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12 minutes reading time (2391 words)

Memorization in adulthood

It really gets my dander up when I hear people say that adult amateur pianists aren't "serious" about their piano study. Why underestimate the thousands of adults who are passionate about performing at the piano? You will find amateur pianists seeking out performance opportunities through music clubs and associations. They find any excuse to perform—they are passionate about playing the piano. 

These pianists understand that to play well—really well—you have to know the score thoroughly. Often this includes memorizing the score. I find students reach a point I call the "tweens"—the piece is half memorized and half read from the score. The "tweens" is when a student can neither follow the score (as they have started looking at their hands), nor play by memory. It is at this time a choice must be made—with or without music. 

Memorization is difficult for almost everyone, but it is especially difficult for students who do not have years of music theory, aural skills, and teaching behind them. Add stage fright and the aging brain, and it could be a recipe for disaster. I do not advocate "making" every one of my adult students memorize; however, the ones who choose to do so often find the experience uplifting. They know the music more intimately. They feel a sense of accomplishment. They feel their brains stretch. And they feel pride in their achievement. 

Heather is a student who realized the "tweens" needed to be met head on. She memorizes music daily—it is as important to her as learning new literature. How does she accomplish this? Read below for her insights. 

My quest for successful strategies

by Heather Arden

Playing the piano again after a lapse of forty years is both exhilarating and frustrating. I studied the piano seriously until college, and then chose to go into literature. About ten years ago, when I retired from teaching French at the University of Cincinnati, I bought a used piano and found a teacher. After I lost my husband and retirement proved to be very difficult, music became my life raft. With the help of wonderful teachers I have made good progress, to the point that I am now hitting the dreaded wall of playing from memory. 

When I took lessons as a child my teachers discouraged me from playing by ear so that I would learn to read music well. I do not remember if I ever played from memory. In any case, I memorize with more difficulty now that I am older.1 Some of my friends say that they don't play in public, but I enjoy it! For a long time I tried to perform using the score, since many of my older friends claim that playing by memory is overrated. I found this unsatisfactory, since I don't have the facility to play without mistakes unless I really get the notes in my fingers. Although I find enjoyment in playing from the score, playing by memory is more fulfilling than being tied to the score. 

I was in a bind: playing from the score was reassuring, but it only allowed me to reach a moderate level of accuracy and musical expression. Playing from memory in public was anxiety-provoking to the point that I lost what little memorization I had painfully achieved. Going back and forth between score and keyboard was a disaster. Playing for people became a grueling experience. I found that even with much work, I couldn't trust my memorization when I played for others. Yet the passive memorization that naturally occurred made it hard for me to return to the score. Being of a scholarly bent, I have looked for answers in books. I would like to share with you the things that helped me (or didn't help me), in hopes of shedding some light on memorizing in the context of an older amateur pianist. 

What I've read

There are many helpful studies available. I will mention some titles that have shown me the fundamental components of memorizing and playing from memory. Susanne Freymuth's book, Mental Practice and Imagery for Musicians,2 offers some insights, although it didn't get to the heart of my memorization problems. Music and Memory,3 while not a handbook of memorization, explains in great detail how our memory processes music. In fact, we could not "hear" music without our memory. As we listen to a piece over and over, the music is stored in long-term memory, a process that involves chunking the music, building hierarchies of chunks, and retrieving the chunks under pressure. 

Stewart Gordon's video-recording Memorization4 defines the complex interaction of mental systems—muscle, aural, visual, analytical, and kinesthetic—that allow us to play from memory. Gordon also suggests practice techniques for reinforcing memorization. Practicing Perfection5 follows a concert pianist through the memorization of a complex piece of music; the chapter on the hierarchical retrieval scheme is particularly helpful. Anxiety and Musical Performance6 explores the sources of performance anxiety and ways to deal with them. These works serve as guides through the jungle of memorization, so that I can apply their insights to my individual ability to memorize.

How I'm dealing with memory with my new knowledge

1. Muscle memory. Getting the music in my fingers relies on making effective musical chunks and linking them smoothly. When I look away from the score while playing a well-known piece, it is the connections between chunks that fail me. If I can play the start of the segments, however, the rest usually comes easily. To facilitate chunking my teacher has helped me learn simple patterns (using Czerny's Opus 821, Eight-measure Exercises, for example), and she has shown me how to practice crucial connections and "switches." I concentrate on memorizing hands separately, practicing small chunks (even cutting up a photocopy into snippets) while resisting the joy of playing through the piece, and carefully working out the fingering. But I don't begin active memorizing before I can play the score comfortably, because it is harder at my age to unlearn and relearn things such as fingering, dynamics, accents, etc. 

2. Aural and visual memory. I am working to strengthen my auditory sense by a variety of means, such as ear training, singing, and simple improvisations. I cannot easily play melodies I hear in my head, but once I have played something many times the soundtrack in my head helps my fingers find the keys. On the other hand, I have tried to diminish the role of vision in learning a piece; for me, reading the score somehow interferes with hearing it. I am not able to recall the score visually, as some people can. I am more aware of my fingers if I close my eyes (I have discovered that I can peel an egg better with my eyes closed!). It is as though my visual and auditory systems are competing for control of my fingers. Ultimately it is aural control of muscle memory that is most effective. 

3. Analysis. Experts often recommend analysis of the score for students, and I have found it useful to a point. When I started memorizing Schubert's second Moment musical (D. 780/2), for example, I made a simple "tree" mapping out the structure (see Example 1). I chose this piece because it didn't look too difficult—only three pages long and lots of repetition. I love Schubert, so this was going to be a labor of love. Ha! I ended up with twenty-two sections, only five of which repeat exactly! 

