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Sharing from our Senior Pipe Major, Ken McKeveny: Did a bit of research on how to memorize tunes and scrubbed out some things that really didn't pertain to us. I went through several websites and thought these were the best. I was really intrigued by playing it from the end - i'll have to try that technique myself. The singing and humming as you play is critical for piobaireached.

Memorizing music is an easy task for some and a tiresome task for others. Based on the length and difficulty of a piece, it can take you any given amount of time to memorize. To help you nail down the perfect memorization technique, we’re going to share with you six different methods you can try.

1. Memorize in Small Sections: Possibly the most common way to memorize music is to divide it into small sections. It can be intimidating to tackle an 8-page piece all at once, so memorizing section by section allows for a more focused mindset as well as better retention. The length of sections you choose to tackle is up to you. We recommend looking for phrases.

Phrases are like musical sentences. As a complete musical “thought,” a phrase has a beginning and end. Typically, 2 bar phrases for bagpipe music. Splitting up a piece by phrases makes sense musically, as opposed to stopping and starting in awkward places in the music.

For particularly difficult sections, you can memorize in even smaller sections. Once you’ve mastered a section, remember to keep coming back to it, so that it sticks in your long-term memory and you don’t have to repeat the process later.

2. Start at the End and Work Backward: A widespread technique in memorization is to start at the end of a piece and work back towards the beginning. Similar to splitting up your music in small sections, this technique does the same thing, but in backward chronological order. You can go backward by phrasing or by measure(s). For example, you may start two measures from the end, then start four measures from the end, six, and so on.

Each time you add a new section, continue the piece all the way to the end.

This method is very effective because after you’ve memorized a section, you will continue to perform it over and over again, locking it firmly in place. By the time you’ve reached the beginning, the end will seem like a piece of cake because you will have rehearsed it numerous times.

3. Visualize the Sheet Music: Visualizing sheet music works particularly well for those who have a photographic memory. If you can see the sheet music in your head, you can anticipate what’s next.

As all musicians know, there is far more to memorization than the notes in a piece. You must also memorize dynamics, repeats, tempos, time signatures, codas, lyrics (in the case of vocalists), fingerings (in the case of instrumentalists), expressions, crescendos, and so much more. Visualizing your sheet music applies to each of these things, and can give you quite the advantage when it comes to memorization.

If you don’t have a particularly photographic memory but would like to try this technique, spend some time studying your music without playing or singing. Talk through the music, bringing to attention any tough sections or sudden changes in expression.

4. Memorize at a Slow Tempo: Very rarely do musicians learn a new piece of music at it’s indicated tempo. Starting slow ensures that the notes and rhythms are learned correctly. The same method can be applied to memorization.

It’s very common to begin making mistakes you usually wouldn’t make when starting memorization. Suddenly things you had previously mastered regress, and it’s easy to get frustrated and discouraged quickly. Slowing the tempo down has the same effect as when you’re first learning a piece: it ensures accuracy. It also gives you a fair amount of time to think before playing or singing the next note. As you work your way back to the indicated tempo, you will exercise repetition. Altogether, this method will bypass a lot of the frustration that memorizing music can cause.

5. On and Off Sheet Music: When memorizing a piece of music, it’s easy to “cheat” from time to time. Perhaps your music is in front of you, and you steal a look or two in the difficult sections. At the same time, it can be challenging to put your music completely out of sight. Going back and forth between being “on” book and “off” book is a way of weaning yourself off the sheet music.

Memorizing on and off sheet music entails a run-through your piece with the music in front of you, followed by a run-through without it. As you become more confident, you can try a run-through with the music in front of you followed by two run-throughs without the music. Coming back to the music gives you a chance to correct mistakes and find the notes or sections you couldn’t remember without the music. Removing your music completely gives you a chance to try, using your brainpower and your brainpower alone.

6. Beginning to End Repetition: Some musicians don’t like tedious work of splitting a song up or having a precise method for memorization. And that’s okay! Sometimes what we need is to play or sing the song from beginning to end over and over and over again. The only caution when approaching this method is to make sure you aren’t skipping over any difficult sections or problem areas. You certainly don’t want to reinforce any bad habits or missed notes after working so hard to learn the piece!

But after you’ve fixed all of the rough patches, playing your piece several times in its entirety is a great way to solidify memorization. As we mentioned before, there is so much more to memorization outside of the notes alone, and this method is perfect for memorizing the ebbs and flows of your piece.

“I’m very mistrustful of tactile memory. I think it’s the first thing that goes.” –André Watts, pianist

The Musician’s Way: Have you ever been blindsided by a memory lapse? Maybe you felt secure in practice, but, during a performance, you blanked on a passage. I suspect that every musician has felt the jolt of memory slips. I also believe that memory glitches could be far less common because secure memorization involves concepts and skills that any musician can learn. This post summarizes a 4-part framework that helps both singers and instrumentalists become masterful memorizers.

