Why Memorizing Music Is So Important

By Andrew Ingkavet

With all of my students, I stress the importance of memorizing their pieces, especially for performance at a recital. Here’s some of the reasons why.

Repetition is the Mother of Skill

How many times did Tiger Woods hit a golf ball before ever entering a competition? Apparently he was already golfing at age 2 when he made an appearance on the Merv Griffin show with his Dad. He turned professional at age 21 after winning many competitions along the way. That’s 19 years and probably 30,000 to 40,000 hours of practice! In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers,  he discusses the theory that it takes an applied 10,000 hours of practice to mastery in any field. No wonder Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer that ever lived!  He’s simply played 3 or 4 times much as anyone else before he even turned pro!

Tiger Woods golfer
Now, I’m not demanding 8 hour practice days for my students, but five minutes the day before the lesson is just not going to cut it. It’s unfair to the student who is going to sound awful and not enjoy the wonderful process and sense of accomplishment of learning a song to a masterful level.

Technique

As we use our muscles to achieve the production of sound, we need to train them to move in specific ways. Fluidity can only be achieved by repetition. By consciously practicing the repeated motions at the same time being mindful of proper alignment of back, wrists, hands, we can create smooth, fluid motions that create beautiful sounds without repetitive stress injuries.

Practicing small bits at a slow speed can produce incredible, exponential results. When pianist Glenn Gould burst onto the scene as a young man, his flawless technique stunned the world, as did his ingenious interpretations of Bach.

Pattern Recipes

The bits of music phrases teach re-usable pieces of the fabric of music. Just like a recipe book or a code pattern that can be re-used in many projects, future songs will surely employ similar melodic, harmonic and rhythmic ideas. Music performance, composing and listening becomes easier as we progress. This is in fact the basic concept of object orient programming for computers. By designing a library of re-usable components, programmers can quickly put together new projects by cobbling together pre-build elements. Learning a later song is easier because the old one had similar patterns. And then, creating variations is now an option.

Artistic Expression

Spencer TracyThe famous actor Spencer Tracy was once quoted,

“Know your lines…and don’t bump into the furniture.”

You could say the same of music.  Know the notes.

How can you make the music your own without knowing it at a deep subconscious level.
When I was briefly an actor, I took a wonderful class in
the Meisner technique. The basic exercise was called the Repetition technique. It consisted of 2 or more actors on a bare stage with minimum set props. It was improvisatory in that each would only repeat what the other said until there was a natural impulse to say something else. What was amazing was that the inane conversation became full or emotion and life immediately as the words were not hindering the emotion. It’s the same thing in music. But, we need to know our parts. Of course, in jazz, improvisation is the raison d’etre, but there is still an agreed-upon structure.
We need to get to the very heart of emotion in the music, and the only way is to memorize, internalize, and interpret as our own. To know the music fully.

Tell A Story

To make your music tell a story, you need to have a physical comfort level with it. You can’t NOT know your parts. Otherwise it’s like the actor who doesn’t know his lines…you don’t believe them.

Instrumental Music is extremely abstract. Pop and folk songs with lyrics provide a narrative focus. But pure instrumental music can benefit in having some kind of narrative in that it can bring a piece to life. Make up a storyline for your piece! Sometimes this is relatively easy as the music is dramatic and narrative by nature.   Disney realized how Dukas’ Sorceror’s Apprentice was perfect in that it told the story.  Take a look.

I’ve been astounded by the difference in performance by some of my youngest students when they add a storyline to their piece. What’s even more amazing is that 6 year stories are all pretty much the same! But the music sparkles!

Repertoire

Having a mind full of pieces to perform at a moment’s notice is a wonderful thing. It’s what makes one feel like a truly accomplished musician. And, you never know when your Aunt Harriet is going to pop over with her friends and ask you to play “something sweet.”

How Memory Works

So how does memory work? Scientists still know only a fraction of how the brain works, but we’re learning more everyday. There is still so much research still to be done. 

So far, it seems that there are some generally agreed-upon concepts.

Encoding – getting the information into your memory. Of course, the information needs to be right from the start. Garbage in does equal garbage out.

Storage – There’s short term and long term. It seems we are similar to computers in that we have temporary space for short term and commonly used information. If we don’t use it, we lose it, unless we consciously store it in an organized way.

