I like to practice backwards- crazy, but true. This was a method I picked up as a young college student trying to memorize huge amounts of classical music note for note. The amazing Romantic pianist Clara Schumann was the first to perform complete concerts from memory- Bach never played his own music from memory, neither did Mozart, or Handel- all of whom were amazing keyboardists in their day. Unfortunately, once we get to the Romantic period, and the whole "cult of the virtuoso" thing, musicians started to try to find ways to outdo each other in fantastic musical feats, and the memorization of music (for pianists anyway) remain a standard of today.
Modern pianists still follow in the footsteps of the lovely Mrs. Schumann. And let me tell you, memorization is scary- your muscle memory will only get you so far, and with classical forms, a familiar theme can go in many different directions depending on where you are in the piece, and it can hinge on 1 note. I have managed to get myself stuck in musical circles many a time. Sometimes my sonata gets stick in the exposition when I get to the recapitulation because the first theme WANTS to modulate (or transition), and not remain in the original key (or false transition) and I find myself facing the development section AGAIN!
So, how do you memorize in an effective way? What worked for me was to adopt memory spots. I would go through my music and number smaller sections. I could then divide those sections into a number of days, and set memorization goals for myself (being the somewhat goal oriented person I am.). Then I am just memorizing small sections- 8-16 measures every day, which over time adds up. I then started trying to find ways to make memorization more difficult- I would have friends call out random numbers and mix up my memory spots ensuring I could start anywhere at any time, I would start one memory spot, and then jump to the next one without finishing the previous one, or I would do all my memory spots backwards- again making sure that one thing didn't just mindlessly lead to the next.
An example: J.S. Bach's Prelude and Fugue in G minor- my memory spots.
Working my memory spots backwards worked so well for me that I started to memorize my music backwards. It made so much more sense. We learn our music from the beginning to the end, and when we sit down to practice, we tend to start at the beginning. Unfortunately, by the time we get to the end, the piece isn't nearly as solid. So, to strengthen my endings, I started to memorize from the end. For example I should be able to memorize this Bach Fugue in 2 weeks- max. I can already play the piece, so I sit down and memorize spot number 8. The next day, I sit down and memorize number 7. Then, I can play 7-8 from memory, and my ending is as good as my beginning. On the third day, I memorize number 6, then I can play from 6 to the end by memory. On the fourth day, I memorize number 5 and can do the entire second page from memory. Then I can take a couple of days solidifying memorize spots for the second half. On the second week, I start at number 4 and memorize it. The next day, I memorize spot number 3 and combine 3-4. The third day, I memorize number 2 and add that to 3-4. On the fourth day, I memorize spot number 1 and put together 1-4. On the fifth day, review 5-8, on the sixth day review 1-4, and on the seventh day put it all together. You should have the entire fugue memorized at this point, and it should be very solid.
It should be noted that organists aren't expected to memorize music- although I still approach my organ music from a memorization standpoint. I still use the music on Sunday morning, but it's just there as a safeguard. I have also found the backwards memorization practice to be very helpful with choir rehearsal as well. Most choral pieces have a big, dramatic ending, so it makes sense (to me at least) to learn that section early in the rehearsal process- it is usually the most difficult, and allows the choir to feel more comfortable. Then as you work backward, the sections flow together nicely all the way to the end.
Give it a try! I have found that my students respond well to this method as well.
Thanks for reading! Now go practice!
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is a professional pianist, teacher, singer, and Music Director currently residing in Snohomish, Washington. She is the Director of Music at Peace Lutheran Church in Monroe, WA, and also teaches private piano, voice and ukulele lessons at The ARK in Snohomish, WA.