How to practice music and memorize music
We can't memorize without repeating. We can't repeat without memorizing.
If you honestly contemplate these two sentences, then I needn't say much more about practice and memorization. Well ... I'll add a few of other bits of advise: Be clear on your goals, each small step of the way. Don't bite off more than you can chew. Attempt, evaluate and repeat. Repeat carefully, in careful doses, so you accomplish your goal to ensure you don't get overwealmed with frustration. Be sure to finish what you start. Be kind to yourself, and have fun. Make it fun. And once more, for good measure, figure out how to make it fun.
The secret in a nutshell
Most people can easily learn and memorize music, they can learn the intricate and subtle physical skills of musicianship, and they can best accomplish these tasks when they adhere to a couple of essential approaches:
1) practice with methods that produce rapid improvement
2) review in a manner that ensures a lasting, long-term memory
Sounds rather simplistic, I know. In upcoming sections I'll explain these points in detail, but first let's take a overview of the challenge facing musicians and music students.
The musical challenge
Musicians are 'small muscle' athletes. Learning a new instrument or a new song involves physical skill training, just like learning the skills of a sport.
Imagine the practice routine of Olympic divers. There are hundreds of repetitions of every aspect of the dive: learning flips and twists, first independently, then learning to combine them. And finally, once the dive is perfected, to ensure consistency and reliability, they practice the perfected dive again and again, hundreds, even thousands of times.
The opening section of this article states two basic premises. The first premise is that students need to make 'rapid improvements' when practicing. Without rapid improvement students become frustrated, which leads to discouragement or disinterest. Even if you possess a strong passion for an instrument, if you find yourself unable to quickly acquire skills, if you're unable to assimilate new repertoire, if you're unhappy with the sound you make, eventually your verve will fade.
You have a limited period of time to master various skill before frustration or disinterest set it ... or before you consciously or unconsciously resign yourself to being a perpetual beginner.
I am earnestly advocating timely accomplishment ... so I need to clarify. The 'rapid improvement' I'm espousing is unrelated to impatient rushing. Impatience, recklessness and aimless efforts have no logical or practical connection with improvement, and they won't lead you to rapid improvement. Quite the contrary, they lead to disarray and unfulfilled goals.
You can accomplish 'rapid improvement' by a technique I call 'total prioritization.' It requires and affords heightened attention for detail and self-observation ... and it actually makes practice more interesting and more fun. Yet ironically, it's the path of the tortoise, not the hare.
I've known students who have studied skills for weeks, months, even years, without achieving their intended goal: straightening their bow stroke, developing flexibility in the bow hold, learning one or more styles of vibrato. They remain stuck because they just give a daily flick toward their goal, never really moving if substantially forward, or finding a foothold they can leverage the following day. Dutifully they devote a small amount of practice to bowing, but they establish only a small amount of momentum, an amount insufficient for carrying their accomplishment throughout the entire practice session. This means they practice on track for a few moments, but in their remaining efforts they fall back on familiar old habits, because the wheels always turn toward the ruts in the road, and this quickly undermines whatever bowing accomplishment they had achieved.
This is typically what happens when we fail to use 'total prioritization.' Later I'll illustrate how 'total prioritization' leads toward rapid assimilation of skills like violin bowing.
We've taken a brief look at rapid improvement, the essential first point of this article. Now let's look at our second point: reviewing in a manner that ensures a lasting, long-term memory.
Making memorable steps
Even if you practice in a manner that fosters improvement, if your practice and review style fails to create a strong, lasting memory, you'll reap little gain. Each day it will feel like you're starting over. It's true in philosophy and political science, and equally true in musical practice: 'Those who fail to remember the past are condemned to repeat it.' Sound harsh, but it's true!
The mastery of physical skills requires a real "physical education." An eloquently expressed description can be found in Mastery, an insightful book by George Leonard. I highly recommend that you read it.
Quality over quantity
If time devoted to practice fails to help you improve, all the time in the world won't amount to much. As a music student, your job is to improve, master, and remember what you've accomplished. And, as much as possible, enjoy the process while making good use of your time.
To learn a musical instrument you must learn to master many physical skills. Most musical skills are actually a compound skill—a physical skill built upon the foundation of other previously memorized skills.
Every step of the way you need to master skills so that they operate automatically. You can't turn a skill into a compound skill until the foundation skill is entirely memorized. Once memorized a skill operates automatically" in an efferent flow. Concentrated mental attention is not required to drive it. At least not our normal executive process, where we dictate a string of rapid instructions.
