Can you memorize three numbers? If I called out three digits, would you be able to keep them in your head long enough to call them back to me?
I bet you can remember 26 of them. Ready? 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26
Is that cheating? No, it’s just 26 numbers arranged in a pattern that you immediately recognize. And what’s more, now that I’ve given you those 26 numbers, I could scramble them up and you’d still be able to tell me what they all are, couldn’t you?
Here’s a list of words: Gold, woods, house, bowl, oatmeal, chair, bed, run. If I said them all to you one time, could you remember all of them?
What if I put them in a story called “The Three Little Bears?” Does that make it easy to organize all the words? Do you believe you could memorize them now?
When I mention that famous story, assuming you know it, you are probably thinking of the entire thing in your head in a single thought. You could run the story forwards or backwards, starting at any point in it. That’s mastery.
Even the worst memorizers can do this with “The Three Little Bears” because telling a story isn’t like climbing a ladder. It’s more like describing the clothes you’re wearing - the parts are interconnected, and you understand all the connections.
Imagine I had a simple picture of a smiley face that I was going to have you memorize. Imagine I didn’t tell you ahead of time what the picture would look like, and I cut the image into fifty pieces and showed you each piece one at a time from the upper left to the lower right. Do you think you’d be able to memorize that picture until you saw the whole thing at once?
Yet that’s what ineffective memorizers do when they try to learn a speech or a piece of music by heart: break it into little pieces and try to digest each piece one at a time. Most people can’t keep a series of unrelated items in their heads. The “good memorizers” that seem to be able to commit long lists to memory are actually relating the items into a larger pattern automatically as they go.
If you think about memorizing as creating a chain, you can see how futile it would be. If any of the links of the chain breaks, the whole thing is useless, maximizing the possibility of failure. Contrast this with a chain-mail shirt in which one little broken link cannot destroy the integrity of the whole design.
Memorizing a piece of music is much more effective if we can think of the thing in its entirety, and can run it backwards or forwards in our head from any spot. While this seems like a much more difficult task, the process of gaining this kind of whole-piece understanding is more fun and produces the desired results. If you’re not one of the lucky few who can do this automatically, you can still learn it and, better still, teach it!
I think the easiest way to begin memorizing is to discover, or attach, a personal meaning to some part of the piece. Is there a small passage, even a measure or two, that you find easiest to play, one that brings you the most joy, or perhaps one that you hate because it’s so difficult? These strong emotions create a mental matrix around the section which will aid in your recall of it.
You may like a spot in a piece because of the way it sounds. You may particularly enjoy the movement you make with your body there, or the apparent movement of the music as it swoops or smolders. Perhaps you have an association with a section - it reminds you of a great audition that you almost won, or an interesting argument you had with someone you later became friends with, or the feel of your mother’s fuzzy winter coat.
Once you have a solid memory of that little section, find a few others. These will be your seeds out of which will grow the branches that connect the whole. Not only will these spots be your starting places, they can be relied upon as safe spots to jump to in the event of an emergency.
Once you have your seeds, slowly begin connecting to them. Rehearse from a measure before into your memory spot, or from your spot into the measure just after. Gradually make these intervals longer until your association covers an entire phrase, or even a section.
Repeat this process with all your seeds. Slowly begin connecting the sections. After a while you’ll have covered all the music.
Now it’s time to test your memory, and you don’t even have to play. Can you imagine the music from one of your seeds? Can you play it backwards in your mind from there, or at least jump backwards to the previous seed?
If you’re having difficulty with a particular spot, there are a number of other tricks to get you through - leaving out a note of a passage and seeing if you can remember it - learning a ridiculous fingering backwards to help coax out the awkward spot you missed going forwards - In the end, these little tricks should bring you to the same place: an overarching image of the whole that you can traverse at will like your own kingdom.
Have I missed something obvious or helpful? Have you tried something like this before? How do you memorize?