Memorization: Tips and Tricks

Are you memorizing a piece for the first time, but are finding it completely daunting? Or maybe you've memorized pieces before but just dislike the whole process. Maybe in the past you've struggled with memory slips on stage, so now you are tentative to memorize again.


Wherever you are, I have six easy tips for you that will make memorization fun and enjoyable!

Teacher confession time:

I used to be terrible at memorizing. I always ended up having these awkward memory slips on stage in which I either had to stop playing and restart, or I just completely froze. I ended up avoiding memorizing anything for many years, because I thought I just wasn't good at it, and frankly, I was terrified of it!


But the good news is, I was able to learn some excellent memorization strategies that completely changed the game for me. Now I feel confident memorizing any piece of music I want, and frequently do. So if you think memorization is some impossible task, I can tell you from experience that it's not. It is a skill to hone, just like everything else! And your first step is to try out these six tips below. :)



Tip #1. Music Maps


Before you even begin to memorize your piece, a great first step is to create some music maps! Music maps are visual representations of your music that highlight specific things such dynamics, the structure, melodic contour, and more! Since you will write your map down on paper, it helps you to better understand everything that is on the page and also breaks it down into digestible pieces.


For a quick example, let's create a map for this jig I wrote:


















First, I started with the structure of the piece (See Map 1). I decided that there were two distinct sections, separated by the repeat signs (labeled A and B). I included the pickups and the only two dynamics as well, because it will be useful to remember those two things!


Map 1: Basic structure


Next, I thought it would be useful to note the musical contour (ups and downs of the music). In Map 2, you can see that I found some patterns here! The A section has two four bar phrases that have a similar contour! And the B section only has one four bar phrase that differs from the A section. Pretty neat!


Map 2: Contour


After these two, I thought I'd get a little more detailed. I wanted to see if I could find a note pattern, so I wrote out the big beats (beats 1 and 2 in 6/8). I also included my contour arrows for a good visual representation. The A section has a clear pattern, which I circled for myself. However, the B section turned out to be a little bit more complicated. Instead, I circled the downbeats and showed the contour of just the downbeats with my arrows. From there it gave me a more clear pattern to hang on to!


Music Map 3: Note patterns

Now that I've gotten some of the more nitty-gritty details written down, I decided to write down my visual story of the piece! I imagined that this piece is about what my cats do when I leave the house. In the A section, they dance in the sunlight, but then they become a little more rowdy in the B section, by leaping over furniture and knocking over my things.


Music Map 4: Story time!

Now with these maps, I have a solid idea of the structure, melodic contour, dynamics, and even interpretation! This makes it much easier to memorize.


Pro Tip: Save your maps and keep creating new ones so that you can refer back to them when you try to play from memory. ;)


Tip #2. Mental Practice


If you think about it, most of memorization happens in your brain. So, using mental practice for memorization is super useful! Don't know what mental practice is? Read more about it here.


I will write on mental practice more in detail in later posts, but here's one thing you can try right now:


Put your clarinet away so you can't grab it, then sit down on your hands. so you can't move them. Now, close your eyes and imagine you are holding your clarinet. Then, without glancing at your music (keep your eyes closed if it helps!), see if you can mentally play your piece with your imaginary clarinet. The key is to only move in your mind - make sure to keep your fingers and hands still! If you can't remember the notes right away, give yourself time to see if it comes up. If after a minute you still can't remember, then take a quick glance at your music (or better yet, your maps!), and try again.


Tip #3. Listen to the piece


If you are unable to hear the piece in your head, you need to develop an aural model for yourself. I think you'll agree with me that memorizing a piece without knowing what it sounds like is much more difficult than memorizing something familiar! Find at least three different, professional recordings so that you can hear a wide range of interpretations and begin to develop your aural memory. Then, try listening while watching your music, then your music maps, and then without any music. When listening without visuals, note what you remember most and write down what you cannot remember. From there, you can develop a clear idea of what you struggle to memorize so that you can work more in those areas.


Tip #4. Music Transcription


If you've never written out music on a score before, this is your chance! I recommend doing this a couple different ways. First, focus on specific sections of music - from memory, see if you can write out every last detail, from notes, rhythms, dynamics, articulation, and more. Take as much time as you need to complete it without looking at your music!


Second, pick a small section and time yourself, say, one minute. See how much of that small section you can write out! You might find that under pressure, you forget certain details. Definitely note/write down what you forget, because this is what you will probably forget when you play it!


Tip #5. Create a story!


I absolutely love to create stories for every piece of music that I play. It helps to give each section of music or melody a purpose beyond simply playing the notes and rhythms. And, it is much easier to connect an image to technical details, rather than only memorize the technical stuff. (And it's super fun!)


Tip #6. Sing it!


Lastly, I recommend singing your piece! This will help you develop your aural model and allow you to practice the more interpretive things such as dynamics, phrases, characters, etc. without being bogged down by the clarinet. You can do this solo or with your favorite recording. It's not a requirement to be a great singer. The key is to pay attention to melodic contours, articulation, dynamics, and so on, not to sing the notes perfectly. Try it out and have fun with it!


Alright, now off you go on the memory train!


Next week, I'll be releasing the first post for the Musician Spotlight series, where I introduce you to fabulous artists from around the world - clarinetists or other musicians - that deserve recognition! I will have one post a month dedicated to this series. Be sure to check back next week!


Until then, Happy Practicing! :)


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