by Leonard Garrison

Flutists, unlike pianists and singers, rarely need to memorize music. Situations requiring memorization, such as solo contests and concerto competitions, often lead to psychological trauma and an impulsive and short-lived resolve to throw one’s flute out the window or to quit music. In preparing music by memory, we procrastinate, making the process more difficult. “Cramming” at the last minute does not work.

Here are some methods to aid your memory and to save your sanity. First, make a regular practice of memorizing everything you play, including warm-ups, scales, arpeggios, etudes, orchestral excerpts, solos, and ensemble music. This does not mean that you have to perform by memory, but that, if called upon, you could play selected passages without the music. You will enjoy your freedom from the page. You will learn your music more thoroughly. Finally, when you must memorize, it won’t be such a big deal.

Start with something simple, such as Exercise No. 4 from Taffanel-Gaubert’s 17 Big Daily Finger Exercises. This pattern is easier to memorize than more complex music, such as a movement from a concerto.

Next, use memorization as a practice technique. Choose a thorny but short technical passage from any flute music. Freedom from the page enables you to play better.

Memorization enhances your self-confidence. You can look at the conductor without worrying about losing your place. Reading from an unfamiliar copy of the music at an audition won’t throw you off.

There are various types of memory, which, if used together, can reinforce each other:

  • tactile
  • aural
  • visual
  • symbolic
  • analytic

This list is arranged from the most facile but least dependable type of memory (tactile) to the least facile but most dependable type (analytic) .

Everyone experiences tactile memory after having played music so often that the fingers automatically work in certain patterns. This type of memory is almost unconscious, as if the nerve endings were working without the brain’s participation, and results from many repetitions. Tactile memory can easily go astray. You can do an exercise that avoids reliance on tactile memory. Practice extremely slowly, at a speed of about one note every two seconds. If you can play a piece that slowly, memory is certain.

Aural memory— playing “by ear”—is indispensable. Practice music without your flute, any time or place. Sing the piece that you need to memorize from beginning to end. Do this while driving, hiking a mountain trail, lying in bed, or waiting in line at the supermarket. When you play the piece on the flute, your ear will guide you to the next phrase.

Some people have such a strong visual memory that we call it photographic—an ability to see exactly what is on the page. You need to see, in your mind’s eye, everything in your music. As an exercise, close your music and take a blank piece of music paper. From memory, write down everything that is on your copy of the music. Don’t forget the title, the composer, the tempo indication, the meter, the key signature, dynamics, articulations, and cryptic markings that your teacher has painstakingly provided. Repeat this exercise at regular intervals (daily, every three days, or weekly) until you can produce a replica of the original. This type of memory is incredibly reliable.

Symbolic memory involves memorizing the names of the notes. As an exercise, say aloud and from memory the names of all the notes in your piece. This is not as pointless as it sounds. Reading music is partially an unconscious process. Naming the notes makes the process conscious and solidifies the connection between a written note, a sound, and how we produce the sound (a given fingering and embouchure placement).

Analytic memory involves musical analysis. What scales are used? What intervals are prevalent? Are there recurring melodic and/or rhythmic motifs? In what key is the piece written? Does it modulate? What is the form of the piece? Are there any repetitions or sequences? If so, what changes? How long are the phrases? How do the phrases relate to each other?

If you must memorize a piece, start well before the performance. Each day, memorize only a phrase or small section at a time. When you add new sections, make sure you know how they relate to previously memorized material.

Continuity is important in memorizing music. “To memorize anything, the only possible process is to bring the something you wish to memorize into some form of connexion, progression, or sequence of thought…successfully to make use of the memory-connexions thus stored in our mind, we must (during performance) allow the thing present (the thing realized at the moment) to suggest the thing which is to follow on.” [Matthay, On Memorizing and Playing from Memory, 4-5.] Here is an exercise to reinforce this feeling of continuity: reading from your music, record the entire piece. Then close your music, play back your recording, and play along by memory. If you trip up, the ongoing music will spur you on. Of course, you can do this exercise along with someone else’s recording, but in this case, you have to conform to the other flutist’s tempo, intonation, and phrasing, which may not be desirable.

However, some students only develop a linear memory. They have to start at the beginning and go to the end, and if this line is broken, they can’t go on. Don’t always start at the beginning. Challenge yourself to start at any point in the piece. If you have a momentary lapse during performance, you can always get back on track.

Employing these various strategies, you can avoid disastrous performances. Like any other technique, memorization benefits from experience. Start now!

For Further Reading:
Agay, Denes. “Memorization and Performing from Memory,” chapter from Teaching Piano: A Comprehensive Guide and Reference Book for the Instructor. New York: Yorktown Music Press, 1981.
Matthay, Tobias. On Memorizing and Playing from Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 1926.
Rawlins, Robert. “Musical Memory Skills,” The Flutist Quarterly XX/3 (Spring 1995): 51-53.
Sadie, Stanley, ed. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. London: Macmillan, 1980. s.v. “Psychology of Music,” by Natasha Spender.

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