Starting the Memorizing Process

There is no question that the only truly effective way to memorize is to know music theory and to memorize using a detailed musical analysis and a deep understanding of the music. With this type of memory, you will be able to write down the entire score from memory; that is, you should be able to play the music in your head, without the piano. However, most students don’t have such advanced training. Therefore we describe here some general procedures for memorizing that do not depend on extensive music theory education, and still be able to learn "mental playing".

Let me illustrate the importance of understanding something when you want to memorize it. If someone asked you to memorize 50 letters of the alphabet arranged in some fashion of his choice, most of us would give up after a while, and even if successful, would not remember it 20 years later. But, surprise! we all do it every day in our lives! Most of us know the first of the Ten Commandments (or even longer sentences) -- we have effectively memorized 53 letters in correct order (not counting the spaces between words). And we will probably never forget them for the rest of our lives. "Aha!" you might say, "but the letters in the Ten Commandments are not arranged in random order!" -- but neither are the notes in any music. Thus it is easy for all of us to memorize huge amounts of material if we can learn to associate that material with things that we understand, or appreciate, such as music. Audiences are often totally mystified by the incredible amounts of music that musicians can memorize because they are unaware of the power of the associative memory process. Thus the knowledge of music (theory) can make a big difference in how quickly and how well a person can memorize. Music theory is useful but not necessary, because music can speak to us in its own way -- anyone who loves music already "speaks the language".

Start the memorizing process by simply following the instructions of sections I and II, and memorizing each practice segment before you start practicing it. The best test of your memory is to play that segment in your mind, without the piano -- we will repeatedly return to this critically important concept throughout this book. Therefore, after each memory step, make sure that you can play it in your mind. Good memory can be attained only if you memorize from the very beginning; likewise, you will not be able to play the piece in your mind unless you start from the first memorization process.

How well you understand and remember a piece depends on speed. As you play faster, you tend to remember the music at higher levels of abstraction. At very slow play, you must remember it note by note; in our Ten Commandments example, at "slow speed", we must remember it letter by letter. At higher speeds, you will be thinking in terms of musical phrases (words in the Ten Commandments). At even higher speeds you may be thinking in terms of relationships between phrases or entire musical concepts (supreme God and false gods). These higher level concepts are always easier to memorize. Thus as you change speed, you will go through very different modes of memory and form entirely new associations.

During HS practice, you can go to higher speeds than HT which will force the mind to view the music in a different light. Memorizing the same music from many angles is what is needed to memorize well; thus practicing at different speeds greatly helps memory. It is usually easier to memorize fast than slow because fewer concepts/associations are needed at higher levels of abstraction. Therefore, when starting a new piece and you can only play it slowly, don't fret that you have difficulty memorizing it. As you speed it up, it becomes easier to memorize. This explains why bringing the speed up quickly using HS practice is the quickest way to memorize. Many students instinctively slow down when they encounter memorizing difficulties; in reality, it is easier to memorize if you speed it up. You just have to remember that you must also change the level of associative memory when you speed up. Students who have never consciously changed the levels of associative memory may find it difficult at first, but it is something all pianists must learn.

Even if you can easily play a particular section HT, you should memorize it HS for memorizing, as we will need this later on. This is one of the few instances in which memorizing and learning procedures differ. If you can play a section HT easily, there is no need to practice it HS for technique. However, if you need to perform the piece, you must memorize it HS because you will need it for recovering from blackouts, for maintenance, etc. For example, this rule applies to a lot of Bach's and Mozart's music, which is often technically easy but difficult to memorize. Compositions from these composers are at times more difficult to memorize HS because the notes frequently make no sense when the hands are separated. That is precisely why HS memory is needed -- it shows you how treacherous the music can be, unless you had worked it out HS beforehand. If you test the memory (e.g., by trying to play from somewhere in the middle), you will often find that you can not do it unless you had memorized it HS. We describe below, how to "play" the music in your mind away from the piano as part of the memorizing process; this is also much easier to do HS than HT because the mind is not accustomed to concentrating on two things at the same time.

Memory is an associative process; therefore there is nothing as helpful as your own ingenuity in creating associations. So far, we saw that HS, HT, music, and playing at different speeds are elements you can combine in this associative process. Any music you memorize will help you memorize future pieces of music. The memory function is extremely complex; its complex nature is the reason why intelligent people are often also good memorizers. They can quickly think of useful associations. By memorizing HS, you add two more associative processes (RH and LH) with much simpler organization than HT. Once you have memorized a page or more, break it up into logical smaller musical phrases of about 10 bars and start playing these phrases randomly; i.e., practice the art of starting play from anywhere in the piece. If you had used the methods of this book to learn this piece, starting randomly should be easy because you learned it in small segments. It is really exhilarating to be able to play a piece from anywhere you want and this skill never ceases to amaze the audience. Another useful memorizing trick is to play one hand and imagine the other hand in your mind at the same time. If you can do this, you have memorized it very well! But there is more. This method of practice will allow you to start only from the beginning of the segments you practiced -- we will use mental playing below to enable playing from anywhere in the middle of a phrase.

Memory is first stored in temporary or short-term memory. It takes 2 to 5 minutes for this memory to be transferred to long term memory (if it does at all). This has been verified innumerable times from tests on trauma victims: they can remember only up to 2 to 5 minutes before the trauma incident -- we saw a most vivid example of this from survivors of Princess Diana's fatal accident. After transferal to long term memory, your ability to recall this memory decreases unless there is reinforcement. If you repeat a passage many times within one minute, you are acquiring hand memory and technique, but the total memory is not reinforced proportionately to the number of repeats. For memorizing, it is better to wait 2 to 5 minutes and to re-memorize again. This is one reason why you should memorize several things at once during a memorizing session. Therefore, don't concentrate on just one thing for a long time, thinking that more repetitions will result in better memory.

In summary, memorize in phrases or groups of notes; never try to memorize each note. The faster you play, the easier it is to memorize because you can see the phrases and structure more easily at higher speed. This is why memorizing HS is so effective. Many poor memorizers instinctively slow down and end up trying to memorize individual notes when they encounter difficulties. This is precisely the wrong thing to do. Poor memorizers can not memorize, not because their memory is not good, but because they do not know how to memorize. One cause of poor memory is confusion. This is why memorizing HT is not a good idea; you cannot play as fast as HS and there is more material that can cause confusion. Good memorizers have methods for organizing their material so that there is no confusion. Memorize in terms of musical themes, how these evolve, or the skeletal structure which is embellished to produce the final music. Slow practice is good for memory, not because it is easier to memorize playing slowly, but because it is a tough test of how well you have memorized.