Retrieval– Getting the right information out when you want it is possibly the trickiest. Many scientist believe that the human mind never forgets anything, it’s just difficult to retrieve on command. But, repeated retrieval places the keys to a specific memory in a prominent location. So if you want to remember where you put your keys, try saying it aloud when you put them down. And, practicing your piece on your instrument at repeated intervals is like oiling the doors to that memory closet.

How To Memorize Music

In a famous study done by George Miller at Princeton University they discovered that humans can memorize up to 7 discreet bits of information, plus or minus 2. But chunking this into groups greatly increases the amount that could be stored and retrieved easily. We can apply this to music memorization.

Chunking It Down

To start memorizing, I suggest with a small chunk or part, perhaps even as little as 3 to 4 notes. The younger the student, the less notes. As they learn, we can go to the next chunk, and after mastering and memorizing that, we group those two chunks together. By continuing to add to the memory in small groups, and then synthesizing those into a larger whole, the entire piece can be memorized quickly so that a piece with several pages can be played from memory easily.
Some common breakpoints would be first measure, then second measure, then group them together. Then do the next 2 measures that way before you group together the entire first stave. Then A section can be memorized as contrasted to B section, etc.

Listening

An extremely effective way of learning a new piece is by listening to an existing recording. This is, of course, the bedrock of the Suzuki program of music instruction.

At higher levels, this may influence the styling of the performance, but that’s why we listen to great performances! Better to mimic the masters. You can also record yourself playing the piece slowly to listen to it over and over again.

Writing as a Memory Aid

Hand-written music by Mozart
Hand-written music by Mozart

Actors learning lines often write and re-write their lines without punctuation, like a long run on sentence. Why no punctation? By learning the words as raw material, they can add their own punctation depending on the emotion required for the scene. We can do the same for music, though the punctuation is usually dictated by the composer in terms of tempo, dynamics and accents, etc. By copying the music to staff paper, another method of input has been created both visual, kinesthetic and even aural through mental memory of the sounds. As a composer, I’ve gained invaluable details and nuances by just copying pieces of music. The physical act of copying does something that internalizes into the mind and body. It’s why the great painters all learned by copying the masters at the Louvre.

Blind Memory

Another technique to memorize is by relying on the auditory, and kinesthetic only. By blindfolding, or closing one’s eyes, or even turning out the lights, the musician can practice

Ray Charles
Ray Charles

without relying on the visual and play by touch and ear. This will also make the student realize quickly if they are not committing to a fingering pattern as they will be unable to play it blind. And, some of the best musicians in the world were literally blind.

Visualization

I’ve heard of stories where prisoners of war without access to their instruments practice completely in their mind, visualizing the experience completely, hearing it in their mind’s ear and seeing themselves in the mind’s eye performing their piece perfectly. These people return from their isolation playing better than before! I’ve told a few of my students about this and you can see in this video, my student Mitra is actually visualizing herself right before she performs onstage. Wonderful!


My son Alejandro has been working on a difficult piece by Bach and he recently told me that every night before he goes to sleep, he visualizes himself performing this piece. Wow! I don’t even recall telling him to do this!

An Odyssey, A Memory Palace

There’s a lot of wonder at how some of our ancestors could remember stories to pass on to the next generation. One was was through the use of rhythm and sound in the form of poetry, a kind of word music. By linking the sounds with the imagery in the stories, whole long passages could be told and memorized. By singing the melodies of the piece you are trying to memorize, you are using these very techniques and internalizing the music. Glenn Gould would sing all his parts incessantly to the point where he never stopped singing even when performing in public or recording his piano pieces.

There’s also the technique called the Memory Palace, where using the memory of a physical place you know intimately such as your own home, you could “store” information in specific locations. So, to remember things in a specific order, you could then mentally walk through your palace and retrieve the information. I found this book where it taught me all the names of every play by Shakespeare in the proper order, and lo and behold, it works! Now I should really do this for something more useful like song lyrics as I’m terrible at remembering them.

The Benefits of Memorization

Now the greatest thing is that these memorization and learning skills are applicable and transferrable to the rest of your life, forever! You can use them to learn anything like languages, careers, work stuff, school, research, anything! You are basically learning to operate your mind. How to store information, keep it fresh, retrieve it when you need it and then use it to combine, build, mix, remix and synthesize all you want. And to think you got all this from memorizing your little recital piece!

 

 

A Typical Music Lesson – My Approach to Teaching

4 hands are better than 2!

Apologies for the site being down all of last week.  But we’re back!  Here’s a quick update and enjoy the week off for Thanksgiving!

