Tips for Memorizing Music

Memorizing music for marching band shows and other events can be tricky. Here are some tips and things to keep in mind as you memorize your music for the season:

1) Patterns, patterns, patterns. Always be aware of what the pattern is. Is it a scale? A chord? Is it a rhythmic pattern that repeats? If so, how many times does it repeat? Never try to memorize just by rote repetition. 

2) We learn in three ways, and we all use a combination of these three: aural (what it sounds like), visual (what it looks like on the page) and muscle memory (what if feels like to play it). 

  • Some memorization will happen just by playing something many times. That's why we practice. After playing a piece many times you’ll start to remember what the piece sounds like, looks like and feels like. 
  • When you find a spot you can't play without looking at the music, break it down. Is there a pattern? If I'm missing a note, what am I missing? Am I playing too high, too low, etc., and how can I adjust? If you break it down and understand the spot that you didn't previously have memorized, you can make a strong spot out of a previously weak spot.

3) Small steps. Don't try to memorize large sections of your piece at once. You'll forget many things and feel discouraged. Instead, make small goals: "Today, I'll memorize these four (or eight, or whatever) measures of my music." Also be sure to memorize each section thoroughly by looking at patterns and trying to boil down the passage to a couple of concepts like scales, chord progressions or a repeating pattern.

4) Add it up. Make sure you can play each segment confidently, then start to "glue" them together. See if you can play two segments back to back. It may take practicing just the last measure of the first segment into the first measure of the next segment to iron out the transition.

5) Be confident in your part. You should be able to play your music from memory fluently many times before expecting that you'll remember it next time, or in ensemble, or in a performance situation. Those factors offer distractions that you don't have in the practice room when you're practicing your part alone.

6) Starting spots! Every four measures or so, make a check-mark for a starting spot. Then practice being able to jump ahead to your next starting spot, and the next one, and so on. You'll need to work on learning how to start in all those places. If you get lost during a performance, being able to jump ahead and rejoin the music a couple measures later is vital, and practicing having starting spots and jumping ahead to them gives you a much stronger sense of confidence that you'll be fine no matter what.

7) Keep it fresh. Don't assume that if you memorized it once, it will always be there. If you haven't played it in a while, brush up on it before your next rehearsal.

8) How does it fit? Listen (quite a few times) to a good recording of the piece, so you can hear what your part sounds like in the context of the whole piece. Then, you won't be stuck counting out 32 measures of rest during which the time signature changes four times while worrying about when to come in next.  

8) Make music! Most importantly, get to the point where you feel so comfortable with the music. Ideally, when you have a piece learned well, you should be able to just listen as you are making the music, instead of thinking about what note comes next, or how to make that next passage sound clean. That's what it is all about: making music! The point is not to just have it memorized (you could memorize your textbooks if you just want a memorization exercise); the point is to make music!

Dr. Maira Liliestedt

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