David Motto’s Practice Tip of the Week:
The #1 Music Memorization Strategy
There Are a Lot of Memorization Techniques
Many musicians contact me asking me for tips on playing and performing from memory. It’s clearly something that worries a lot of people – instrumentalists and vocalists, beginners and professionals, rockers and classical players.
There’s a lot of advice available on memorization techniques. There are books. (A lot of books.) There are websites. (Really a lot of websites.) There are online forums. (Mostly full of advice from musicians who know a whole lot less than you already know.)
You can read through these memorization tips – some of which are absolutely worthwhile and helpful – and still miss the strategy that I consider the all-time, #1, best-of-the-best memorization strategy.
Sure, it’s hidden in the other information, usually as a minor part of another strategy. It needs to be singled out, however, because it is an absolute game changer for musicians.
Here it is:
“The Song” vs. “Performing the Song”
Always memorize The Song before you try to learn how to play The Song. “The Song” and “How to Play the Song” are two completely different things.
Starting the memorization process by learning how to play The Song before you’ve learned The Song itself is a huge waste of time and effort. I think you know what I mean. You’ve probably found yourself struggling more than once with memorization issues while simultaneously dealing with coordination issues and performance issues.
The Song is sound. That sound is organized into sections and usually has a melody, harmony, and rhythms. It’s in a certain key (or keys) and has a specific pulse (which, in sheet music would be a time signature). The Song may or may not have lyrics.
You can memorize absolutely every one of these elements of your song without ever playing it on your instrument or singing the melody.
Using Recordings to Help the Memorization Process
The best method for memorizing The Song is to listen to recordings of it many, many times. But, it’s a specific kind of listening, and it needs to be done in a specific order.
Here’s the order:
First: Listen for Fun
You remember how fun songs were when you weren’t trying to perform them yourself? You need to recapture that amazing feeling. Enjoy the music. Get to know The Song like any fan or audience member would.
Second: Song Sections
Okay, here’s where you start listening like a performing artist who needs to get inside The Song. You’re no longer an audience member just having fun. Time to get to work! Identify the song sections. Notice which sections are the same (or very similar). Notice which are different. Learn how long each section is. Know what order the sections are in. If you’re using sheet music, read along in the music as you listen to the recording and notice where the sections are in the printed music and add your own markings to the sheet music to identify the sections.
Familiarize yourself with any complicated rhythms in the song. Be sure you can clap or sing these rhythms perfectly. No faking allowed! You’re not going to be able to play or sing these rhythms correctly when learning, practicing, and performing The Song if you can’t do the rhythms on their own.
Fourth: Sing Your Part
If you are an instrumentalist and this is a solo piece, you’ll need to sing through what you’ll be playing before you attempt to learn it on your instrument. If you’re an instrumentalist and part of an ensemble or band, make sure you can sing your part before learning how to play it. If you are a singer, make sure you can sing through the melody with the correct rhythms and entrances as you listen to the recording. No matter what your musical responsibility is, you’ve got to hear all the important musical elements of what you’ll eventually be performing. And, you’ve got to hear them perfectly.
All four of these steps are necessary if you want to truly be in control of The Song.
Change Your Relationship to Memorization
This whole process could take a day, a week, or several months depending on how much time you have, how much experience you have, and how
complex the music is. Don’t worry about how long it takes. Just memorize the song!!
Only when you’ve completed the process of memorizing The Song itself (and I mean really memorized it!!) should you start learning how to play it.
Starting the memorization process with The Song itself – instead of just jumping in and trying to instantly perform – will completely change your relationship to memorizing music. You will be able to learn how to play every song much faster, and you’ll be able to memorize playing The Song more efficiently with less anxiety and more confidence.
To Your Musical Success!