Fool-proof memorization for all!
Our memories can be one of the most frustrating and unreliable of our music-making tools. Memory lapses in performance, or even memory catastrophes, are incredibly common. I know we have all heard the dreaded never-ending Martini Gavotte, or worse, Fiocco Allegro!
As a young student, I was blessed with a fairly natural ability to memorize. Muscle memory was my friend, and I could play through the entire Suzuki repertoire with ease. I never had to THINK about memorizing. It just happened for me.
This lack of engagement in my memorization came back to bite me in my college years. The internalization of the much more complex Bach partitas and sonatas didn’t just happen for me. I struggled.
The Chaconne from the D Minor was particularly ruthless. After listening to me loop two of the Chaconne’s variations about three times, my professor told me that something must be done! I was sent on a journey to discover deliberate memorization.
The key to successful fool-prof memorization is engagement. My job as the teacher is to encourage my student to focus on exactly what they are doing. Tactile memory is not enough, the thinking mind must be absorbed in the task at hand. Here are three ways to stimulate this kind of engagement.
1. Discover the form of the piece and imagine a story or journey to match, the more ridiculous the better!
This is the most effective when the student is involved in the brainstorming process, and is extremely helpful even with older more advanced students. For example, if the piece begins on an F, on an up bow, the story could start with a frog flying up to the sky, to a slippery road(slurs) made of geese (on the g string.) You can do this for the overall form of the piece, or go into minute details for each phrase depending on what your student needs. The story doesn’t have to have a logical flow, it just has to be bizarre enough to remember. For a more in depth explanation of how this works, check out this amazing Ted Talk by Joshua Foer.
2. Practice mentally without the instrument or while limiting how much it is used.
Have the child visualize playing through the piece. To encourage engagement, make it a game, each of you alternate playing one phrase, or even one note, at a time. Have the child play every 2nd and 4th beat making sure they account for the bowing on the skipped notes. You can make this as simple or as complicated as you want.
Play the piece at an outrageously slow tempo, or do a down bow circle for every note. Be creative, and try all sorts of absurd variations. The idea is not to be perfect or musical, it is simply to exercise the brain. Urge your students to come up with their own silly tactics.
Some children may balk at these goofy methods, and at first, it may be helpful for you to volunteer some of the ideas until they are comfortable. Keep giving them opportunities to engage for themselves, and most children will eventually warm up to it. We all have different learning styles, so it is a good idea to experiment with lots of different methods for memorizing. Let your students lead the way to the best course for their own memorization.
What techniques do you use to memorize music? Do your students struggle with memorization?