My two favorite memorization strategies when learning a new piece of music are “Chunking and Chaining” & “Mental Practice.” Combined, they can help us memorize our music very quickly and keep us motivated throughout the entire learning process.
Before Getting Started
Before learning a new piece it's essential to listen to it quite a bit. I also recommend listening to the section you want to learn right before sitting down to work on it. If you can get to the point where you can hum the melody of your piece (or chunk of music), you’ll find that the learning process is much faster.
Chucking & Chaining
The way this works is to first pick a small chunk of music that you want to learn in your practice session (e.g., the first 12 notes of your piece). Then chain your notes and chunks together until you complete your piece. According to research, taking short breaks between repetitions is an important component of the memorization strategy, so make sure to observe these for best results. The process is a bit nuanced so I’ve written out a detailed example below to help you understand it well. (By the way, this strategy works whether you are learning from sheet music, a video source, or an audio source).
Learn the fingering for the first few notes of your piece (Chunk “A” ♫♩♩).
Try to play this chunk from memory 2 times regardless of any error. Take a 10-second break between reps.
If you get stuck, reference your sheet music, video, or audio in order to make corrections.
Make your corrections and play from memory 2 times w/ 10-second breaks between reps.
Take a 10-30 minute break.
Follow steps 1-6 for the next few notes (Chunk “B” ♫♫).
Play Chunks A & B from memory 2 times (♫♩♩♫♫)
Reference your sheet music, video, or audio only if you get stuck.
Follow the same 6 steps for the next few notes (Chunk “C” ♩♫♩).
Play Chunks B & C from memory 2 times w/ 10-second breaks in between (♫♫♩♫♩).
Play Chunks A, B, & C from memory once (♫♩♫♫♩♫♩).
Stop after 3 or 4 chunks and let everything set for a night. A long break and a good night’s sleep are essential for memory consolidation.
Here’s what the pattern looks like in short-hand:
AA —> BB —> ABAB —> Break
CC —> BCBC —> ABC —> Break
DD —> CDCD —> BCD —> ABCD —> Break
On your next practice day, play all of your chunks, chained together, from memory as best you can. Give yourself 3 memory attempts before referencing your sheet music, video, or audio source. If you get it, continue adding chunks using the same pattern. If not, review and correct your errors before adding more chunks. Follow this plan for the entire piece.
During Chunking & Chaining, I also find that visualizing my fingerings as vividly as possible before attempting to play from memory helps me memorize faster. After learning a new finger for a chunk of music, I close my eyes and visualize my fingers playing the new phrase on the fretboard as vividly as possible.
There’s plenty of research out there on the benefits of mental practice on memory and motor-skill development and I can personally confirm that it works very well.
If you’re new to mental practice you may only be able to visualize one or two notes at a time. That’s OK. Just keep practicing this and you’ll get better at it.
NOTE: It’s impossible to visualize both hands simultaneously so t;s perfectly fine to toggle between both hands when needed.
I also highly recommend closing your eyes and trying to play each chunk and chain without looking at either hand. When doing so, focus only on the sound quality of your phrase. If you make a mistake, try to correct it by touch and sound rather than by looking at your hands. While doing so, you can visualize your hands on the fretboard or on the strings. If you can't correct it after 3 attempts without looking, then look at your hands.
Try these strategies this week and let me know in the comments how they worked for you.
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