From ancient times up until the Renaissance, systematic memorisation was generally regarded as a special art. It was gradually forgotten due to modern inventions, such as the printing press, which made knowledge so readily available through the spread of printed literature, that one was no longer dependent on memorisation.
In music, however, the technique of memorisation has always been important. For a performing musician, only systematic memorisation can help the player to overcome the much feared “blackout.”
Unfortunately, music is often played “by heart” with no systematic approach to memorisation. One has practised the piece over and over again and believes “to know it” when the piece can be played fluently and faultlessly several times in a row. Then suddenly, in a performance situation, the worst happens: The player makes a mistake or has to stop and does not know how to continue. The piece is started from the beginning again. If the performer is lucky he/she gets through the second time. But often he/she becomes lost again in the same place.
Everybody knows about these embarrassing situations, which can disturb the confidence of a player greatly. The so-called blackout or memory block, particularly if it happens rather often, is then easily interpreted as a sign of an “unreliable” or “poor” memory while it is in fact, in most cases, only the result of inadequate usage of it. Generally, players who repeat a piece until they can play it “by heart” without any systematic approach to memorisation, rely mainly on their tactile memory, which works subconsciously as blocks of movements in a certain sequence. This is usually associated with a more or less clear aural image of the piece. Often, players can aurally remember exactly how a piece continues in the case of an interruption to the tactile automatism, however, this does not necessarily enable them to translate their aural image into the correct notes to be played or into a visual image of their technical execution on the instrument, if this has not been specifically trained. As a consequence of this, these players are lost if the tactile memory fails.
The aim must be to develop a complete mental image of the piece and its technical execution in every detail. This should exist independently of any physical involvement. It is also important to develop the ability of translating such menta images into correct physical actions.
All kinds of information are taken in through our senses, either consciously or subconsciously.
The ability to retain information is directly connected with the sensual perception, because we have as many different memory functions as we have senses. Each sense has, so to say, its own “compartment.” All these functions work together resulting in impressions which we subjectively experience as a complex entity.
How well each memory function is developed varies greatly in different people. Apart from any natural ability, the performance of a particular memory function is also dependent on how it has been trained. (e.g. Blind people usually develop the aural and tactile perception and memory to a much higher degree than people who can see, to compensate for the missing visual sense. Vice versa one memory function may be suppressed to a certain extent because of a particularly well developed memory function in another area, which automatically tends to dominate and take over.)
For the perception and memorisation of music three senses are important: Aural, Visual, and Tactile.
We can extend the performance of our memory with regard to a certain piece of music by consciously training each of these functions separately. We should aim to develop a complete mental image of the piece in at least two but preferably in each of the three memory functions, besides being able to actually play the piece.
Although, while concentrating on one memory function, we might not be able to completely block out the others, we can at least focus on one at a time until we can imagine the piece in all of its details in this particular memory function. When recalling memory impressions, one memory function is usually leading and it stimulates associated impressions in the other “compartments.”
We can practise making each “compartment” the leading one alternately, in our imagination. We can also focus on two at a time to practise their association. We make sure that at least one memory function will always work and stimulate necessary associations in another memory function. These processes are helped substantially by the analytical understanding of a piece as well as the development of certain patterns of emotional responses in connection with the details of the work. We all tend to remember details particularly well, if they are related to each other. Memory impressions which are associated with emotional images are also more easily retained. A total “blackout” still cannot be completely avoided, but it would then be caused mainly by lack of concentration rather by failure of the memory. A “blackout” in this case is usually rather short lived until concentration is regained.
The following exercises may serve as a general guide to approaching systematic memorisation:
Mental exercises away from the instrument:
- Aural: Practise internally hearing the piece phrase by phrase, by thinking structurally (e.g. by concentrating on leading melodic progressions, bass notes, chord progressions, rhythmic patterns, arpeggio patterns etc.). Do this initially by following the music until you can do this away from the music with utmost clarity. Imagine the sound of the piece in your head by concentrating mainly on the expression (dynamics, colour, emotional responses etc.).
- Tactile: Think through the technical patterns by imagining them physically (kinaesthetic approach). Do this with the music initially, until you can “play” through the whole piece in your mind away from the music.
- Visual: Learn the score phrase by phrasing by progressing analytically as in the aural exercise until you can visualize the details of notation throughout the piece before your inner eye. Visualize the technical patterns in terms of finger movements involved, again, starting with the help of the music until you can think the entire piece from memory.
- Combine deliberately any two of the previous approaches, e.g. aural/tactile, aural/visual, visual/tactile.
- Play extremely slowly through the piece from memory: a. anticipating aurally what comes next, b. anticipating kinaesthetically what comes next, c. anticipating visually what comes next.
- Aural/tactile: Hear ahead the first phrase, play the first phrase, hear ahead the second phrase, play the second phrase etc. continue in this way all through the piece.
Start playing the piece, stop at any place and continue by aurally imagining the next passage or phrase, then start playing again, continue in this fashion throughout the whole piece.
- Visual/tactile: Shadow play the piece (playing without sound).
- Play phrase by phrase, starting with the last one, followed by the second last one etc.
The exercises mentioned above leave room for individual adjustment. Depending on their personal pattern of strengths and weaknesses, different players might choose to place special emphasis on particular exercises. Excellent abilities in one memory function can well compensate for weaknesses in another.
The number of correct repeats one needs to firmly establish; certain memory impressions, and later, to reinforce them in order to maintain them, is again, different in individuals. Also, not every method of memorisation is equally suitable for each style of music.
Besides enabling the musician to play “from memory” (in its true sense), there are two more aspects concerning the benefits of systematic memorisation: Firstly, the process helps the musician to gain a deeper perception and knowledge of the work. Secondly, the ability to recall securely every detail of a piece allows the player to concentrate exclusively on the musical interpretation. Consequently, the performance will be better, independently of whether one chooses in the end to play with or without the music.