Using Visualization Techniques to Improve your Memorization
Published: 1992 Author: Richard Provost
VISUALIZATION and memorization are two equally important components of learning music. Though interconnected, each plays an individual role in a well-structured approach to learning music. While note reading and interpretive practice are the first steps used in learning new music, the important tools used in this process are visualization and memorization.
When we think of memorization, we usually think of reciting or playing without the aid of the printed page. While this is a demonstration of memory, it is simplistic. Memory is the capacity for storing and retrieving information. In fact, there are not one but several types of memory.
In his book, On Piano Playing (Schirmer, New York 1981), Gyorgy Sandor discusses four types of memory used by musicians. They are:
- acoustic or aural
- motoric or kinetic
- intellectual or analytical
Students frequently use only one or two of these types when memorizing or playing from memory. Many students equate memorizing with repeating a piece or section until it can be played without using the music. This approach uses motor memory and, if the student has well developed listening skills, aural memory. Some students seem to function well using only one or two types of memory. Others have a difficult time memorizing or suffer memory slips in performance.
Memory becomes more efficient with more information. When learning music, the more information we have concerning the piece the easier it will be to play it from memory. Also, the more we use our senses the greater our musical potential.
Determining What Needs to be Memorized
The first step in effective memorizing is to decide what needs to be memorized. While this might appear to be a simple task ("I'll memorize the notes"), a bit more thought is needed. The decision will also vary from one instrument to another and can be affected by the complexity of the music. The type of instrument, melodic (violin, flute, etc.) or melodic/harmonic (piano, guitar etc.) is also a factor. Guitarists and keyboard players need more information than players of melodic instruments. Music written for the former instruments contain both melody and harmony.
A pianist or guitarist needs to know the following to memorize a piece thoroughly.
- right-hand fingering
- left-hand fingering
- sections as isolated units
They must be able to:
- sing the melody, bass line, and middle voice
- play the piece from the end to the beginning
If you play a melodic instrument you will need to memorize less. You do not need to memorize the harmony, bass or middle voices as your music contains only a melodic line.
While this is a great deal of material, it is the material contained in any piece. Failure to recognize this and to memorize each item properly will often result in confusion and possible error. This approach incorporates the four types of memory previously discussed and results in more thorough memorization. Thorough memorization instills confidence and allows you to focus on the music.
Facts about Memorization
While research on memorization of music has been limited, we know certain facts. The following are the most important:
- Divided practice sessions are more effective than one long session to learn and retain a selection.
- Practicing with hands together is more efficient than hands alone with music of similar difficulty.
- Score analyses/study before practice improves learning efficiency.
- Once you have learned and memorized a selection, you will need only occasional practice for retention.
- Visualizing a score by closing your eyes improves memorization.
- Familiar items or patterns in new music to be memorized aids memorization.
- Awareness of related and altered patterns in the music eases memorization.
- Compositional and structural awareness aids memorization.
For a more detailed discussion of this subject refer to: The Crane Symposium: Toward an Understanding of the Teaching and Learning of Music Performance.
The previous material shows that there is more to memorizing music than just learning the notes. If you are to memorize music quickly and accurately, you must have an approach that will not only make this possible but produce a strong feeling of confidence. Visualization is the first part of this approach.
Visualization is the ability to form a mental picture of images, events, or situations. This is an everyday event that we all take for granted. It may take the form of daydreams, recalling experiences, or planning future events. It also forms the basis for the visual arts. Can you imagine an artist who can't see in his mind the finished work that he/she is painting?
Musicians have been using visualization techniques for many decades. Musicians such as Walter Gieseking, Josef Lhevinne, and Kato Havas, to name but a few, have written about the use of visualization in instrumental performance. When applied to music, visualization involves both our visual and aural senses. An artist painting a picture deals only with a visual image. A musician, on the other hand, uses both a visual and aural image. This aural visualization, is often called by experienced musicians the "inner ear." A well trained inner ear allows us to hear, through visual examination, how the components of the score (melody, harmony, dynamics, and interpretation) will sound. With this internal sound, we now know what our fingers must produce.
Developing Visualization Techniques
The following steps will provide a method for developing the skills to visualize music effectively. These steps will be combined with memorization techniques and make use of your four memory types. Since musicians often have an above average ability to conceptualize and visualize, it may not be necessary to follow all the steps presented. I have chosen to present it in this manner to make the various components clearer. It will also give those interested in using this idea a better understanding of the process.
- Begin with a simple four or five note melody. (Figure 1)
Sing these notes using letter names. There are two reasons for singing with letter names as opposed to a neutral syllable (la) or solfège.
