Memorizing: More Than Backwards

So a week ago I began memorizing a 5 minute performance piece for a show tonight, about 2.5 pages of material eventually cut to 2 pages flat. (I had a different piece in mind weeks ago, but found it wasn’t working and had to dump it last week for one I liked a lot better)

I spent two hours Friday, a couple hours Saturday, little to no time Sunday, an hour Monday, a little bit of time Thursday and a couple hours last night actively working on this. In some cases, I just didn’t have time to work on it, and in some cases I decided not to work on it and just relax: It’s too easy to get stressed out it if you’re constantly focused on it, which can negatively affect your work going forward.

I had previously discussed an approach where I memorize the piece working backwards. I did indeed do that to start, but found that after half a page I hit a bit of a wall when I kept trying to follow that approach. Having to recite a half page of material with newly learned material was a chore that obstructed my effort to memorize the middle.

So along with learning this piece, my process became an experiment of different approaches before I found a strategy that worked well.

Starting by learning the piece backwards was very useful, because often our traditional approach to memorization makes remembering the end of a piece more difficult and stressful. By starting with the end, that made the end of the piece the downhill-easiest part of running the piece. You can finish strong!

Based on my experience, here is what I find to be a solid approach to memorizing a piece. You’ll want to have at least a week of advance time to do this for every 2 pages of material you need to learn, if not more time. You’ll want to have a set of headphones, and the ability to set aside an hour or two every two out of three days.

– On day one, physically read the entire piece aloud off the paper at least 2-3 times. If you can do it 10 times, great, but I realize time may not be there to do it more than 2-3 times.

– From there, learn the end of the piece backwards, line by line. Get the last line on lock, then learn the 2nd to last line until both lines are on lock together, etc. Get at least the last half page of material memorized this way by the end of the 1st day.

– The next day, start memorizing the first half page the same way. This is important because, like learning the end first allows you to finish strong, getting the start of the piece on lock also allows you to start strong. Starting and finishing strong are key to a good presentation!

– After this, record yourself reading cleanly through the piece. I’d recommend reading through it aloud twice before attempting to record, and to attempt it as many times as needed to get as clean a reading as possible. Save it as an MP3 or on your phone, or some other way you can readily play back and loop.

This step’s value is obvious: You have reference material to listen to, plus you get to practice a training wheels version of the end goal, i.e. doing the whole piece exactly right. It’s a preview of your end goal!

– If traveling on foot or on transit, bring headphones and listen to a loop of the recording all the way to work and back. On an hour commute, you can listen to a 10 minute piece six times during a one way trip. A 5 minute piece can get 12 plays. This allows you to passively learn the piece through osmosis. If your commute won’t allow for 2 hours of listening, try to find 1-2 hours to kick back and listen to it.

– On the first day you listen to the recording, make sure not to physically work on the piece. This lets the piece “bake” in. This also takes pressure off you for a day to apply what you’re listening to. Just listen to the piece without worrying about having to learn it. (This moratorium is only for the first day. Once you resume practice the next day, you’re allowed to listen to the piece and work on it that day.)

– The next day, find the 3-4 most important parts of the piece, the parts that if you forgot them the piece would be ruined. Get the paragraphs (or 3-4 lines max) of those sections down pat, as well as a good idea of their order. Obviously, this means that if your memory (heaven forbid) goes out at any point, you can still hit the high notes. You will also want to read the whole piece off the page a couple times, to help reinforce the running order. Before the end of day three, be able to at least run your opening, these 3-4 sections, and the end from memory.

– In your next session, run the piece from memory as best you can, from the beginning as far as you can get. Note the parts that you don’t clearly remember. Seriously, if you so much as hesitate or have to struggle in any way to remember the next line, mark or otherwise note that part.

– Repeat to memorize each of the sections you marked, from the end of the last part you knew, through each given section into the start of the next part you remember. You want to meld the parts you need to work on with the parts you do know.

— (If the sections you’re forgetting are more than a couple lines in length, memorize the large sections one line at a time, from the back or the front, as if it were new material.)

– If you’re only forgetting a few small sections, try memorizing the first offending section, get it down, then once again run the piece from scratch and go as far as you can get. Once you reach the next offending section, learn it until it’s down then once again try to run the entire piece.

– Repeat this process until you can run the whole piece from memory without a hitch. Even then, every time you hit a point where you hesitate, go back and re-learn that part, melding it with surrounding parts you know. For a 5 minute piece, this may take a day or two. For a 10 minute or longer piece, this could stretch out over days, maybe even weeks.

– This is important: For every two days you spend actively memorizing a piece, take at least one day where you put in no active work on memorizing. It’s okay to listen to your recording of the piece during the commute on these off days (in fact, I highly recommend it).

It’s important to give yourself space to relax: Too much sustained work on the task can stress you out and make it more difficult. Also, much like how your muscles need rest to recover, your brain needs time away for your work to solidly commit to memory, as well as recover the capacity to take in more material.

——

So there you go. The act of memorizing pieces is something I’ve always stressed about. Spacing out on stage has always been one of my personal nightmares, and until now I never felt I had a truly solid approach for committing material to memory. Going forward, this is the approach I’m going to use and recommend.

I hope you find it helpful.

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