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A Letter to Students About Memorizing

Jasmine Choi | March 2016

    When I meet with students, they often ask, “How do I memorize and perform by heart on stage?” Many of my non-musician friends ask the same. I think they find it interesting that I perform mostly without music. So, what is so special about memorizing? Is it important? Are there shortcuts to memorization?
    In South Korea, where I spent my childhood, it was more common to perform everything without a score. I did not even realize that there was an option of performing with a score on a music stand. It never felt like a burden to memorize a piece, however, because we usually spent months on one movement before a concert. Memory always came very naturally and without much effort when I practiced one piece for so long. It would have been stranger if I could not have memorized the music. 
    At the elementary school I went to in Daejon, South Korea, every student was encouraged to learn an instrument. After playing one overture together for 20 minutes each day all semester, the entire orchestra was able to perform without a score. When parents came to this concert and asked in awe how we could play the whole work from memory, my classmates and I did not understand how unusual this was.
    The challenges of memorization began to emerge as I progressed towards a more professional level of performance. My teachers at the Curtis Institute of Music, Julius Baker and Jeffrey Khaner, required me to learn and memorize a new piece each week and perform it with a pianist. Learning any piece well in a week was already a big task, but it was an even bigger challenge to memorize everything in seven short days. I found some pieces were easier to memorize than others.
    Up to that point in my studies, my only memorization strategy was to play a piece over and over again. In those early years, I chose this primitive and slow method because it was the only way I knew. As I got busier with more concerts, I knew that I would not have enough time to continue in this way. I realized that I had to come up with a plan. Here are a few tips that I use.

1. Make sure your fingers know all the notes on the page.
    I first learn all of the notes correctly so that I do not memorize any wrong notes subconsciously. I prepare the piece to performance standards because the music should come first, and performing without music is, after all, optional.

2. Know the structure.
    You will be surprised to find out how much easier it is to play by heart when you are aware of the structure. Compare the piece to a forest. I first try to see the entire forest. Then I figure out where the forest begins and ends and which kinds of trees are located where. I imagine that I am looking at an overview of the location with a 3D computer map. As I zoom in and get closer to each tree, I observe the other creatures and landmarks around it. I scan vertically (which is studying a score to see the instrumentation and the harmonies) and horizontally (which is to know where the phrases are leading and details I must pay attention to). This creates a GPS map of the work in my head, and it becomes difficult to get lost while performing

3. Sing along in your head.
    Sometimes I really do not have enough practice time. (I have never met a musician who tells me that he or she has enough time to practice!) Do not despair. There are other ways to practice. Jeffrey Khaner once told me that musicians should think about their pieces at all times, even when they are not physically playing. He is absolutely right. At various times during the day, I find it useful to sing the piece in my head. When I cannot remember how to sing any farther, I consult the score to find out what is happening in the music at that point.

4. Use your photographic memory.
    You might be thinking, “but I don’t have a photographic memory.” I believe that everyone has a photographic memory to a certain degree. Just as people can remember and differentiate each other’s faces, they can learn to mentally photograph a score. It helps me to be able to mentally visualize where I am at any given moment in the score. It is worth taking the time to take a closer look at the visual appearance of the score.

5. Do run-throughs with the instrument.
    The more run-throughs you do, the more secure you will feel. Performing is a complicated activity. There are many different issues to think about spontaneously, and sometimes an unexpected accident can happen in a split second. To prevent this kind of unwanted, unpleasant, and unnecessary experience, play the piece through many times at home. I find that sometimes my fingers can fail, but I have my road map in my head. Sometimes my road map gets vague, but I can picture the score in my head and find out where I am. When I cannot find it in my head, my fingers will go automatically to the correct places, and so on. Things happen on stage. However, if you have enough layers of protection, that you have run through many times, you are quite safe.

6. It is your heart that counts.
    How much do I love this piece? How much do I love playing my instrument? Show how much you care. Do not be one of those robots who can play all the correct notes without expressing any thoughts or emotions. Love the piece you are playing; have the never-ending curiosity to bring the piece alive; give your whole heart; and immerse yourself fully in the piece. The rest will come naturally.

7. Let it go and enjoy.
    In the end, you have to free the piece and let it fly on its own. Remember that it is not about you, and certainly not about how well you can memorize. Performers are only a bridge between the composer and the audience. Put in your best effort up until the time of the concert so that you can enjoy the time on stage to the fullest. Focus on the message from the piece and then play your heart out.
    These are a few of the techniques that work for me. Explore other ways to discover what works best for you. There is, however, one thing I would like to emphasize. Sometimes when I hear students performing, all I can feel is that they are thinking only about what note comes next. The next note is important, but it is more important to play so the audience hears and feels the music.
    If you are not entirely confident about stepping onto the stage without a music stand, then it is far better to bring the score and be comfortable. No one wants to see a performer who appears worried and scared on stage. Both performers and audiences seek something that touches the soul. They should be able to purely enjoy the music at ease.
    In lab orchestra for the conducting students at Curtis, the professor, Otto-Werner Mueller, told a student that if he could not write down on staff paper every detail of a page in a score, he should not attempt to conduct without music in a concert or even conduct it at all. This is extreme, but he had a good point. Whether you decide to play by memory or not, prepare until the last minute as if you will because this type of preparation requires a deeper understanding of the music, and your playing will improve.