- Singing with letter names provides us with much reinforcing information. Depending on the musical situation, as well as your musical experience, the name of the note can provide key relationships, harmonic functions, intervalic relationship etc. Singing on a neutral syllable will not provide this information.
- Instrumental training usually involves identifying pitches by letter name. Using syllables is an extra process and, unless you are extremely proficient with solfège, requires a translation or extra step back to letter names. (I am not implying that learning to sight-sing with syllables is incorrect. Syllables, particularly the moveable do system, provide a very valuable mnemonic device to use when learning to sight-sing.)
- When you can comfortably sing this melody (Figure 1) and internally hear the pitches, picture playing the notes on your instrument. Repeat this step until you are comfortable.
- Now you are ready to play. Sing using letter names while slowly playing the melody, picturing the location of the notes on your instrument. Repeat until you are comfortable with this step.
- Now play from memory. Mentally visualize where each note is on your instrument and continue singing the notes you are playing.
- Repeat item four, but now mentally sing the notes while you are playing. When you can comfortably execute the melody in Figure 1 using these five steps, apply this procedure to simple melodies. Continue working with different melodies until you feel comfortable with this approach.
You are ready to expand this approach. Begin with a scale that you have memorized and can play well, such as a C major scale, Figure 2. This scale is played in the second position.
(Note: In guitar music, we indicate the left hand fingers by numbers.)
Slowly play the scale. While playing, sing the note name and the number of the finger playing the note. (ie. C2, D4, E1, etc.) Picture both the note and where you play it on your instrument. When you are comfortable with this scale, apply this to all your scales. It is also a good idea to apply this to melodies that you have previously learned. This will add variety and flexibility to your practice. (This step is not necessary for wind and brass players. Pianists will use this step for each hand.)
If you play a melodic instrument, you will find that when you can visualize melodies comfortably in this manner you can use visualization to memorize a piece. If you play a harmonic/melodic instrument you will need the additional material of the following section. (String players will want to refer to items four and five of the following section.)
We will begin with the Saltarello, Figure 3. a piece written in a simple two-part texture. (Keyboard players should choose appropriate material.)
- Analyze the piece: Mark the phrases and motifs as shown in Figure 3. Now look for sequences, scale patterns, chordal outlines and other compositional devices that will aid your memorization. In doing this, you will find that the most obvious part of the bass is the recurring ostinato D, A, d. Examining the melody, you will find that the example can be divided into three melodic or harmonic sections. The first section is a D major scale beginning on the tonic and progressing diatonicly to the dominant. The second section is an outline of the E minor triad while the third section outlines the fifth and third of the tonic triad. Now decide on your right and left hand fingerings.
- Sing the melody: Work on the first phrase, or if this is too large a unit, a smaller portion of the phrase. Play the bass while singing the notes of the melody with letter names. Singing while playing the bass will help to establish the alignment of the bass with the melody and minimize the need to concentrate on the bass in later steps. (Pianists will play the left hand while singing the melody.)
- Play both parts: Begin by playing both parts together. Your attention should be on singing the melody with letter names while visualizing the notes and your left-hand fingers. If you can comfortably visualize your left hand fingers when playing scales, discontinue singing the finger numbers. You should still visualize your fingers and their location on your instrument (Keyboard players will be visualizing their right hand fingers.)
The bass should only be peripherally listened to, much in the way you are aware of your surroundings while carrying on a conversation or watching television. When you have memorized this portion, and can comfortably play it, apply the same approach to the second and third sections. Integrate each with the first section. Apply this step to the rest of the piece combining each phrase with what has been previously learned. Continue this process until you have memorized the entire piece.
- Tone Tendencies: Begin the piece concentrating on the tone tendencies. Listen to the notes of the first section going from the tonic D and coming to rest on the dominant, A. Listen to the notes of the second section moving through the E minor triad to the A and D of the tonic triad of the third section. This will make you more aware of the dynamic shape corresponding to the melodic contour of the phrase. Now practice the piece visualizing the notes and left hand position while inwardly singing the note names.
- Right Hand: Play the piece visualizing the right hand fingers. Guitarist should concentrate on alternating the fingers, smoothness of the stroke, when and how the nail strikes the string, and the quality and consistency of the sound. Pianist should focus on their hand balance, finger movement, and sound. String players should focus on the balance and feel of the bow and arm.)
When you have completed the above steps, the result should be a melodic voice that is both musically and technically secure. Since you are no longer dealing with only a melodic situation as found in scales, you must add three additional steps to the procedure.
- Analyze the bass voice. Decide how the ostinato will be played. You may choose to let each note ring into the next note, Figure 3a, or play it literally, Figure 3b. Once decided, practice the piece until the bass can be comfortably executed.
