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Memorizing Complex Music: Putting It Together

Welcome to the third and final post on memorizing complex music! Today, we're going to focus on techniques that strengthen memory on the large scale. These methods are helpful once you have already memorized the entire movement or work and want to fortify that memory.

To demonstrate some techniques, I’m going to use the Fuga from Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in G Minor, BWV 1001. The score is available here on IMSLP.

Technique #1: Play through slowly and musically

A very simple method of working memory on the large scale is to play through the movement at a significantly slower tempo than performance tempo. Make sure you play musically as you do this.

Technique #2: Anchor points

Choose anchor points and be able to start at those anchor points. (By “anchor point,” I mean a place that begins or ends a major phrase or section.) In my experience, finding three to four anchor points per page is effective when it is a long work. If for whatever reason I have a memory slip, I can always orient myself around the nearest anchor point.

Here is a picture of anchor points that I have chosen for the first page of the fugue. Choosing anchor points is personal, and you might choose different points. I practice by starting at each anchor point and playing a measure or two. I then skip to the second anchor point and again play a couple of measures, followed by the third anchor point, etc. Once I am comfortable starting at the first anchor point, I practice by starting at the last anchor point, moving to the penultimate anchor point, etc.

Technique #3: Practice similar passages back to back

Find passages that are similar (or analogous), isolate them, and practice them in succession. Sometimes there are wormholes in pieces, meaning spots where it's easy to jump from an early spot in the work to a similar spot that occurs late in the work. Isolating these passages and practicing them one immediately after the other will help prevent a trip through the wormhole.

Example from Bach's G Minor Fuga, measures 30-32 and measures 75-76:

Measures 30-32:

Measures 75-76:


Technique #4: Drop-the-needle

Play the drop-the-needle game. This is a technique that my graduate school teacher, Ronald Copes, showed me when I was feeling insecure about my memory in Bach’s C Major Fuga. Here’s how to play: take a recording of the piece, start the recording in a random place, and try to start playing with the recording as quickly as possible.

Practicing this way is incredibly helpful. In addition to requiring aural and muscle memory, the game helps solidify memory of the work’s structure.

For a variation of the drop-the-needle game, put your music on the stand, close your eyes, and randomly point to a place in the music (eyes still closed). Open your eyes and look only at the few notes next to your finger. Look away from the music again and try to start playing by memory from that spot.

A few more general tips

Always be singing the music in your head! As long as you are hearing the music in your inner ear, even if you make a mistake, you can find your place by letting your inner ear guide you.

Make yourself nervous in your practice sessions! For example, record yourself or play for a friend (or friends). Having another person in the room will help to make you nervous and heighten your focus. Also, try practicing in different locations. Changing your surroundings can take you out of your comfort zone, which is ultimately what performing will do.

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