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.