Figure 3a, 3b
- Balancing voices: When dealing with more than one voice, you must decide on the dominant voice. Here the choice is simple, the top voice is the melody or dominant voice. As the dominant voice, it should be slightly louder and more distinct than the bass. (It should be noted that the bass strings of the guitar, being thicker, have generally more volume than the thinner treble strings. Also, the thumb is somewhat stronger than the fingers. These factors must be overcomed to balance the voices.) Focusing on the melody while playing the thumb more quietly will result in well balanced voices Avoid frustration. If this step does not come easily, slow down. Should the difficulty continue, practice each measure separately playing the bass softer and slightly ahead of the melody. When you can comfortably balance the voices in this manner, practice playing both voices exactly together. Slow careful practice will enable you to balance the voices.
- Mental Visualization: Now you are ready to play the piece while mentally visualizing all the steps used in this process. Obviously you will be unable to visualize them simultaneously. The easiest way is to develop a practice routine where you visualize a different aspect of the piece for a certain portion of your practice (ie. Ten minutes visualizing the right hand. Ten minutes visualizing the left etc.)
The Saltarello, an excellent beginning piece, does not offer much in the way of a challenging bass part. The Bourrée by J.S. Bach (Figure 4) is more typical of two-part writing and is a good second piece to apply the previous procedures to. (Again, pianists should choose an appropriate piece.)
The steps used in learning the Saltarello are to be used with the Bach. Since the bass is more involved it will be necessary to:
- Focus carefully on the shape and direction of the bass line in relation to the melody.
- Visualize the left-hand fingers used in playing the bass while you are learning the melody.
As with the Saltarello, use each step to work your way to the end of the piece. You may initially find it somewhat more difficult to learn the bass line with the melody of the piece. If this is the case, limit your memorization to a phrase a day until you become more comfortable with this approach.
The last type of piece I will discuss is of a predominantly harmonic texture (Figure 5).
Figure 5 Study by Fernando Sor
- Begin with the usual analysis and phrase grouping. It is important to label as many chords as your theoretical knowledge will permit. This will aid you in recognizing the chords as a unit rather than just a group of notes.
- Sing the melody with letter names and visualize either the chord name or left hand finger pattern of each chord. (Pianists should visualize the right hand then the left.) This step will take a little practice before you feel comfortable.
- Play the chords while singing the melody with letter names visualizing either the name or finger pattern of each chord.
- Play the chords while singing the bass line. Visualize the bass line and focus your attention on the harmonies formed with the upper voices.
- Play the chords while singing the middle voice. Visualize this voice and listen to the scale movement formed by the middle-voice.
- Balance the voices so that you support the top voice with the bass and middle voices. Also, focus on stopping the chords as shown in the music.
- Play the piece while mentally singing and visualizing any of the voices.
While the examples chosen represent music written completely in one texture, you will find that, if each has been well practiced, there will be little or no difficulty in applying the procedures to pieces employing varied textures.
Initially, using visualization as a major component of your memorization technique will require much mental effort. To minimize this effort, begin by playing the piece at a slow steady tempo. Slow playing allows you to become more familiar with the mechanical and musical ideas of the phrase, section, or piece. As familiarity improves, you will need less effort to visualize the music. At this point, there is a great temptation to play the piece since it usually is sounding good. The problem with this is that if you do not reenforce the stimuli ( the various steps in the learning process) they will deteriorate and either be replaced by a bad habit (memory slips, wrong notes, etc.) or be entirely forgotten. (I'm sure that you have heard complaints of a piece getting worse through practice, instead of better.)
The solution to this problem is to carry the visualization idea one step further. Once you have memorized a piece in this manner, set aside a few minutes daily to review mentally each of the steps. This will reenforce your memorization of the piece while making you more comfortable with the method. Use the score daily to review and examine the piece. The better we know a piece the more we are apt to discover on reexamination. Thorough practice, singing, listening, score study, and visualization will become the cornerstone of your interpretative practice.
While this may seem a complicated and involved process, it results in you gaining tremendous knowledge and insight into the music. This knowledge and insight readily translates into a more confident, musical performance.
Many professional musicians use the following approach to memorization. This approach uses the various techniques presented in this chapter.
Choose a piece, that with reasonable practice, you can read and play without confusion and error. The following three points will enable you to choose an appropriate piece.
- Are there any passages that contain unfamiliar rhythms?
- Are there notes in an unfamiliar area of your instrument?
- Are there unusual situations for either the right or left hand?
If you have any doubts concerning the level of difficulty of the piece choose an easier one.