This precisely what allows us to begin combining the skill with other memorized skills to make compound skills. With our normal mental attention free we can track and refine existing skills and adopt new skills. We build one skill upon the next, so we must perfect each foundation skill before adding on, or the whole system becomes unstable. This requires careful observation and much review.
In summary: Attention is required in reviewing and evaluating each skill to determine if more refinement is required. A memorized skill operates with without our conscious oversight. You can't study or shape a new skill while trying to master another. But you can connect skills to existing ones.
Listen to the music that you plan to learn
More than any other single activity, listening helps you learn music easily and quickly. So schedule some listening into your day. Just listen to music a couple of times a day—a piece that you want to learn, or a piece you've already begun working on. You needn't drop everything, set aside a special time, or apply any special concentration. In other words, don't make a big deal out of it. Play a recording while attending to some task. Listen when you're in the car. The music will sink in effortlessly as you attend to other activities. You just need to hear it.
Listen to each new piece for a few days before you start to practice it. You're ready to start working on it when you can hum or whistle the piece or you can hear it in your head.
If you are good at reading music, especially if you're good at reading rhythms, you may not need to listen. Still it will be quite helpful.
The biggest advantage in listening is that it keeps you from making rhythmic mistakes. And rhythmic mistakes are the hardest to fix. So, simply by listening you'll avoid some of the worst pitfalls.
What if you already know how it goes?
It's best to listen anyway. There are lots of different versions of a single piece of music. Listen to a recording of the version that plan to learn. Even after you've learned a song, play with favorite recordings. Listen and compare your sound to that of the recording.
Daily practice is a cornerstone of steady progress. You'll get much more out of your practice if you practice every day. An occasional day won't hurt, but be careful about skipping days.
Many people under estimate the value of daily commitment, so they skip days without too much concern. They usually do so with the good intention of doubling-up the following day. But one skip often leads to another. If a student skip a few days, this can lead to pledges of catching up with one or more marathon sessions on the weekend. But most 'make up' promises are destined to be broken, especially when a backlog of
deferred practice comes due.
Unfortunately, these make-up sessions seldom materialize. And when they do, often they're counterproductive. Practice should contain some hard work and diligent repetition, but it should should also be fun.
Long marathon sessions usually cause mental and physical fatigue which can initiate a downward spiral, leaving you tired, frustrated and probably with little to show for your efforts. Often there's little fun and little accomplishment. A regular reliance on marathon sessions may easily take the fun out of music, and lead to a bad attitude toward practice, practice which might well be enjoyed when spread out appropriately.
There are many other benefits to daily practice.
Daily practice helps to keep you toned and strengthened, limber and relaxed. Music practice places many demands on your body, so it's important to warm up and stretch. If you warm up and prepare yourself before you practice rigorously, your body will benefit from the exercise. If not, you run the risk of developing bad habits and physical tension.
If you have trouble practicing every day, try alternating days of light and heavy practice. That's what tri-athletes do.
Shorten your practice rather than skipping it
There will come days when you really don't have time for a full practice session there's only so many hours in the day! There will be times when something else comes up that you'll choose to do instead. And some days you're honestly too tired to practice or you just don't feel like doing it.
On days like these go easy on yourself, but don't skip your practice entirely. Simply shorten it! Put in five or ten minutes, give yourself a pat on the back, and then call it a day. This may leave you feeling disappointed that you didn't put in a significant effort. Surprisingly, it really makes a significant contribution toward your progress.
A few minutes of practice may not measure up to your idea of a rigorous practice session, but it actually goes a long way toward keeping you on track. It maintains and strengthens your "daily commitment," and that counts for a lot.
Remember that the "daily" aspect is more important than the amount of time; especially at first. Slow and steady wins the race we need to remind ourselves of the tortoise the hare.
Pick up your instrument daily, even if you practice for just a few minutes. It's much better to shorten your practice than to skip days.
The occasional skipped days
Hey, nobody's perfect. Just tell yourself, "tomorrow will be a better day." Take a brief moment to imagine yourself practice, improving, and enjoying it. Choose a time for tomorrow's practice.
Practically everybody wants to skip the warm-up. This is true for beginners, advanced students, young students and adults. The complaint is that the warm-up "keeps you from getting to the fun part." This is a short-sighted view. A good warm-up will heighten your skills, and will make it easier for you to play well during the rest of your practice.
