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Why do musicians memorize music?

One year in graduate school I had the privilege of premiering an operetta composed by a colleague. The libretto was in Spanish and the music was full of lush, jazz-inspired harmonies and manifold dance rhythms. The first time studying the piece, I realized I’d have to constantly review it to “get the music in my head” and then begin the process of learning how to conduct it.

Fortunately, the premier was a success, and afterward I was later invited to conduct the same piece at another venue. While the first time was a challenge, the second was a true pleasure. I had already studied the piece, rehearsed and conducted it. Upon reviewing it again, I began to appreciate more of the composition and more easily connected to the individual performers in the moment. Conducting the opera felt closer to “second nature” as much of the beautiful work was ingrained in my memory.

Sometimes in a lesson, I ask a student to play a piece they like and know well from the score. I ask them to repeat it and to try to play as much from memory as they can. After they play through it a second time, I highlight the senses they use when playing music:

Sight - to read the score

Sound - to hear what they are playing

Touch - to sense where the keys are and which ones to play (particularly when moving hand position)

Playing by memory essentially “removes” the sense of sight in that the student is not trying to decipher the musical language while playing. Instead, they can readily connect to the emotions of the music while they listen to their playing, as someone with a disabled sense may have the other ones heightened in sensitivity.

To get to this point, one might employ the following techniques:

- Analyze the form with a teacher, recognizing the different sections of the music (especially key changes and transitions).

- Mark memorization points by phrase. Be sure to include transitions between sections. Work backwards through the memory points (i.e. start with the final memory point, then the one before it, etc.).When you finish working on the page using this method, practice through that page to reinforce your memory.

- Watch/listen to a video of an older performer (such as Horowitz). Often, you can hear the pianist faintly humming or singing along. I highlight, the key to many good musicians is that they sing inside with the music while they are playing (like remembering a song one has heard on the radio the day before by “replaying” it in one’s head).

- Envision themselves playing through a piece in their mind. They may try this at home, with their music score nearby. How far can you get just by using your imagination?

Knowing the form and singing along with the melody helps musicians focus on the music itself and minimize potential memory slips. If there is a slip, jumping to the next memory point allows the performer to continue playing. While nerves never go away, performers can learn to deal with them better through experience - playing through their pieces for friends and family members, small audiences, etc.

Memorizing music is not an end in and of itself; rather, it is a tool to more deeply connect to the music. While it takes discipline, it ultimately allows artists great freedom to be wholly expressive - both when performing as a soloist or collaborating with others.

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