This is not a list of easy (or even not so easy) tips for memorizing. It is also not a list of the different brain processes that occur when memorizing. That information is out there in abundance. And I’m not entirely sure how useful it is when teaching advanced students how to memorize.
I don’t know how I memorize. I’ve rarely had to do it consciously. I also have done very little of it in the last 25 years. By way of encouraging my adult students who are struggling with their pieces, I have related that the pieces that I learned as a teenager and into my twenties are all implanted in my brain forever. As long as my fingers are in reasonable shape, I can sit down and play any number of them at any moment. However, the handful that I have memorized (and performed) in recent years, I can not. It’s almost like I’ve never even seen them before. I understand how difficult it is.
But when I stop to think about it, I realize that I put in countless hours of time on those pieces that have stuck with me. The same cannot be said of recent attempts. Accompanying kind of ruined me that way – for so many years I was forced to learn pieces very quickly. A summer string camp that I used to accompany for had me literally having to learn Beethoven violin or cello sonatas overnight – which does wonders for sight-reading, but little for an in-depth study of any one piece.
So this was my approach the last couple of times I performed on my own student recital. Learn, memorize, and “perfect” a Chopin Nocturne in 2 months or less – far less time than what I spent learning something when I was a student myself. No wonder it hasn’t stuck.
Is this a lesson for advanced students who “just can’t memorize”? When I think of most of my students who have struggled with this, the bigger issue is finding time. I think most of us as teachers have probably become a little too lenient in our demands that advanced students actually practice for at least a couple of hours every day. I’m thinking that the sheer amount of time spent must go a long ways (this is part of that 10,000 hours to master a skill idea).
The associate performance diploma for our major examining systems requires the memorization of all pieces. There is a trend, at least locally, to look at different options that do not require memorization, sometimes solely because the student is struggling with memory. These other options have a lot to offer, but should be chosen on their own merit, not because of what they do not require. Perhaps the decision is being made too quickly to abandon a route that requires memorization, when the real problem is simply a matter of not putting in enough time.
Brahms gets the last word. “One ought never to forget that by actually perfecting one piece, one gains and learns more than by commencing or half-finishing half a dozen.”