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Memorizing as a practice aid

Steve Eddins
Posted on Thursday, June 8, 2023

Until recently, I believed two things about memorizing music:

I’ve changed my mind on both points.

To tell the story, let me back up two years. With the pandemic’s arrival, I found that I had a bit more time on my hands. I was working from home instead of commuting back and forth to my office, and I had no orchestra rehearsals in the evenings.

So, I did something I’ve always wanted to try — I started taking piano lessons for the first time. Fairly quickly, my piano teacher (Hi, Elaine!) started gently suggesting that I try memorizing some things.

Although I was skeptical, I began to try memorizing some of the simple piano pieces that I was working on. I started with the idea of memorizing just one phrase, and maybe only for a few minutes, for the purpose of practicing that phrase thoroughly.

Soon, and to my surprise, I found myself really enjoying the experience of playing phrases from memory, and I started expanding to several phrases, or even to whole songs (in my beginner’s piano songbooks). I realized that not looking at the sheet music freed up my mind to paying more attention to other things, and it helped me to learn the songs more deeply.

Remembering that experience, I later started trying to memorize short bits on the horn. Soon, I had my first big win using memorization as a learning aid.

I was playing horn 3 for the Brahms Academic Festival Overture. This part has a set of wicked fast triplets (7 before G to G).

Brahms, Academic Festival Overture, Horn 3 in E.

Brahms, Academic Festival Overture, Horn 3 in E.

I experimented with different ways to practice this, but it’s the sort of passage that I generally have a lot of trouble with, and I wasn’t making much progress mastering this one at full speed.

One day, I decided to memorize it. It didn’t take long. And then I realized that I could practice this anywhere! I sang the notes and did the fingerings over and over again while in the car, or in my office. After a while, I was no longer fumble-fingered with it anymore. I could even recover in the middle if I happened to stumble. I still had other challenges to overcome, but now I had the additional mental capacity to solve those other problems.

I have a new goal now of building up a collection of standard excerpts that I can play from memory. I have memorized Till and the Tchaikovsky 5 solo. I’m working on some excerpts for a seating audition in August, and I plan to memorize that list. Next up: Brahms 3, mvmt 3 solo.