Recently I’ve tried something with my students that has been an eye (ear?) opener. Students are (nearly) always are working on a solo (or solos), and some are in the process of preparing them for various auditions or competitions.

“Okay, let’s move on to your solo,” I’ll say. They start to get out the music.

“No. Just play the beginning without your music.”

Fear. Panic. Confusion. Or maybe just silence.

When we practice something it eventually is in our fingers so well we can play it by memory. NOT that we necessarily are trying to memorize it, but it just IS. I tell them, “I want you to bleed this music!

So back to my students …

“I can’t do that! I don’t have it memorized!”

“That’s okay. Just start from the top and see how far you can get at this point.”

The majority of them don’t even know what the first note is!

Sometimes, if they don’t know that, I ask them to at least sing the opening for me. Now I do have a few students who can’t carry a tune (something for another blog entry, I think) but I still have them try and they certainly should get the rhythm, if not the pitches. Sometimes even that isn’t possible.

“I can’t memorize!”

I hear that a lot.

My students start every lesson with a warm up …memorized. Then we move on to long tones (well okay, memorizing an A isn’t terribly difficult). Major scales … memorized. Melodic minor scales … memorized. Whole tone scales. Yep. Memorized.

And they say, “I can’t memorize!” Hmm.

If you have been practicing something, if you know it, you should be able to at least begin it by memory. I tell them that they really should know it well enough that if the music blows off the stand, or if someone coughs or shouts or does something else distracting and throws them off a bit, they should be able to keep on playing.

Knowing something. It’s more than just looking at the piece of sheet music and playing the written notes. And part of the way to do that “more” is to have in in our fingers, to not be so stuck on that paper. Knowing it well enough frees us from that. That’s not to say I think everything should be done without music in front of our faces — I’m not one to want to do that, believe me! But really, get past that “stuck on the page” thing. It will free you up. Eventually.


  1. Hi-just catching up on a week or so of your blog. The memorizing item was interesting. My son memorizes all his music. He just naturally memorizes it as he learns it. Which makes his piano teacher nuts, because then my son never looks at the comments that the teacher has written on the music, because he never looks at the music again! He hears the comments at the lesson, and tends to remember most of them, but not all of them…. So there it is, there is always something. (I note that he only memorizes his solo bass and piano music. He doesn’t memorize all the orchestral music, only the excerpts for auditions.)
    He is an unusual fellow. I think perhaps he has a photographic memory–he is very good at spelling, too.

  2. Ah to have a photographic memory … your son is very fortunate! Even those who don’t, though, should play something enough that they know the work like the back of their hands.