Playing from Memory (It’s Not That Scary!)

Welcome to Flute Friday! With Halloween just around the corner I thought I would devote today’s post to something truly terrifying for musicians (young and old) – Memorization. The very same look of horror that shines on my student’s faces the moment I write the words “from memory” in their lesson notebooks has remained unchanged throughout the years. My own reaction to memorization these days has become akin to accidentally eating a moldy piece of cheese (unpleasant and annoying) but I remember a time not too long ago when the stress of cramming pages and pages of music into my brain well enough that I could perform without a blueprint in front of other humans was enough to give me chronic stomach ulcers and reoccurring nightmares involving very angry conductors and upset mobs of audience members.


I’m here to tell all of you that it really isn’t that scary.

Before I go into my list of tricks to ease the memorization (and retention) process, it is important to think realistically about the worst case scenario. What happens if you have a memory slip and forget the music? Do you have a plan B? Do you have a place in the music to which you know you can always find your way back? Could you elegantly glance at the piano or orchestra score (hint: become friends with the concertmaster)? Are you prepared to simply wing it? And, more importantly, what happens when the music is over? Will you not win the competition? Will you be fired? Will you die of embarrassment on stage (unlikely as this has never happened to any musician)? If this happens, is your career over? If your career is over, is your life over? Obviously the answer to this last question is a resounding “no.” Ask any professional musician and they will tell you tales of fantastical times when, to our surprise, they were human. When I performed the Carmen Fantasie at my Junior recital, to my shock and horror I lost my place within the first page. And what happened? I found my way back and played the remainder of the work without any other slips. All we can do is learn from our mistakes and let them go. The show must go on.

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  1. Find the form. The opening movements of both Mozart Flute Concerti (D and G) are in Sonata Form but the overall structure is simply ABA. Study the score and memorize the beginnings and endings of each section – these will become benchmarkers and the most important part of the music to memorize. If you have a memory slip in the development section, for example, you will know from your practice how the section ends thereby giving you the cue to begin the next section. From here, search for other forms within the larger form. If the piece is in Sonata Form find the first theme and second theme and memorize how these thematic sections begin and end. By the end of this phase you should be able to create an outline of the form of your piece and play the beginnings and endings of each section without the music. Ask your family and friends to quiz you! Give them your outline and ask them to call out the sections at random as your perform the beginnings and endings. Turn this part into a game!
  2. Create additional benchmarks within the form. This step is crucial as you begin to work on sections that contain a wide variety of inconsistent musical material such as those found within development sections. If a brief melody cuts through an otherwise virtuosic passage of summersaulting arpeggios (as it does in the Ibert Concerto), create a mental benchmark for this passage and memorize the music surrounding the phrase in addition to the phrase itself. The opening movement of the Nielsen concerto is a great example of a piece that contains a rather complicated form but several smaller musical benchmarks to help you memorize structural sections as well the many melodic and virtuosic interruptions throughout the piece. images98VMROG0
  3. Scales are your friends. At a lesson earlier this week, one of my students was struggling to learn a series of fingerings at the beginning of a Karg-Elert etude. I asked him to look at the music and explain what was happening. Light bulb. It was simply a D major scale with a few chromatic leading tones thrown in to confuse the performer (or more likely to make the music a bit more difficult to play). I turned the music stand around and asked the student to play a D major scale from memory. When the student returned to play the music as written his fingering troubles were over. Sometimes when the score is wallpapered in fast moving streams of black ink, our brains (and fingers and, well, let’s face it, our souls) go into a state of awe-struck panic. When we back up and return to reality we find that the scary blob on our page is nothing more than a B melodic minor scale (which Taffanel and Gaubert have already made us practice several hundred times). The Hanson Serenade is a perfect example of a piece that appears extremely difficult but upon closer inspection is simply a series of scales. Memorize that series and the music plays itself.
  4. Play along with the recording. After you have simplified the memorization process by learning the structure of your piece, memorizing the large and small benchmarks and ironing out complicated scale patterns (making them very easy to perform from memory), you may begin to test your knowledge by playing along with a recording. The beauty of a recording is that it does not stop. If you fall off of the musical train, so to speak, a recording does not wait for you to brush yourself off and start again. This is a great way to practice your benchmarks and other moments in the music that may create inviting environments for memory slips such as lengthy arpeggios, intervallic leaps and other complicated harmonic progressions. You will also begin to understand which instruments are performing with you and when you function as the musical focal point or the accompaniment. Put the recording on repeat and create a game – Can you make each repetition better than the one before?imagesHSX063KO
  5. Drop the pin. Back in the old days “dropping the pin” referred to quite literally dropping the pin on a record player to randomly start the recording at whichever place the pin landed on the record. Today we can use an iPod in the same manner. You could even ask your family or friends to participate! Play from memory wherever the recording begins.
  6. Perform the entire piece for your friends or family. It is one thing to play a piece perfectly within the safety of our own practice rooms or in front of our flute teachers but it quite another to perform for a group of people. Performing in front of other flutists will help you confront the fear of being wrong (especially if you are performing a piece that everyone has played before). Playing in front of your loved ones helps you to face the fear of letting others down if you make a mistake (and really, if your family knows you can play well and are proud of your accomplishments, who else’s opinion actually matters?), If you live in a suburb or in the country, play outdoors for anyone strolling by to listen. If you have an opportunity to perform in a quiet place such as a mall or coffee shop, perform your work from memory to a mildly engaged, albeit safe, audience.


Finally, remember that memorizing a piece takes time. Do not expect to memorize a concerto overnight. Take the music apart slowly beginning with the form, then the structure followed by the benchmarks (large and small). Test yourself by playing along with a recording and concentrate on ironing out complicated passages by simplifying scales. Finally share your music with your friends and family. Not only is this great practice but these are the people that will love and appreciate your art the most and will support your efforts to finely tune your craft.

Do you have any clever memorization tricks? Have any of the above tips helped you in your own practice? Please comment below!

Happy fluting :).


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