Repetitious practice is not always the best practice, but it can't be ignored. In my worst, most impatient type of practice, I tend to repeat and repeat. I'm just too anxious to get the piece to playing level, and all I want to do is play.
This sort of practice can be thoughtless. Even if it isn't thoughtless, it does little else but to assure a tactile foundation. Those musicians who bring a piece to playing level before attempting to memorize it have probably done not much more than repeat passages after, perhaps, marking fingerings and other foundational notes. After a point, it may be possible to play such work from memory, but is this really as far as you want to prepare before going on stage?
As I write this blog post, I'm asking myself, "What are some other early memorization techniques that I can use?" You should be asking yourself the same question, because there is no one way to do this, and you must always be creative with your approach.
What about form? I've just started working on the slow movement of Bach's D Minor Harpsichord Concerto. I began by putting in landmarks, and that inevitably raised the question of the movement's form. This is a simple form, essentially a series of episodes flanked by a ritornello. Knowing that the ritornello only occurs at the beginning and at the end of the movement has helped me understand where to put some landmarks while also minimizing my work. (That is, if I learn the first ritornello, I don't need to learn the final one, since it's the same thing.) Looking closer at the form, I see that the ritornello functions like an ostinato bass, occurring regularly throughout the entire movement.
What about harmony? With that same concerto movement and now knowing about the ostinato bass, I can use harmony to help my memorization. For instance, the opening ritornello is in g minor. When it's repeated as a bass line with melody (my "A" landmark), we're in g minor, closing to a c minor cadence. In the next section (my "B" landmark), we start in c minor, but the ostinato bass appears a few bars later in d minor, eventually cadencing in B-flat Major. From there, there are some sequences and other harmonic machinations, all eventually bringing us back to g minor.
None of this formal and harmonic analysis is worth publishing in a scholarly journal. I did this in sketch form for my own purpose: to memorize. With that in mind, you don't have to come up with a hardcore analysis. Simply do what works for you, but make sure that whatever you're doing is going to bring you to a better level of memorization. Think of these small steps as mnemonics towards the greater goal of memorized music.
Sometimes I work and work on a piece, and parts of it just won't stick. One way of dealing with this is to take time off, something I'll discuss later in this blog. By getting away from the piece for a few days or an even longer period of time, I might return and find the piece in a better place than when I left it. It's hard to judge how and if such mental rest will work, so you might not want to count on it. A more reliable technique is to play through your piece as you might have already been doing. Every time you get stuck, write down the location, taking detailed notes of where the problem spots are. In truth, you might find that there are less sticky places than you originally thought! This process in itself leads to better memorization, and it also gives you a practical foundation from which you can fix any problems.
I'll admit that I'm not always this intellectual in my memorization practice. I recently started work on an unmeasured prelude by Larry Bell. Because the movement isn't in my ear, I'm using the fingering I've established to help me memorize the right hand. This is tactile work--though mnemonic in its own right--, but it's with the goal of creating aural memory. The visual memory will follow once I have a better sense of how the piece "goes."
And what about aural memory? And what about visual memory? Both of these are very important to the early memory process, and I'll address them in my next posts.
What are some techniques you use in the early stages of memory? Did I leave something out? Post your comments here!