I have also studied some music theory, so that I can describe basic intervals, chords, progressions (most of the time), and cadences. I don't think it is helpful at the stage of memorization to expect a student to do deeper analysis. And with a composer like Schubert even the experts disagree: two major books on Schubert have recently been published with two different approaches to his unique harmonic language.7 It is more helpful to me to feel how the voices move (I use colored pencils to show common tones, ascending patterns, etc.), and how my fingers move on the keys. In a performance, the results of applied analysis must be as automatic as the other approaches to memorizing.

Example 1: Heather Arden’s “tree” mapping the structure of Schubert’s Moment musical, D. 780/2.


4. Mental Playing. Ultimately, mental playing has helped me the most. I was intrigued when my teacher commented that she can play a score in her head. I further read that Lili Kraus replayed her repertory over and over in her head when she was a prisoner of war in World War II in Java. Mental playing focuses the process on mentally feeling one's fingers move to the right notes. It both helps memorization and verifies the solidity of what has been learned. 

At first I couldn't play even simple pieces accurately, note by note, in my head. This led me to think about what that involves, and, as I struggled with mental playing, I got better at it. Now when learning a piece I repeatedly replay small sections (often a measure or less) in my head, concentrating on the connections between chunks. Sometimes I visually follow the score, although more often I close my eyes. I imagine playing each note while mentally (but not physically) moving my fingers. I "feel" my fingers moving and "see" how they move Ultimately, mental playing has helped me the most. I was intrigued when my teacher commented that she can play a score in her head. I further read that Lili Kraus replayed her repertory over and over in her head when she was a prisoner of war in World War II in Java. Mental playing focuses the process on mentally feeling one's fingers move to the right notes. It both helps memorization and verifies the solidity of what has been learned. At first I couldn't play even simple pieces accurately, note by note, in my head. This led me to think about what that involves, and, as I struggled with mental playing, I got better at it. Now when learning a piece I repeatedly replay small sections (often a measure or less) in my head, concentrating on the connections between chunks. Sometimes I visually follow the score, although more often I close my eyes. I imagine playing each note while mentally (but not physically) moving my fingers. I "feel" my fingers moving and "see" how they move any research exploring exactly why this kind of mental practice is helpful. In part it may be a way to reduce the stressful multitasking of performance, as multitasking becomes harder as we age. It is hard work, and at times my head aches, but I am fi nally reaching the point where I can play from memory with some confidence. 

Success—can I do it again?

After months of work I can finally play the Moment musical from memory, with only a few slips. Alone in my home. When I play for other people I still put the score on the piano, but I am not reading it. My eyes glide over the score, in a kind of "soft" focus, to help allay the anxiety of performance, and to be there if I need it. But I am playing from memory. Now I wonder—can I do it again? Presently I am memorizing a much more difficult piece, Schubert's Impromptu in BFlat Major (D 935/3). Working on it has raised another intriguing question—why are some kinds of music easier to memorize than others? I learned more quickly the daunting final variation, which is made up of scales and arpeggios, than the apparently easier first variation, which is giving me a terrible time. The continually changing voices in the treble are much more problematic, but slowly it is coming. 

The journey ahead

Two challenges now face me, in my journey on the road to memorization. One is overcoming the destructive effects of performance anxiety on the memory. If playing from memory at home is like walking a tightrope five feet off the ground, performing in public is like walking that same tightrope across the Grand Canyon. Besides counseling and performance aides, the best therapy for me is to play for other people in low-stress environments, such as retirement homes. Now I have to get up the nerve to do it! 

The other challenge is to trust my musical ability. Sometimes, after I have fluently played through a piece from memory, I think "how did I do that?!" After days of struggle, something wonderful has happened. The explicit work of getting the music into long-term memory gives way to the implicit retrieval of the music. Lilias MacKinnon expresses it succinctly: "Consciousness [is] the centre of practice; subconsciousness the centre of performance."8 The shift from consciously memorizing to letting the music flow from one's fingers springs from a mysterious transformation in our mental processes. The left side of the brain—language, explicit knowledge, control, judgment—while still helping with difficult moments, like "switches," must take a back seat to the right side— holistic awareness, implicit knowledge, and acceptance of the moment.9 My rational mind finds it disturbing to give up control, to become a channel for the wonderful music of Schubert and Chopin and Debussy, but it is what makes performing from memory—even at my age—a joyous experience.

With hard work and the help of my teacher, I plan on playing the entire Impromptu from memory this December— for my seventieth birthday!

Powell, D. H. (2011). The Aging Intellect. New York: Rutledge. 

Freymuth, Malva Susanne. (1999). Mental Practice and Imagery for Musicians. Boulder, CO: Integrated Musician's Press. 

Snyder, B. (2000). Music and Memory: An Introduction. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 

Gordon, Stewart. (1995). Memorization in Piano Performance (videorecording). Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Publishing Co., Inc. 

Chaffin, Roger, et al. (2002). Practicing Perfection: Memory and Piano Performance. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 

Reubart, D. (1985). Anxiety and Musical Performance: On Playing the Piano from Memory. New York: Da Capo Press. 

Clark, Suzannah. (2011). Analyzing Schubert. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; and Damschroder, David. (2010). Harmony in Schubert. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Reubart, p. 40. 

See Taylor, J. B. (2008). My Stroke of Insight. New York: Viking, for a fascinating discussion of how our two "bra ins" work together, especially p. 34 concerning music.

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