Tip for memorizing music

This weekend, I had a concert and because it was Mother’s Day, I was asked to play some from my project Heirloom. Typically, I don’t do any of that stuff in concerts because it is more designed to put people asleep than keep them awake. In fact, I haven’t played any song on that project since I released it last year. So, I had to pull out the music and brush up on it. Really, I had to relearn it again because I had forgotten it.

Now we pianists have to memorize to perform. Yes it is unfair because pretty much only pianists and few other instruments are expected to memorize but that is the way it is. So, I am not going to pull out sheet music in a concert. Sometimes, I cheat a little bit but I will not tell you how I do it.

Anyway, because I had stopped playing this music, when I started going through it last week, I realized that I was going to struggle with memory if I was not careful. Memory problems in concerts are sort of embarrassing. It is funny because memory problems are not really a reflection on the musician. They are reflective of umm, memory problems. But no musician wants memory slips.

I get asked about memory all the time so I want to tell you how I memorize. Here is the first page of a piece I played. (You can download the entire piece here: http://greghowlett.com/downloads/jesuslovesme.pdf)




There are 16 bars on this page and a lot of notes but when I memorize this page, this is all I really memorize:

1) Chord progression: DbMaj7 – Gbm6 (4 times) and then Gm7(b5) – Gbm6 – Fm7 – Edim7 – Ebm7 – F/Ab7

2) The general (not exact) idea of the texture of the music (the little ideas that are being used such as arpeggios and grace notes).

The key is that I don’t make any attempt to memorize note for note. Instead of memorizing the couple of hundred notes on this page, I just need to memorize that short chord progression and the handful of textural ideas that are being used.

I want to look at the last two bars as an example. The chord there is technically Ab7(b9,13) and the shortcut for playing that chord is playing an F triad over Ab. (I won’t go into how I came up with that now but it is a polychord voicing.)

The left hand is easy. I am just playing the shell voicing which is the root and 7th. The right hand though is playing a F triad and here is what I want you understand: it really does not matter how I play that F triad right there. I don’t need to play that 12-note run from memory. I just need to play something that is built on a F triad. It could be repeated block chords. It could be an arpeggio. It could be something really fancy or really simple but it needs to be an F triad.

Now the truth is that most of the time when I play this song from memory, I am going to play something that is really close to those 12 notes. But it certainly does not have to be those 12 exact notes and I am not going to be thrown off my game if I stray from the run. The only thing that really matters is that the notes need to be from the F triad.

I know this is different from how many of you were taught to memorize. In classical music competitions, you have memorize note for note and there is no wiggle room at all. But in the real world, you will be way better off if you ditch that kind of thinking as soon as you can. There is simply no need to put that kind of pressure on yourself.