As the competition season is now upon us, I thought it might be a good idea to provide both the parents and students with some tips on memorization techniques. Students often get discouraged with the daunting task of memorizing their pieces, but unfortunately the piano is a performance instrument, and all pieces are expected to be memorized for major performances and competitions. Luckily, there are some ways to make memorizing a little less painful. Memorization is something that the students have to practice, just like anything else. The more automatic the memorization process becomes, the more comfortable students will become performing in front of others. Here are some techniques that I use myself and in lessons:
1. Break the piece up into small sections, and tackle them one at a time. Depending on the length and structure of the piece, the student can choose to memorize by measures, lines, phrases, or sections. Shorter pieces should be memorized measure by measure, and longer pieces can be memorized by lines, or entire sections for very lengthly pieces.
2. Pieces should be memorized one hand at a time. Choose the length of the section you want to memorize and memorize one hand at a time, only putting that section together after memorizing hands alone. Very often, the student becomes accustomed to letting one hand depend on the other, the problem being that if one hand makes a mistake, the other will most likely get lost, as well.
3. Memorize pieces at a faster tempo than they need to be played in a performance situation. If you can play the piece faster than you need to be able to play it, the slower tempo will seem easier by comparison. Also, nerves very commonly make you speed up, and it helps to be ready to harness that tempo if your piece starts getting away from you.
4. Memorize backwards. I love seeing the look on my students’ faces when I tell them this. It’s not what it sounds like. This is a technique that is particularly effective for pieces that are 5 or more pages. Start at the last measure of a section or the last measure of a piece and start working your way backwards one measure at a time. This does not mean you memorize the actual order of the notes backwards! Simply start at the beginning of the last measure and go to the beginning of the measure before, working your way through the last line of the piece. One of the most common problems students run into (especially those with longer pieces) is that they will get through the entire piece and forget the ending. This is the section that we typically get to last, and therefore, it is also the section that we have spent the least amount of time on. Memorizing backwards helps eliminate any sense of insecurity with the ending or difficult transitions.
5. Look for patterns. Music is filled with patterns, especially in some of the beginner pieces. Find patterns of notes, intervals, counting, and fingering to help you find another way of remembering each part.
6. Do not rely solely on your ear. Memorizing by ear is effective only up to a certain point. Many students go through most of their piano careers only knowing how to memorize by ear because it is the easiest method, but it is also the least secure. It does not account for the possibility of mistakes along the way, and students can get easily flustered in a performance if they get stuck on one part. Memorization by ear is fine as long as it is done in conjunction with one of the other methods I have mentioned.
7. Play the piece as many different ways as possible to account for as many different circumstances as possible. Some pianos are harder to play than others, and some pedals are difficult to push. Allow some room for adjustment and learn the piece at several different tempos in case you run into problems with the instrument you have been given.
8. For my more advanced students, analyze the piece and write in the name of the chords to find the harmonic structure of the piece. It helps to know where you’re coming from and what you’re going to when trying to make sense out of some of the more difficult pieces.
9. Constantly review things you have already memorized. If we memorize something in the lesson, go home the same day and make sure you can play it without music on your own piano. Whatever you memorize in your practice session on Monday should be the first thing you review on Tuesday, etc., etc. The hardest part about memorizing a piece is making sure it stays memorized. This is a way to overcome that problem.
I hope these tips have helped give the parents and students some ideas on how to change things up. It is important that you not give up when something becomes difficult, as there is always more than one way to get things done. I am always willing to help with problem spots in the lesson, so don’t stress!