The Three Necessary Stages of Memorization, Part 1

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It is easy to know when we don’t have a piece memorized. It is more difficult to know when a piece is “ready” to be performed from memory.Memorization is a process, and one that requires time and effort. It is not simply practicing a piece until you don’t have to look at the music. It is a gradual absorbing of every aspect of the piece, a deep and fundamental understanding of its message, its language and its techniques.

You don’t have to be a musical genius to memorize well. And you don’t have to have a great memory. But you do have to be sure to cover all three stages of memorization.

STAGE ONE: Rote
Rote memorization means you practice until it sticks. Repetition is important and necessary; it feeds long term memory and develops deep grooves of habit.

This is the first kind of memorizing we do. It is how we learn our ABC’s, our multiplication tables and the Pledge of Allegiance.

The key features of rote memorization are “strong” and “long.” If you are “strong” in your repetition, meaning you repeat something correctly every time in practice, the chances that you will repeat it correctly on demand are also “strong.”  And if you repeat it correctly over a “long” time, your memory of it will be “long” lasting.

Strong and Long.

But there are crucial weaknesses in rote memorization.

It leaves you vulnerable to distraction. If you have to stop in the middle, you may need to start from the beginning again.

For example, can you recite the Gettysburg address? Yes? Great! But if I asked you just to start from the line, “It is altogether fitting and proper..,” would you be able to go on? Possibly not.

Another weakness: Your knowledge is not flexible. For instance, you have no problem reciting the alphabet. But how quickly could you recite it backwards? Or from the middle outward?

Rote memorization alone doesn’t take you to that level of comfort and knowledge. It can leave you stranded in territory that feels unfamiliar if someone in the room sneezes.

In short, the weaknesses in rote memorization make it insufficient for performing purposes, yet this is where most people stop.

Next: STAGE TWO: Conscious Memorization

Questions or comments? I’d love to read them. Post them in the comments below!

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  • Elizabeth Volpé Bligh

    Well said, Anne! If one is not conscious of every note, starting at any given moment in a piece, then the piece is not memorized enough to guarantee a good performance under any kind of conditions. Sometimes we can be distracted by an unfamiliar temperature, a different harp, a strange lighting setup, which can cause rote memorization to fail. Pedal mishaps often occur because the harpist hasn’t attached the logic and significance of each pedal to the chord or note being played. If one takes the time to analyze the harmony, and to memorize each note with its real name, i.e. C# as opposed the “C string”, then pedal disasters are limited to mechanical failure or a shoe catching in the carpet! Thanks for doing these blogs, Anne; they are wonderful!

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  • Megan @ Melbourne Harp Music

    Memorization is something I still struggle with even after all this time- I’m looking forward to learning from your tips and tricks. Thanks!

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