 

As many of you know, in each of my lessons, my aim is to address 3 main areas: repertoire, reading and music theory.

Repertoire

This is building up a collection of pieces that your child can play from memory and perform in public.
It allows us to work on technique and bring music to life whilst giving a great confidence boost and joy in playing. This material I often present using my own color notation which enables your child to learn a piece as quickly as possible and then memorize it. Many of you are using Suzuki material for this repertoire whilst others are working on a combination of Suzuki with jazz, blues, pop and world music.

Reading

To  learn to read music is truly a great skill. To be musically literate opens a whole door to deeper appreciation. Reading music is not as difficult as it seems, but requires a steady practice diet.   I will usually not start this until we’ve been playing a repertoire of about 7 to 10 songs.  I use a proprietary method of notation to get them up to speed quickly with simple and then complex pieces.

Music Theory

This is the nuts and bolts of music. We get under the hood and see how music is structured and built through games, exercises, composition, dictation and listening.  It makes music fun if you know the how and why. It also changes your listening and deepens your appreciation of music. It can be quite abstract at times which is why we have many many activities and games built up over a long period of time.

Listening

I realize not everyone has a massive music collection at home and I’m often asked, “What should we be listening to?” I’ve recently written a series articles for Jill Simeone’s lovely parenting blog Cozy Owl which address, Early Childhood Music, Essential Listening and Music for A Road Trip.

In the near future, I’m hoping to post playlists of Music Every Child Should Hear via this site.

 

NOTE: Winter Music Session

The winter music session is starting on Monday November 28 and will run until February 11.  I will be sending out invitations for the limited openings available to those on the waiting list.   If you would like to join the waiting list, please go to the contact page and click the link.

Essential Reading for Parents of Music Students

Talent is not inherited. The first month in a nightingale’s life determines its fate…I had always thought that a nightingale’s incomparable song was instinctive or inherited. But it is not so. Nightingales to be used as pets are taken as fledglings from nest of wild birds in the spring. As soon as they lose their fear and accept food, a “master bird” is borrowed that daily sings its lovely song, and the infant bird listens for a period of a about a month. In this way the little wild bird is trained by the master bird…It is not a matter of being born a good singer or a bad singer…the life force has a wonderful power to adapt to environment.

Continue reading

10 Tips For Parents To Help Their Children Learn Music

Many parents have expressed their frustration at getting their child to practice their musical instrument.  Here’s some tips to help.

  1. Re-frame the notion of practice from chore to a fun activity or even a reward.  Don’t force them to practice, it will only drive them away from it.
  2. Place the piano in a central part of the home.  If a guitar, put it on a stand in the living room, or even hang it on the wall like in the guitar stores.  All instruments have some kind of stand you can buy.  By having it out and in easy reach, the instrument naturally gets picked up at various times of the day.   If the instrument is in a far off corner of the house, it feels like a banishment or punishment.
  3. Make a consistent time of music time everyday.  Some people have found 5 minutes in the morning before school is a great thing.  Others find right after school or just before bed.  By having a regular schedule, it becomes a habit and that makes it easier to have consistent and frequent time at the instrument.
  4. Take interest in your child’s playing (even if it’s awful).  By giving attention, the child feels rewarded and they will get better – really, I promise!
  5. Ask them to teach you the lesson (even if you already know it.)  By teaching, the child has to be able to organize their thoughts and really know how to communicate the knowledge.  They learn by teaching.  This may work better with one parent than the other when one is a musician and the other not.
  6. Listen to music in the home.  Take some time to consciously choose music that features the instrument your child is learning.  Listen to all kinds of music and talk about it.
  7. Go see live music.  Take your child to see live musicians and then talk about the concert.  You’ll be amazed at the observations they make.  They also may take a new interest in a different instrument as well!
  8. Sing (or  hum) together.  Many people feel very shy about singing.  Actually everyone can sing and if you start at a really young age, they can’t criticize you.  You’re just their parent singing and that’s always music to their ears.  Holiday carols or folk songs are a great fun family activity.
  9. Take music classes yourself.  In my lessons, I actively engage the parents to stay at least on par with the child’s musical knowledge.  It becomes a family experience.
  10. Have a family concert (or a music playdate).  By having more people making music (or sounds, noise) it becomes a social and group activity.  Fun!  Just don’t play saxophone with a mouth full of potato chips – that’s gross – I know from experience.