The Three Necessary Stages: Stage Two: Conscious Memorization

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In a previous post I wrote about rote memorization, the repetitive process that can be summed up in the words “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.

Rote learning is all about repetition over time, and developing a habit. If you have ever stopped in the middle of piece you had memorized and needed to go back to beginning to resume playing, you have experienced the fatal flaw in rote memorization.

Step 2 in the process solves that problem by making memorization a conscious activity. Conscious memorization is about observation, attention and commitment.

In this stage of memorization, we increase our actual knowledge of the piece. Rather than just build a habit that is mostly physical, we learn the piece more as the composer wrote it, just in reverse.

The composer built the piece from a mental image of sound; in conscious memorization we build our mental image of the piece from the notes on the page.

But it is much more than taking a mental photograph of the page. To truly learn a piece this way, you must look for every feature that you can find. You will look for patterns in notes, identify harmonies and phrases, discern features of the piece’s form and structure.

Finding and identifying these features is the first part of the process. You can use assistance here, if you need. You can ask your teacher or a colleague to help you. You may find some things on your own, but another person may have additional insights that will be useful to you. This step is essentially gathering information, and the more information you have, the sharper your mental image will be.

The second part of the process is even more important. You must name each feature. You must be able to describe it in words. I have found that unless you can tell someone what a particular feature is, you won’t be able to rely on your memory of it.  Who would want to be operated on by a surgeon who couldn’t describe each step of the procedure?

Your description needs to be meaningful to you and as relevant to the music as possible. If you can identify a section as the “restatement of the opening theme at the dominant,” that’s fabulous, but if you’re more comfortable with “sounds like the beginning but starts on a D,” that’s fine too. Your names for these features should be designed to help you if you get distracted in a performance. That’s why they need meaning – “the part that sounds like birds” is descriptive, but it would be more helpful if you knew what notes those birds started on, for instance.

You want to sharpen your mental image enough so that you have reference points, almost like bookmarks, that you can use to regain composure should you lose it in performance.

This is the most difficult and labor-intensive stage of memorization, but it yields that most-desired of rewards – a secure, confident, distraction-proof performance.

Next: STAGE THREE:  Intuitive memorization

Questions or comments? I’d love to hear them! Leave them in the comments below.

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