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Memorizing Complex Music: Reinforcement

In my last post, I discussed basic techniques to use when memorizing complex music. Today, we will explore additional steps that one can take in order to solidify memory.

The above is a passage from Karim Al-Zand's Capriccio (2002). To be used as a reference when watching the video.

First, an important general tip: frequency is more important than duration! Practicing a passage for five minutes at a time in the morning, afternoon, and evening is more effective than practicing the passage once for a longer period of time.

After completing the rudimentary steps discussed in my last post (analysis, intentional repetition), there are a variety of methods that one can use to enhance retention. Some require the instrument, others do not. Let’s start with some exercises that can be done without the instrument:

  1. Listening: if there are recordings available, listen to a variety of interpretations. One can listen either actively or passively. Active listening (listening while visualizing your fingers moving, studying the score, singing along silently in your head, etc.) is more powerful than passive listening (listening while driving, studying, or doing anything else), but both can be helpful.

  2. Sing it! Especially when a work features challenging harmonies or intervals, singing is vital to etching the music into your inner ear.

  3. Mental practice! This underutilized method of practicing is incredibly effective. Without listening to a recording, looking at the music, or moving your fingers, hear the music in your head and picture your fingers playing the notes on the fingerboard. This mental work will show you where your memorization is strong and where it is weak. If and when you find weakness in your mental run through, consult the music and repeat the spot several times in your head. We inevitably struggle to play what we struggle to visualize or hear in our minds.

Here are some techniques to use when practicing with the instrument:

  1. Muscle memory and speed: playing the passage frequently is vital to developing muscle memory. Practice the passage at different speeds, especially if the music features fast passagework. You can always set the metronome to a slow tempo and gradually increase the tempo.

  2. Rhythms: if memorizing a fast passage, changing the rhythms can be a great way to develop muscle memory. Convert notes of the same duration into long-short pairs, short-long pairs, long-short-short-short groups of four, etc. You will likely want to start this exercise while looking at the music. Once it becomes easy with the music, try it by memory.

  3. Work backwards: start with the last measure, think through it in your head, then play it by memory. Next, think through the penultimate measure and last measure, play the last two measures by memory. Add the third measure from the end, etc.

These techniques can be used when memorizing any piece of music, but they are especially useful when committing a complex work to memory. In my next post, we'll discuss how to strengthen memory on the macro scale (meaning the entire piece) as opposed to focusing on the micro scale (shorter passage).

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