Always start your practice with something easy, preferably something familiar.
Play some open string exercises or easy scales. Then play an easy piece or two. In doing so, you'll establish a baseline for the day - a preflight check, a list of what's working and what's not. Then continue your warm-up and try to improve on these points before working on new or challenging material.
If you skip the warm up and fail to establish a baseline at the start of your practice, you may proceed with unrealistic goals for the day, launching in unaware that certain skills are working, while others are temporarily dormant.
If you practice more than once a day, you may shorten or skip your warm-up in the later sessions.
Strive to improve from today's baseline. Have that single goal in mind!
It's rare that you pick up right where you left off the day before. This is especially true for beginners. It may take five to twenty minutes to get yourself warmed up and back in touch with yesterday's best.
With other types of tasks, such as building a stone path, you continue building on Wednesday right where you finished on Tuesday. But not with music.
There will come days when your most diligent efforts will fail to elevate you to the level of yesterday's accomplishments. Or perhaps you'll reach yesterday's level, but not until your practice is nearly over.
And it's OK. Don't let it get to you. Your achievements won't always follow a straight line, and your improvements won't always come at a steady rate.
So simply strive to improve from your starting point from your baseline.
Warm Up On Technique
As you practice a piece of music, you must spread your attention spread over several tasks: reading notes, interpreting the timing, trying to play at a steady pace, maintaining posture and relaxation, creating good tone, playing in tune, accenting ... the list goes on.
With so many musical details vying for your attention, you're likely to lose track of your technique (the details of how you control your instrument, including posture, hand positions, relaxation ....)
So, it's essential that you practice technique during your warm-up period, otherwise you may fail to improve or maintain technique at all.
But if you practice technique first, there's a good chance some of the accomplishments will carry through to the rest of your practice. When this occurs, your practice yields dividends on an exponential level.
Divide and Accomplish
Divide and conquer an old idea. I put a positive spin on it, calling it Divide and Accomplish. Break tasks and obstacles into small, manageable pieces. This is ideal for learning music and physical skills.
There's plenty of brain research that shows that most people can only remember about seven items of new information at a time plus or minus two. To learn large groups of information efficiently, you must study the material in small sections.For most people, that means just four to eight notes. Though this may seem like a ridiculously small amount, even four to eight notes can be too much. You have to see for yourself. If you can't accomplish your goal, try reducing the size of the section.
Work on any size piece you want, any amount that allows you to make decided progress, and that you do so quickly. If you fail to quickly learn the section you've chosen, divide the section in two parts, and practice those parts in loops.
Continue dividing until you reach a size where you can progress quickly. Indeed you may need to work on just two, three or four notes. And this can be the most intelligent and effective way to proceed.
When adopting this style of practice, you're face to face with delayed gratification. Playing from the start to the end feels like a lot more fun, but you may accomplish little by doing so. The big fun comes from learning a piece well, and reaping the many rewards that accompany that level of success.
From understanding to accurate repetition ... to physical knowledge.
The study and mastery of a musical instrument is largely about observation, repetition, and a careful four-step process where we develop and transfer skills from one level of knowledge to another.
Once we've thoroughly learned a physical movement, we no longer rely on understanding or deliberate actions to produce the desired result. This is critical. People are unable quickly and reliably perform actions while they are still under conscious control, so we need to transfer the skill out of conscious attention, not to improve our ability, but because we need our conscious attention for other tasks—primarily for observation. To practice effectively we need to shift our observation from point to point, without interrupting our skill execution.
Step 1: Understanding
Understanding is essential when attempting to learn physical skills. Nothing can be accomplished without it. It's our map to our destination. However all the understanding in the world won't produce a physical skill -- it's merely to tool with which we set our sights and evaluate our progress. Then the trial and error begins.
Step 2: Refinement
Through trial and error we influence and forge memories, but we can only forge good memories when we understand and can discern between a desirable and undesirable outcome. It takes lots of trial and error before your body can do what your mind clearly understands. You can't sail freely when constantly referring to your map. Sometimes even a misunderstanding needs refinement, but this may be impossible to know until we begin trial and error.
Once a movement is correctly refined, sufficient repetition is required in order to establish the movement deeply in your memory. It takes still more repetition and review before you'll have a reliable type of reflex-level, long-term memory.
