I always memorise what I have to perform, including contemporary music. Knowing the music thoroughly frees up mental capacity for the music itself. I get asked a lot how I memorise music quickly. To me, the key to memorising music is
Here are the steps I take.
It is stressful to see how little time we have to memorise music, but once we have it planned, it becomes manageable:
i. Count the number of pages that has to be memorised (e.g. 12 pages Bach, 21 pages Beethoven, 8 pages Liszt etc.)
ii. Divide the number of pages of each work by 7, which is the number of pages I have to memorise per day. (In this case 2-3 pages Bach, 3 pages Beethoven, 1-2 pages Liszt) Note that I memorise a little bit of every piece each day so I don't get stressed about not having touched some of the works. It also reduces the likelihood of mixing up similar sections.
2. Start Memorising on Both Ends
I love memorising starting on both ends (e.g. Day 1 page 1, 2,11, 12, Day 2 page 3, 4, 9, 10) so that I can always begin and end a piece confidently. I usually know them better from previous practice, so I can memorise extra pages in the first few days and have a larger portion of music ready. While I memorise the beginning and ending of the piece, it allows me more time to practise the middle section before memorising it. Another advantage of memorising both ends first is that when I play the middle of the piece (usually the development), it builds from what's before it and prepares for what comes after, giving it a better sense of flow and structure as opposed to memorising from the top.
3. The Magic of Accumulation
This is my real secret, I reduce the target to the smallest chunk I can memorise. Most of the time I do it line by line. For easier understanding, let's assume we have to memorise 5 lines.
i. Read and play Line 5
ii. Read Line 4 and when I get to Line 5, I memorise it
iii. Read Line 3, memorise Lines 4 and 5
iv. Read Line 2, memorise Lines 3-5
v. Read Line 1, memorise Lines 2-5
The repetition involved is the key to turning short-term memory to long-term memory. If one line is too much to memorise, I go bar by bar or even beat by beat. We tend to remember the beginning better than the end, so by memorising from the last line, it helps me anticipate what comes next.
4. Feel and Analyse
It is important to use all senses to internalise the music -- how it looks on the page, how it sounds, and how it feels in the body e.g. the shape of hands for chords and positions for quick passages. Analysing the music is essential-- which key/ mode/ scale is it using? Did the materials evolve from previous motifs? How are they similar and different? Why? (For example, a different chord is used in the recapitulation to lead us to the home key)
5. Revise Daily
On the second day, I memorise new pages when I still feel fresh, followed by the pages I memorised the previous day. It is natural to forget part of what I memorised, but the more I revisit, the quicker I have it memorised again.
6. Practise Away from the Instrument
When I am not at the piano, I hear the music in my head and check the score when certain parts (usually left hand and inner voice) are not vivid enough, a sign that it is not solidly memorised. It is equally important to not think about it anymore and let the brain do its work in the back of the mind.
Last but not least, I start testing my memory before I think I am ready. I record while I play it in memory and continue even when I have huge memory slips. Then I listen to the recording, mark all the slips, analyse the reason, and those spots become what I remember most. There were numerous times when I was reluctant to test my memory because I thought I couldn't remember anything. I lost huge chunks of music when I played through, but when I listened to the recording, I was surprised that those memory slips were always much smaller than how I felt when I was playing, and fixing it took less time than I thought it would.
We often give up by saying we don't have strong memory, but the fact is, the first step is always the hardest. Like sight reading and many other skills, the process of memorising gets easier each time we do it. How we do it can be personal and different to everyone, but I hope my sharing helps make memorisation less intimating.