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Memorizing Music

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by Professor Monte Belknap

One of the greatest violin teachers of all time, Dorothy Delay, once said that the best performers are the ones that can memorize the most details. Learning to strengthen the conscious memory is key to memorizing music, and thus becoming a great performer.

Traditional Method for Memorizing Music

Traditionally, memorizing music is done by playing through a piece repeatedly until it becomes automatic (rehearsal). Musicians who practice this way rarely attempt to put the music into their conscious or awake mind. Thus, the music only exists in the artistic and expressive part of the brain, or the subconscious. During a performance, when the pressure on the musician is great, it is difficult to stay in the subconscious, where the music was memorized. The brain goes “conscious” and the mind of the performer can go “blank”. This may contribute to musicians having “memory slips” during a performance.

The "Shadow Practicing" Method

Video of Shadow Practicing

  • Students begin by playing through a piece of music by memory without the instrument in their hands. When a mistake is made, they look at the music, repeat the passage 4 times while looking at the music and then 4 times (perfectly in a row) without the music. They then continue with the rest of the piece. Each time students go through this process their memory of the piece becomes more solid and reliable.
  • Musicians should perform the shadow practicing just before going to sleep. Some research suggests that the brain automatically rehearses what was done just prior to going to sleep throughout the night.
  • Students can actually say out loud the positions they are going to or from and yell out the orchestra letters so they are memorizing rehearsal spots as well. This develops a more photographic memory and a sense of where the hand will be sent so that the mind consciously knows the correct position of the arm and hand.

Through this process, the active memory becomes stronger and stronger – like an exercised muscle – and it becomes possible to consciously memorize faster. This allows music to be performed better as well, simply because the knowledge of the music is more secure. Shadow practicing forces the mind to work harder because the performer cannot hide behind the muscle memory or the instrument, but must rely only on brain power to reconstruct the piece. The arms and hands don’t just move subconsciously - the performer knows where they are in the piece at all times… almost able to write out the music. The improved confidence that "Shadow Practicing" builds, dramatically improves overall playing ability, lowers performance anxiety, and improves musicality.

Books on Memorizing Music

There are several useful books on memorizing music. Some of them are listed below...

  • Guide to memorizing music, by A. J Goodrich
  • Memorizing Music (Musician's Handbooks), by Gerald Cumberland
  • Practical music memorizing, by Raymond Townsend

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