Tools for Performing by Memory

Andrée Martin | April 2020

Question: What are some tips for memorizing music for competitions, recitals, and auditions?

Answer: Many believe the ability to memorize music is a fixed skill; something they either can or can’t do. I would argue that it is a learned skill, although, arguably, for those who have perfect pitch, the process is much easier. If you are fearful of memorizing or scared to try after a memory slip in performance, begin again with a new work instead of memorizing a piece you already know. Remind yourself that by doing mindful work the brain’s plasticity ensures huge changes over time.
    Play from memory from the very first practice session with a new piece. Leave the score on your stand as you work, but turn the music away from you. Don’t read and play at the same time. Start by looking at a phrase without the flute in your hands. Memorize just a few notes, step away from the stand, and then play it without looking at the music. If you begin without the score, soon you will not need it at all. This method reduces your dependency on the written score, cultivates the use of the whole body and natural movement (because you are not drilling the music while staring at the score), and encourages analysis of musical lines in a personal way.
    Memorize the piece beginning with the last phrase, then the second to last phrase, and so on. Learning a work from the end and working backwards creates so much more confidence.
    Memorize the music with all musical elements in place. Don’t learn notes and rhythm first and add dynamics, character, articulation, and style later. Separating out musical elements will make the learning process longer and the memorizing process less secure. Learning all musical elements at once glues those connections together and solidifies the process in the expressive and emotional part of the brain, which, incidentally, helps you memorize.
    If you think you know the piece from memory, test yourself by writing it out on a blank piece of manuscript paper. Can you replicate every single articulation and dynamic marking? Are your rests and interludes the correct length?
    Sing through the piece without the flute in your hands. Do you know every note, rhythm, and expressive gesture? You will find that your memory is foggy in sections that you just do not know very well. This is a good way to test your knowledge of the piece and clarify difficult passages.
    Memorize not just the flute part, but also the piano or orchestral interludes. Play them as if they were in the flute part. Often memory slips happen when one second-guesses an entrance. Know those interludes as well as you do the solo part.
    When you memorize sections of a piece at a specific tempo, it can be a struggle to change tempos. This quickly becomes apparent at the first rehearsal of a concerto with an orchestra. Muscle memory can be connected to particular speeds. Gradually slow the tempo as you memorize so you have to rely on other skills to know where you are in the score.
    Know what key you are in and what scale degree you are playing. Label each note with a number according to the scale (G, B, and C are 1, 3, and 4 in the key of G Major, for example) and alternate singing the numbers, singing note names, and playing those notes. Then try transposing by using the same numbers beginning on a different note. Playing phrases in different keys means that you are thinking structurally and not just relying on muscle memory. Muscle memory is not reliable enough on its own and should only be used as one element of the memorization process.
    Make a game of it. Find a friend who is playing the same piece or who wants to work on their sightreading and have them start and stop at unpredictable places, even mid-phrase, so you can complete the musical thought. You can even play this game on your own by making a copy of the music and cutting up the pages into small phrases. Pick a phrase at random to begin. Do you know where that phrase is in the context of the whole piece? Can you continue from that place? Beginning at unpredictable spots in the score tests your knowledge of the whole piece.
    Practice improvising. The more comfortable you are with improvisation, the less derailed you will be if you lose your place while playing from memory. You will be able to improvise your way out of the problem.
    Know your intervals. There are lots of fun ways to memorize intervals using familiar tunes. The first two notes in Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, for example, form a perfect fifth and the first two of Dashing Through the Snow make a major sixth. If you find a passage that is particularly problematic, analyze the intervals and sing them back using note names or numbers. This process can be time consuming but it is well worth the effort and will get much easier with practice.
    Create distractions when testing your memory. Don’t practice in the same room while staring at the same tree out of the same window. Go to band or orchestra rehearsal early and test your memory while everyone is warming up around you. Distract yourself by looking at your fingers in the mirror. Sometimes my students have fun doing what they call adversity training. One student performs from memory while the rest throw paper airplanes around the room, sing along, and even turn the lights on and off!
    Don’t hesitate to ask your pianist to spend a little of your rehearsal time working challenging sections in repetitive loops so you can become comfortable. Playing with a pianist the first few times can feel like a performance and derail memory work. Various apps and software programs can help you prepare for work with an orchestra or pianist by allowing you to repeat challenging sections in loops.
    You can manipulate the speed of YouTube videos by clicking the settings button to choose a different playback speed. Although I encourage my students to develop their own musical intention and don’t necessarily want them to imitate performances, playing along with recordings during the memorization process is helpful. Playing along with a great performance at slower speeds can help solidify your memory.
    Create a personalized map of the piece. Label the big sections of the piece on a blank page stating the key, starting notes, and character. Describe those sections in your own words and write out any problem spots in the map. As your memory solidifies, rewrite the map to include less and less information. One student created an entire short story to describe every phrase of her competition piece. She never lost her place again. As she played, she was following the plot in her mind. This had the added benefit of making her performance more engaging and dramatic!
    Have a safe space to practice performing from memory. Don’t go from the practice room to the first rehearsal with an orchestra. Scaffold your experience by gradually making it more and more challenging in terms of the size of the performance space and the audience. Family and friends can help by listening, even to small sections, as you try out new skills.
    Don’t practice mistakes. Go slow enough to make sure there are none. Use what my teacher, Samuel Baron, called Moveable Fermatas. If you are not sure what comes next, don’t guess. Searching for notes is detrimental to creating a brain groove of the line in your mind (another Baron idea). Place a fermata on the last note that is clear in your memory, take a breath, and repeat that note until you are 100% sure what comes next.
    Find variations. The middle section of Enescu’s Cantabile from Cantabile et Presto, for example, contains a variation on the opening tune. Find and play the skeleton; find and play the variations based on that; and then improvise your own variations. This will help you memorize because you can see the notes in the variation as ornaments decorating the tune. If you have a memory slip mid-variation you can improvise your way out or even play the skeleton. Your audience will never know you made a substitution!
    People learn to analyze prose, poetry, and even sequenced patterns of shapes starting in pre-school. Analyzing the form of a piece is a specialized skill, but you can use the skills you already have to see sequences to find sections where the key or mood changes in a piece. Being able to describe the sections of the form (in your own words) will help you remember where you are in the music. Although the first movement of the Mozart G Major Flute Concerto, K. 313 has 219 measures, for example, it only has three sections. The third section is a variation of the first, so there are really only two sections. Finding these bigger sections and patterns will help you organize and then memorize the smaller details.

    Don’t wait to practice these memorization skills until you are facing a competition or audition. Work on your memory muscle every day. Experiment with one or two of these ideas for a week or two and then try another. They will help you develop memorization methods that work for you.