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Thursday, February 18, 2021


Last month I shared my thoughts on memorizing music. Since then, I’ve had many fellow musicians share their opinions and methods. This month I tried memorizing new pieces based on the feedback received. The results were mixed.


I must first say that what works for one person may not work for others, but trying new methods can be a positive experience. Let’s start with my attempts at learning one composer, in particular. Next month we will talk about memorizing other styles.



It was no surprise that many of my colleagues used Bach as the ultimate tool to develop your mental memorizing muscle. If you can memorize Bach, then everything else is easy. I’m making the case that after first being able to play a Bach piece, memorization is easier than you would think. I decided to memorize a Bach lute suite I have been avoiding for years.


My “go-to” Bach piece has been Lute Suite No. 4 in E major BWV 1006, originally Violin Partita No. 3. Many purists are not supportive of my love for a piece not originally for guitar or lute. I decided this would be a great time to tackle Lute Suite No. 1 in E minor. I’ve been avoiding Lute Suite 1 for two reasons. First, many guitarists learn the “Bouree” movement and think they can play classical guitar. Second, I learned a very bad transcription of the “Allemande” when I was very young and had an embarrassing experience based on my choice of transcription. The version I used wasn’t in the correct key and the fingerings were bad. I don’t often listen to this suite, so this is the perfect opportunity to re-familiarize myself with a piece I’ve avoided for years. 


I decided to take a suggestion and try to learn the “Presto” section from the end of the movement to the beginning. I thought this was odd, but decided to try it anyway. The results were disastrous! In defense of the method, the theory is simple: the ending is usually the hardest part. Band teachers sometimes introduce a piece by going over the hardest part of a chart first to play it as tight as possible. This only works because the band teacher has the music learned already and guides the students through to success. I did not know the “Presto” in my head and learning from the end took away some of the tools I’ve been accustomed to. I couldn’t sing it in my head, and so I couldn’t hear where it was going. This experience just turned into a very bad sight-reading exercise.




Every music teacher has probably seen the “Marsalis On Music” educational videos. I love Wynton Marsalis’s line, “If you can sing it, you can play it,” from the episode “Tackling the Monster.” Wynton Marsalis’s steps to practice work for adults as well as beginners. I struggled with the “Presto” movement because I broke this rule.

(A video clip of this lecture is a little hard to find, but the text is in this link, plus a PDF for your classroom or studio: Wynton's 12 Ways to Practice)


When tackling the “Allemande” from Lute Suite 1, I could already sing the piece in my head. I learned the piece in A minor as a high school student, so recalling how the piece goes melodically was not an issue. I thought it would be hard to change the key that was ingrained in my head and I was wrong. Apparently, enough time has passed to take bad muscle memory out of the equation. I did retain the sound of the piece in my head. Now I could focus on playing the piece correctly with help from my ear rather than the notes on the page. I memorized the piece in a short period of time and used what I’ve learned to help memorize another movement.


Learning the “Presto” backward was a fun experiment, but did not pay off. I wasn’t able to hear where Bach was going with this melody and it was hard to hear the tonal center of the piece. In short, I was just playing notes on a page. With the “Allemande” I could already hear the piece in my head, so it was easy to use the “Whole-Part-Whole” method where you play through the whole piece, work on a tricky part, then play the whole piece again. 


For the “Gigue” I went with the well-tested but tried and true method of not playing measure two until measure one is well learned. I will not go to measure three until measure two is solid, and so on. I usually do not put myself through this method, I find it stressful and only useful in certain situations. I decided to learn from my “Presto” mistakes and my “Allemande” success and not attempt to memorize until I can play it perfectly and have already made my fingering changes. 


Many measures of the Gigue were memorized by default with the repetition of the harder measures. For example, a four-measure run was difficult enough that it required enough repetition that I didn’t need to look at the sheet music to practice. Thus, the harder parts get memorized first due to the time involved to perfect them.

Most of the points made here seem obvious. I would argue that strong memorization is easier said than done. It must be said that Bach’s melodies have a certain style and are very sing-able. If you really know your scales and arpeggios, memorizing Bach may be easier due to muscle memory. Also, just being inundated with his music for technical training at an early age of one’s musical journey may be a factor. 

Next month I want to explore other methods of memorization with other composers. I purposely did not get into chord analysis. I would like to tackle this when memorizing pieces that sound similar in a future column.

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