It is important, when learning a new piece, to allow sufficient daily practice time. I have found that thirty minutes is perhaps the least amount of time producing acceptable results while one hour is probably the maximum time for efficient learning. It is equally important to have clear expectations concerning the amount of material that you expect to memorize during this period.
Step One: Familiarize yourself with the music. This may be done in any of the following ways:
Familiarity through sound
- Play through sections or the entire piece daily.
- Sing through all the parts.
- Listen to quality recordings of the work.
These approaches use your visual, aural, and motor senses.
Familiarity through analysis
- Study the piece for form.
- Study the phrase structure.
- Study the melodic structure.
- Study the harmonic structure
- Study the rhythmic structure.
This involves your analytical and visual senses.
As you become more familiar with the piece, learn your fingerings, both right and left hand. I have found that poor fingering choices cause the majority of student's musical and technical problems.
Step Two: Now that you are familiar with the piece, you are ready to memorize. Begin with the first phrase. Repeat the first measure several times until you can play without the music. When you are comfortable, playing from memory move on to the second measure and use the same approach. After you can play this measure from memory, practice playing the first two measures until you are comfortable playing them from memory. Continue this approach always working the new measure in with the previously memorized measures until you can play the entire phrase from memory.
Begin memorizing the second phrase using this approach. Treat this phrase as if it were the first phrase of the piece. At this point don't practice the new measures with those of the previous phrase. When you can comfortably play the second phrase from memory, return to the first phrase and try to play both phrases from memory. Don't worry if you begin to forget previously learned material. When this occurs, review the problem measure/s until you again feel comfortable playing from memory. Continue until you can play both phrases together from memory. You will discover that the previously practiced visualization exercises will result in you visualizing some of the music as you memorize. At this point don't force the visualization. NOTE: It is important, always to play at a comfortable tempo. If you find that you are stumbling over notes or have difficulty in thinking or hearing what comes next, you are playing too fast. Continue memorizing in this fashion for the alotted amount of time.
If you find that you have not learned what you expected don't panic, there is always tomorrow.
Step Three: Begin your next day of practice by playing the material previously memorized. You will notice that you have retained only about twenty-five percent of what you had previously memorized. Don't panic, this is normal. You will find that daily re-enforcement of the previously learned material will increases retention. The normal retention rate is: Day 1: twenty-five percent, Day 2: fifty percent, Day 3: seventy-five percent, and Day 4: one hundred percent. This is the reason for reviewing and relearning the old material before memorizing additional material. You initially memorized the material of day one using basic motor repetition. You will relearn this material by singing the top voice while visualizing the note and finger location on your instrument. Again, start with the first measure and repeat it until you can easily play, sing, and visualize this measure. Move on to the next measure using the same approach. As you learn each measure, integrate it with the previous material. You will find that you can relearn the original material in less time than required in day one. Use the remaining time to learn new material employing the technique explained in Step Two. You will now be using the approach presented in Step Two to learn new material and those of Step Three to re-enforce previously learned material.
Step Four: Each day, review the previously learned material using Step Three before learning anything new. When you can comfortably sing the top voice and visualize the note and finger location, use the approach outlined in Step Three to learn the bass voice. When comfortable, repeat this step singing and visualizing the middle voice. Depending on the length and complexity of the piece this could take several days to several weeks. You will by now have discovered that you have different phrases of the piece at different stages of learning. Initially this might become frustrating since the newer material will be less comfortable and not as fluent as the older material. You may want to use a metronome to help you control the tendency to play the older material faster than the new material. Continue with Step Four until you have either finished a major section if it's a large work, or the entire work, if it's a short piece.
Step Five: When you can play the entire piece or a major section from memory, go back and relearn this portion using your intellectual memory. Use the theoretical information gathered through analysis to reenforce your memory further.
Step Six: Now practice visualizing your right hand. (Left hand for pianist.) Focus on your sound and hand balance. Be aware of any negative tension that might be present. As you learn each new section in this manner, integrate it with the previous material.
Remember, begin each new section by practicing slowly. Focus on the tone and accuracy of both notes and rhythm. Concentrate on the finger movements required. As your facility improves, increase the speed, never exceeding what you can control.
As a final step, many professionals like to practice the piece backwards. They begin with the last phrase and add the previous phrase until they are at the beginning of the piece. This approach strengthens the normally weaker end of a piece by focusing your attention on the material out of its normal context. It is particularly helpful in solidifying your memorization of a piece.
Copyright © 1992 by Richard Provost
(This article is from Mr Provost’s book, The Art and Technique of Practice, published by GSP Publications, San Francisco, and distributed by Music Sales.)