The Four Stages of Memorization

Stage 1: Perception: Deep perception makes for solid memory. When we grasp the inner workings of a composition as well as how we want to shape each phrase, those rich connections lead to steadfast recall.

In contrast, shallow perception – especially that rooted solely in muscle or tactile memory – readily falls apart under pressure. Here are strategies that deepen our perceptions of a piece.

  • Clarify the compositional structure. Identify where sections and phrases begin and end; look for rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic patterns.

  • Fashion a vivid interpretive map. Explore the emotional feel of every phrase; pinpoint where phrases peak and repose; write in dynamic and articulation signs.

  • Form a robust technical map. Before you begin to memorize, verify that fingerings, bowings, diction, and so forth are unmistakable; ensure that you can easily execute from score.

Stage 2: Ingraining: Ingraining is the means whereby we lay down enduring memory tracks. But beware: ingraining necessarily involves repetition, yet only mindful repetitions will do.

  • Plan your practice. Schedule frequent memorization sessions in which you restrict the amount of music that you memorize – if you exceed your limit, much of what you absorb could become scrambled. Also get ample sleep to help your brain to consolidate what you’ve learned.

  • Combine imaging with executing. Mentally image a portion of music from memory before you attempt to play or sing it; if anything seems fuzzy, review with the score. In general, execute a portion securely from memory three times in a row, then steadily link portions.

  • Employ diverse memory types. Memory types include conceptual, aural, kinesthetic, and visual. To highlight different types, you might play hands alone, re-examine chord progressions, sing bass lines, recite song text without singing, or write out tricky passages. As you ingrain, explore subtle interpretive variations, and savor every phrase so that the music vibrates with meaning.

Stage 3: Maintenance: Even if we ingrain deeply, unless we maintain our memory, the mental connections we form will gradually disintegrate. Here are strategies that keep memories strong.

  • Rehearse mentally. Periodically run through a section or complete composition in your mind. Instrumentalists might vocalize and mime playing motions; singers could mouth words and act out a song.

  • Practice performing. Record your practice performances and then re-ingrain any slippery passages.

  • Review in detail. Reinvigorate your interpretive-technical map by going over the components of a piece and its execution. You might revisit fingerings, do a fresh harmonic analysis, and so on, incorporating new interpretive ideas in the process.

Stage 4: Recall: The following strategies help optimize our recall in performance situations.

  • Ready yourself. Attain a performance-ready state

  • Feel ahead. As you play or sing, direct your music making with soulful awareness. Avoid sliding into mindless execution.

  • Be positive. Trust in your preparation, and then play or sing your heart out. If slips occur, maintain the forward motion and improvise until you can regain the musical thread. To rehearse dealing with slips, simulate them in practice and ad-lib through them.

As you experiment with the strategies described in this article, bear in mind that we all have distinct learning styles, so no single memorization routine will suit every musician. It’s up to each of us to adapt these and other ideas according to our needs and personalities.

From the Musicians Way

How to memorize sheet music:

  1. Practice the music. You obviously won't be able to memorize your music when you don't even know how to play it!

  2. Recognize phrases. This will not only give you a better understanding of the music, but when it comes time to start memorizing it, it will be easier to divide it up. Most phrases are two to four measures.

  3. Begin repeating the last part of the tune. The music will be more secure in your memory if you learn it from the end toward the beginning than if you learn the beginning first.

  4. The length of each section depends on how well you know your memory to have been in the past; if you know you remember things well, extend the length, but if you're forgetful, make it shorter, even if it's just a phrase or two. Keep reading off the music at this point.

  5. Play it once from memory with eyes closed. Go as far as you can.

  6. Look at the music again. Find what you did right and what you did wrong. If you need to, play something that you missed.

  7. Play it again without looking at the music. Continue to alternate between eyes closed and eyes open until you know the piece well.

  8. Even after it is memorized, it helps to continue looking at the music in alternate cycles. This not only secures your memory, but also helps to minimize the chance you might habituate yourself to a wrong note.

  9. Move onto a different chunk. This will, again, depend on your memory. Repeat the process you used with the first chunk, but play this chunk by itself.

  10. Link the two chunks together. Play from measure one to however far you memorized. Keep repeating this until you can play it from memory five times in a row.

  11. Continue this process until you have memorized the tune.

  12. Start at the end and play the last measure, play it by memory, go on to the second to last measure, and repeat the process till you can play the whole tune.

  13. Use a metronome while practicing and learn to count the measures.

  14. Sing / hum the tune you're trying to memorize. Don't be embarrassed because the more familiar you are with the music, the easier memorizing it would be.

From WikiHow


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