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  • Sarah Rushing

Unorthodox Memorization Strategies

As we barrel toward spring recital season, I’ve been thinking a lot about the memorization process, specifically, the process of reinforcing memory. This is one of my least favorite stages of practicing. While I do enjoy sharing the music I’ve been working on, I’d much rather be learning new repertoire than spending valuable practice time reinforcing, yet again, memory on old rep.


We all require different amounts of reinforcement. If you’re like me, you overdo it with hopes of quieting the ever-present voice of insecurity. Either way, the process is familiar to us all. In the past several years, I’ve experimented with some unorthodox methods in an effort to keep the process fresh and engaging. Here are a few thoughts and ideas you might consider this season with yourself or your students.


Components of memorization can be divided into two groups:

1) intellectual

2) physical (i.e. muscle memory)


The intellectual memorization has to do with understanding the music from a theoretical sense: knowing the harmonic analysis, being able to dictate the melodic line, and understanding the form.

The physical side of memorization, specifically for pianists, revolves primarily around fingerings and gestures. Muscle memory tends to get a bad rap (“You can’t rely on your muscle memory in performance!”), but the fact is that it’s a crucial component. Can you imagine trying to reproduce a piece with no assistance from muscle memory? So, while it does need to be backed up with intellectual memory, muscle memory can (and should!) also be drilled and reinforced.


I’ve found that it’s the physical side of memory that tends to fail me when I’m nervous or under stress (“shall we try a second finger there today instead?”). This may not be the case for everyone. It’s important to know how much physical reinforcement YOU require. Because I’m not a particularly coordinated person, I require more physical repetitions than some of my colleagues might require in the early stages of learning. Similarly, I’ve found that I need more physical repetitions when I’m reinforcing memory.


This is a good time to remember also that we tend to teach in the same way that we operate. Just because we don’t need as much intellectual reinforcement doesn’t mean it’s the same case for our students.


Here are my “unorthodox” suggestions (for both intellectual and physical reinforcement) to keep this recital season fresh for you and your students:


1) Cut up your score.

Well, maybe not your Henle. Print out a spare copy, take out your scissors, and have at it (this can also be very cathartic, depending on your relationship with the piece). You can choose to cut at the ends of phrases (where DO the phrases end, anyway?), or go with the more random approach. Dump the pieces in a bag and challenge yourself with a variety of levels. Draw a card, then:

a) start at the chosen measure (with the music)

b) glance at the card and start at the measure (without the music)

c) start at the previous phrase (without the music)

d) start at the next phrase (without the music)


2) One measure on, one measure off.

Play through the piece (or passage) from the beginning. Play one measure as written, then sing (or hear internally) the next measure. This can be beneficial with the music, but the real test is without the score!


3) “Fugue for 3 voices and whistling”

Four voice fugue? Play three voices and whistle (or sing, hum, grunt, etc.) the fourth. This works well for other genres, too; any piece that has multiple layers or textures can be converted into this fun game.




4) “Prelude in C Minor, arr. Rushing”

Analyze the chord structure of your piece (always a good first step). Block out the chords, but make it more interesting with a groovy rhythm. Level Up! Improvise a new melody over your chord progression.

Samba, anyone?






5) Wacky sounds on the Clavinova exist for a reason.

One fun way to test your memory is to play through the piece on an electric keyboard set on “flute” (bassoon is equally cringe-worthy). Also worth trying: play the piece with the volume on zero. This is a great test of your muscle memory!



6) Solfege is your friend!

I grew up singing in choirs, and though it took 12 years for me to realize it, movable-do solfege is the best thing ever. As someone without perfect pitch, solfege gives me a concrete way to memorize melodies and be able to play any melody I can think. Even if solfege isn’t your style, you should still be able to notate (away from the piano!) any melody in your repertoire. I have fond memories of drawing out Beethoven sonatas on high school AP exams… (I didn’t make stellar scores on the exams, but at least the recital went well later that week).


Practicing doesn’t have to be boring. Even if you’d rather be doing something else.

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