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#58 Making memorizing easier and faster (part 2)

Updated: Jul 5, 2023

By Christy | The Practicing Pro

This blog is part 2 of the memory series. To read part 1, see blog #54.

You have a new piece to play.

You can play it through with the music no problem BUT without your music, you are completely lost by the second line. It’s so frustrating and the thought of performing in a concert down the road by memory nearly gives you an ulcer from the stress!

What to do?

Well, first let’s review how you learn something, and then we will get to how you memorize music.

1. You use symbols to read ~

You see the written music, decode them into a note and rhythm and then you produce that sound with your instrument - basically you follow the instructions of the code. The left side of the brain is working - the analytical side. This is the side that as a child/teen and young adult we use the most all day long, at school.

2. You can sing a melody in your head and then you recall the sounds and speak them with your instrument~

Once you have learned the melodies, skips and jumps, you can repeat what you hear in your head by singing the melody to someone else - just like a language! This is also called playing by ear. This type of learning uses the right brain, often considered the more subjective and creative hemisphere that focuses on the melody in music.

3. You can use muscle memory to memorize/recall music by how it feels physically in your body~

Like throwing a dart over and over to figure out what’s too high or too low so that you get it eventually exactly right. You learn the exact sensation in your muscles of a perfect throw, so you don’t even need to think about it when you throw it. It’s the same for example in the placement of fingers on an instrument - your music can be remembered by remembering the sensations of the body and the finger's movements.

What do you do, what is your style of learning?

Most people use a combination of both playing by ear and muscle memory to play something without their music.

In blog #54, I talked about listening and how to listen so that you can learn faster, especially at a younger age, to help you learn easier later. Memorizing faster is exactly the same. You can start listening to a piece months before you begin learning it so that you can easily sing it way before you begin to learn to play it - that way you will not just be playing by note and decoding to learn (left side of the brain) but you will also be playing by ear using the song you hear in your head that you can already recall from listening to it (right side of the brain).

The more time you spend listening to a piece each day, the easier it will be to learn it right now or even better at a later time.

As a personal example, I practiced a complex piece that I wanted to learn at the same time each week for a half-hour. I learned it from the music and used only the music. After a few months, I had played it so many times that I could play it, by default, away from the music. So I was using 1/3 from above. I didn't practice to play without the music as a goal, I only played with the music for my own personal enjoyment. A teacher who did her lesson plans for the week was working across the hall each week at the time I practiced. After hearing the same song each week for around 6 months, she poked her head into my room one day and asked me if I would teach her the piece because she loved it. She’s a voice teacher and plays an advanced beginner level of violin on the side for fun. We met for one hour and I taught her the entire piece by ear. No music at all. ONE HOUR! She had it almost at tempo too! AMAZING!!!! I had practiced it for months with music as an advanced player, and couldn't play it as well as she could by memory after one hour. How could this be??? It’s because she had listened to it for hours and hours before trying to play it. She could sing it through, easily and accurately before putting it on her instrument. This gave her a huge advantage when she went to learn to play it. This is just one example of why it is so critical to listen to a piece many times before attempting to play it. Learn the melody and be able to sing it in your head before you even pick up your instrument to play it. If you learn the melody before the notes, you store that memory in the right hemisphere of your brain where musical memory and recall takes place, making it that much easier to learn the music by notes afterwards and to memorize it.

As for muscle memory, I suggest you learn what a passage “feels like” by playing a small part without your music many times. I like using my magic practicing formula that I teach in my practicing course to know exactly how many times to repeat it. Many students don’t repeat something enough times when practicing because they simply don’t know how many repetitions they need to do!

The rule of thumb is to get away from the written music as quickly as possible. In other words - get it as fast as you can into the RIGHT side of the brain for your learning time and out of the LEFT side.

Here is a chart to show an example of how someone’s practice might look if they are using this approach to memorize music the fastest way possible.

NOTE: The goal is to get to a place where you can repeat the music easily without written music as soon as possible and STAY there! Each day, look at the music once to play a small easy section and then repeat it multiple times with no music. Eventually, seam two smaller sections together. See Blog #37 on Seaming

My students that easily memorize a big concerto in just a few weeks do it by listening to it months or even a year beforehand. Once they begin learning the piece, they play one small section at a time with their music to learn the bowing and fingering. Once they have it, they repeat that phrase / small section many times without their music. In my lessons, we start with the harder parts, learning them by ear, and repeating them together over and over. It is not until after the lesson that the student looks at the music to check what we have done in the lesson! At home, they can play it with the sheet music a few times and then many times without looking at it, only going back every once in a while to check that they are correct.

It can turn into a game too. How fast can you learn this little section - with no music?

For example can you play it 3 or more times with the music and then 5-7 times with no music at all, and still get it right? The next day, can you play that small section 2 times with the music and then 5-7 times without?

Can you play it for a few weeks just ONCE with the music, to remind yourself of the start note and details, and then 5-7 times without?

See how you are practicing to "remember" and not just practicing to learn with the notes.

This method of playing means that at the end of the day - you have now practiced many more times without music than you did with the music. This is the fastest way to get away from your music and to not have memory slips in the future while performing.

This is a mind set for a player and I suggest teachers teaching this from the very beginning as a foundation in your music program if you expect a child to play with no music later in a concert then expect every song with no music from the very start. You need to practice memorizing and playing away from your music constantly and not just once or twice a year for a concert.

Parents, if your teacher expects one or two songs a year memorized then you can make it a fun project/game to keep your child playing a piece they have learned in lessons after the teacher has moved on and help them to memorize every piece they learn as a habit. This is not that hard to do for either teachers or parents. Reviewing to help with memorizing.

Next time, we will talk about how to review to remember music and memorize new music the fastest. Such an amazing thing and I can't wait to share with you an easy way to do this. See you then!

Check out my Free PDF download Checklist for a Successful Music Practice for teachers and practicing parents.

Your easy checklist for successful home music practices from Christy, the practicing pro. Whether you are a new or seasoned practice parent or music teacher, this checklist will help you organize before, during, and after practices for effective and fun practices.

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