This result is often called kinesthetic memory, motor memory, or muscle memory, which is a cascade of ordered reflexes, rather than a string of bodily instructions and mental intentions. You must reach this level of control in order to play by heart in recitals, performances or rehearsals.
Step 3: Working memory (short term memory) and relinquishing executive process
When we've thoroughly learned a physical movement, we no longer rely on the slow deliberate sequence of conscious instructions delivered through executive process. We bypass executive process completely and replace it with a cascade of ordered reflexes that trigger effortlessly and reliably in succession. The mere imagination of the melody carries the song effortlessly through the fingers. It looks magic, and feels magical, and it's a testament to the amazing mind/body ability to memorize physical movement.
Step 4: Muscle memory and long term memory
Once you can play something by heart, when you've got it in short term memory, make sure to transfer that knowledge into long term memory. It's the moments you spend playing by heart—without reading at all—that create durable long term memory.
Reading music will surely interfere with memorization, and it easily undermines memorization by preventing or stalling the transfer of knowledge to long term memory. I have no quarrel with written music, nor it's use in memorization ... if people use it wisely. Use it to launch yourself into motion by reading small sections of music, usually just four to eight notes. Then add speed to the section as you continue practicing it in a loop.
Whether reading or learning by ear, you need to practice fast enough to out run executive process. Executive process is a slow, deliberate type of mental effort where intention and observation are roughly intertwined. When you exceed the speed executive process allows, you make the leap to playing by heart.
To free yourself from executive process, systematically increase your speed. Then look away from the music. Go back and forth as much as you need: switch from reading, to memory, from reading to memory. When fully comfortable increase your speed even slightly more and continue repeating—uneffortful speed naturally deepens memory.
Give it a minute — Don't obsess
Once you've chosen a practice section, practice it briefly in a loop, just for a minute or two. If there's no progress after about 20 seconds, work on half as much. Then go to the next section or even to another piece of music. There are advantages to working on a sections pieces at once:
-- it keeps practice interesting
-- it keeps confusion and frustration at bay
-- it allows your memory to absorb the experience subconsciously. This way you'll get the most out your of practice time much like studying and sleeping on it.
Review is your best practice tool. If you've tackled a few new sections, and you can play them by heart, review each section occasionally during your practice.
Alternate between learning and reviewing.
Start your practice with something familiar. Then try something new. Continue alternating between familiar and new. In other words, rest one part of your brain while a different part works.
Get it right!
You'll learn whatever you practice. There's the old saying, "Practice makes perfect." Actually practice makes permanent. So practice carefully. Don't practice music casually. Anything repeated becomes partially memorized. Don't memorized just anything! Be specific. In Jane Wagner's play, the Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, Trudy the bag lady takes a looks at her station in life, haven fallen from a high powered New York city career, now living on the street and having conversations with extraterrestrials. She states, "I always knew I wanted to be somebody. Now I realize I should have been more specific!" Sounds like something Henny Youngman would say.
Keep it right
Your memory thrives on patterns. It especially notices recurring perceptions and repeated actions. If you repeat actions casually, without precision in time and motion, your memory will probably discard you good efforts, or it may link them with a number of errant and imperfect bad habits.
Exact repetition allows you to memorize quickly and efficiently. Your brain literally stores new repeated memories by creating new physical structures in you brain. once your memory is hard-wired in this manner, it is lightly quick at serving up perfected or unperfected movements, depending on what you've practiced.
As you repeat make the movements the same every time you play a passage. Once you've established a relaxed and well formed hand position, work on a small passage. Refine your movements with attention to relaxation and economy of motion. Don't just aim for right notes. Extra motion will slow you down and tire you out.
Complete your practice with review
Before you end your practice session, briefly review all the material you've practiced once again. In just a few tries see if you can revive each accomplishment to the best level that you achieved during this practice. Then just spend another minute with it. I know I've already said this, but I just wanted to review!
This article outlined and explained a number of practice ideals, but of course we never practice in a perfectly ideal manner. Nevertheless, you'll benefit when you include any of these methods into your daily practice. As you adopt good practice habits, you'll get more out of your practice. Occasionally try out one of the tips that you forgot or avoided.
There are many other practice techniques as well. Some are rather detailed and best explained by example in lessons.
Watch your own progress. Remember the value of various learning techniques. Try them out. Soon enough you'll discover your own practice secrets. Make a list so you don't forget them.
Recommended Reading: Books on music practice and learning music
Recommended reading for musicians and music students
How to learn music without frustration
Private Music Lessons