Memory Magic

Last Updated on 2024-06-07 | Originally Posted on 2019-12-01


Gotcha! There is no such thing as memory magic. Yet, some students often treat memory as something that’s just going to happen because it always has before. As pieces get longer, they also get more complex, which naturally means they’re harder to memorize.

Students typically rely on tactile (muscle) memory, and to a secondary degree on aural memory. It helps fill in the gaps when tactile memory fails. The best approach is to sharpen both of those skills, plus introduce visual and conceptual memory for extra support.

Tactile Memory

Since this type of memory is the primary memory for most students, my role is just make sure that this memory happens efficiently. After a short period of sight reading a new piece, you need to systematically solve all of the fingering puzzles, or you’re just going to be practicing uncertainty.

I mark up my scores with fingerings and other instructions quite heavily. Some of my colleagues have much more pencil restraint as they can make these decisions without marking them. I don’t insist students do as I do in this case, unless they are battling an unmarked passage where they use different fingerings each time. Since so many of our passages repeat either identically or nearly so, figuring out the fingering the first time is crucial. It’s up to them whether to mark it just the first time or also on the repeated passage.

Aural Memory

I have come to accept students who disregard F-sharp and B-flat when they start to play pieces that are outside of the key of C major. Similarly, I see students blissfully keep playing even when one of their hands playing parallel octaves causes them to play 7th or 9th instead. When I stop them to ask, “Does that sound right,” they’ll often answer that it didn’t bother them that much. I’m trying to instill a robust monitoring system that provides instant feedback and the opportunity for quick correction.

Visual Memory

Visual memory provides extra clues that aren’t satisfied by the previous two strategies. It encompasses both what a student sees in a score as well as seeing the hands on the keyboard itself. I train my students to pay attention to patterns and other clues in the score that may help them when it comes to memory. On the keyboard, this can be seeing where the hands are placed in relation to a fixed landmark like middle C or it might focus on their movement either in either parallel or contrary motion.

Conceptual Memory

I’m rather big on form study from the very beginning, even when students are playing one-page pieces that are 16 measures long. In beginner pieces, it could be just tracing how a pattern either repeats or transforms. In late beginner and early intermediate pieces, it would be marking where each section begins and ends, and looking at the keys and chordsd involved. I don’t analyze every chord used, but do stress the ones that bring sections to a conclusion with a strong cadence.

If there is any type of memory magic, I think it happens here. You can also do this work by reading through a score away from the instrument, sometimes listening to a recording, or just listening to how you would play it internally. This work can also be done without a score, sitting in a comfortable chair or even laying down on the bed.

Being able to play through a piece in your head with as much detail as possible can be extremely helpful to setting the piece deeply into memory. It also reinforces the other three memory devices, since at times you’ll likely feel the keys, hear the music, and see certain aspects of the score leap out.

Final Thoughts

I don’t ask students to memorize most of their repertoire, but I lay the groundwork for it by influencing these areas of learning. Some students can figure out all they need to do on their own, but the majority need extra guidance since there is much more to consider.

The risk of memory slips during performance is real since there’s added pressure when an adjudicator or an audience is present. Giving students the tools they need allows them the chance to perform at their best level.

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