As soon as they get to the third measure I simply close the book on them while asking them to continue without pausing. If we are working on a phrase from a new piece and they play it one time in a way that is inline with what I am looking for, I’ll simply close the book and ask them to do it again without the music. Once they get used to this (and it doesn’t take very long), they continue unphased and they can usually do what I’m asking.

We are developing their ability to play without the music from the start. I feel it’s very unfair to only ask students to “memorize” a piece when their music is up to a certain point or they have a performance coming up. They should be building this ability every day they practice and at every lesson. It should not be exclusive to certain points in the learning arc.

The next series of posts on this topic will go into detail on the specific techniques and methods I use to turn this philosophy into practice.

Click here for part 2 of the series – Inspirations and techniques to use for improving memorization.

Click here for part 3 of the series – Memorizing big pieces or programs more effectively.