Memorization: a necessary chore, or a path to a more enjoyable performance (audition) experience?

January 14, 2014

Performance decorum in Mozart’s day demanded that there be music on the stand, though he often played from memory. On at least one occasion, he placed a blank sheet on the stand, just to keep up appearances.










Many of you are required, or at least encouraged, to perform all or part of your audition from memory.[i]  What I’ve learned from my own performing and teaching career is that memorization is not important so much for its own sake, but more so for the musical benefits it brings.  The ultimate goal is a musically satisfying, communicative, and ‘alive’ performance.  I’ve also learned that it is rare for a student to get direct training in how to memorize effectively.  As a result, I’ve developed a whole workshop on memorization, but for the purposes of this post, I’m going to hit just on the basics.  I’ll be happy to respond to questions in more detail—just leave a comment on this page.


Memorization basics:

  • Put down the instrument.  Study your music as a conductor would study.  Conduct through it.  Sing it.  Understand it (key, meter, tempo, rhythms, dynamics, form).  Get it to a point where you can ‘perform’ the piece in your head.  The better you understand what is happening with the form and the harmony especially, the better you will know the piece.  This is also a good indicator of the difficulty level of the piece relative to your current skill level.  If it is difficult for you to sight-read, and subsequently to visualize, it will be difficult for you to learn, and a more appropriate repertoire choice may be in order.


  • Respond to novelty.  Our brains respond to novelty.  We remember well things which have a profound effect on us emotionally.  Repetition in practice is necessary but it is also dangerous in this regard.  It desensitizes us to what is truly remarkable in a piece of music.  Find ways to rediscover what is extraordinary about a particular piece.  There are many ways to do this, but it boils down to approaching the piece with ‘beginner’s mind.’  What would this sound like to someone hearing it for the first time?  What would it have sounded like to someone hearing it for the first time at the time that it was written?  Are their unexpected intervals, cadences, etc., that a lesser composer would have handled differently?  Allowing yourself to be ‘struck’ by these novelties will help them to stick.

  • Do mindful repetition only.  It’s no secret that repetition is a necessary part of your practice routine.  But how you engage in repetition has a profound effect on how well you learn your music.  In his book, The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle writes about how learning takes place in the brain when synapses are repeatedly fired, and ‘white matter’ (myelin) wraps around the circuit.  This is good news and bad news.  Our brains learn every time we repeat something—whether we are doing it correctly or not.  This is what makes bad habits so difficult to overcome. Before repeating a passage with a mistake in it, fix the mistake.  Repeat the fix, not the mistake.  Give yourself the experience of doing it correctly, no matter how slowly you have to do it.  It’s after you’ve fixed the problem that mindful repetition should begin.  The ‘maybe-I’ll-get-it-this-time-if-I-get-a-running-start’ approach is not recommended!  This kind of mindful repetition will result in memorization (i.e. ‘learning’), without that being the primary goal.


  • Let’s NOT start at the beginning.  It’s not a very good place to start…if you want to be prepared to overcome memory slips.  We’ve all experienced, either directly or indirectly, the memory slip that sends the performer back to the beginning of the piece, only to hit the wall again at the problem spot.  Set up ‘memory pillars’ throughout your piece.  These can be structural (which requires that you know the form of the piece), or they can be the beginnings of particularly vexing passages.  Learn these inside out.  Practice starting cold at each of these pillars.


  • Forget perfection.  The aim here is not to avoid mistakes, but rather to be able to overcome them, and minimize them, when they do happen.  An audition jury will be more impressed with your ability to handle a little stumble than they will with a bland ‘mistake free’ performance.  They are interested in gauging your potential artistry.  Pay attention to where the mistakes tend to come.  Why are you making them?  Does your attention tend to lag at a certain point in the piece?  Have you not analyzed that passage, so the accidentals don’t make sense and are difficult to remember?  These might be good places for memory pillars…


  • Study theory.  I still remember ‘train-wrecking’ in Bach’s Partita No. 2 in my junior recital.  Afterwards, the jazz guitar teacher, who was on my jury, came up to me and said, “you gotta know the changes, man.”  It seemed an odd thing to say about Bach, until I realized what he meant: you have to understand the underlying harmonic structure in this seemingly ‘linear’ music.  He was right, of course.  The better an understanding you have of how traditional voice-leading and harmony work, the more deeply you can absorb your music.  Ear training and keyboard skills help too, by the way…which is why they are a required part of your curriculum in music school!


  • Prepare to be nervous.  As I mentioned above, an audition is not a typical performance experience.  In a previous post, Christina Crispin suggested ways to ‘practice being nervous,’ such as running up and down a flight of stairs before practicing.  This is great advice.  Your body chemistry changes when you are nervous (fight or flight!).  This in itself can cause unexpected memory slips, which can further throw you off.  There is, of course, a direct link between how nervous you feel and how well prepared you are.


Remember that memorization is not the end in itself.  My hope is that I’ve provided some insights to enhancing memory as a step toward the greater goal of deepening the musical experience for both the performer and the listener.  With increased confidence in your knowledge of the music, more of your artistic self is available to interpret, to react, to truly play by heart and from the heart.


[i] At Eastman, memorization is only required for instruments that traditionally perform from memory, or for repertoire that is traditionally performed from memory.  Refer to the repertoire requirements for undergraduates and graduates for your specific instrument.