Unlike pianists and singers, flutists rarely have need to memorize the music. When memorization is necessary for a solo contest or concerto competition, some flutists become exasperated and may feel an impulse to throw the instrument out the window and quit music. Whether out of fear or laziness we often procrastinate on difficult tasks, making the process more difficult. Cramming at the last minute rarely works.
To improve your memory and save your sanity, practice memorizing everything you play, including warmups, scales, arpeggios, etudes, orchestral excerpts, solos, and ensemble music. The goal should not be to perform everything from memory, only to play selected passages without looking at the music. You will learn the music more thoroughly, and enjoy being free of the page. Eventually memorizing will no longer seem to be a big deal.
Start with something simple, such as Exercise #4 from Taffanel-Gaubert’s 17 Big Daily Finger Exercises, which uses a single pattern, then choose a thorny but short technical passage from more complex music, such as a movement from a concerto.
There are a variety of ways in which we memorize music, and these complement each other: tactile, aural, visual, symbolic, and analytic. This list progresses from the most automatic but least dependable to the least automatic and most dependable.
Everyone experiences some degree of tactile memory by playing music many times. Soon the fingers automatically reproduce the sequence of notes. This type of memory develops almost without conscious thought, almost as if no instructions were sent from the brain to the fingers. The downside of tactile memory is that it easily goes astray. To avoid relying on tactile memory, practice extremely slowly, at a speed of about one note every two seconds. At that pace memory is almost certain.
Aural memory is indispensable to playing by ear and can be practiced without a flute at any time or place. While driving, hiking a mountain trail, lying in bed, or waiting in line at the supermarket, sing a piece you want to memorize. When you pick up the flute, you will be surprised how well the ears will guide each phrase to the next.
Some people have such strong visual memory that we call it photographic because they can describe each detail on a page. Work to see in the mind every detail on a page of music. Without the music visible, try to write on a blank piece of music manuscript paper everything you can recall from the original music, including the title, composer, tempo indications, meter, the key signature, dynamics, articulations, and even the cryptic markings your teacher added. Repeat this exercise daily or weekly until you can produce a replica of the original.
Symbolic memory involves remembering the names of each note. Speak aloud and from memory the names of every note in a piece. As you name each note, finger it without holding a flute. Taken from Kato Havas’s classic book Stage Fright, this exercise is not as pointless as it sounds. Reading music is partially a process without conscious thought, but naming each note is a conscious effort that establishes a connection between written note and sound, together with the fingering and embouchure placement to produce the sound.
Analytic memory involves musical analysis of such things as the key, intervals, form, recurring melodic and rhythmic motifs, and any repetitions or sequences.
Be sure to start memorizing a piece well before the performance. Try to memorize only one phrase or section at a time, and correlate new sections to prior material. "To memorize anything, the only possible process is to bring the something you wish to memorize into some form of connection, progression, or sequence of thought …. " [Matthay, On Memorizing and Playing from Memory, 4-5] Another method is to record the entire piece while using the music, and then play along with the recording from memory. Whenever you trip up, the music will suggest the next phrase. This exercise can be done to a recording by someone else, but it may not be desirable to conform to the tempo, intonation, and phrasing of another flutist.
Some students develop only a linear memory and have to play from beginning to end. If the sequence is broken, they cannot continue. It is far better to challenge yourself by starting at any point in the piece so you can recover from a momentary lapse during a performance. When free from the page most musicians play with more musical expression and confidence. When not fixed to the page, a soloist can watch the conductor without getting lost. An unfamiliar copy of the music is upsetting at auditions to some people. As with any other technique, skill at memorizing will improve with experience. Don’t wait to begin.
For Further Reading
"Memorization and Performing from Memory" by Denes Agay, Teaching Piano: A Comprehensive Guide and Reference Book for the Instructor; Yorktown Music Press, 1981.
Stage Fright: Its Causes and Cures by Kato Havas, Bosworth, 1953.
On Memorizing and Playing from Memory by Tobias Matthay, Oxford University Press, 1926.
"Musical Memory Skills," The Flutist Quarterly XX/3 (Spring 1995), pages 51-53.
"Psychology of Music," by Natasha Spender, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Macmillan, 1980.