Here are some tips I've picked up along the way that may help you memorize your music.
- Memorize frequently. Even if there is no immediate need, spend some time each day memorizing something. If you're a jazz musician like me, you can memorize the melody or chords of a standard. If you are a classical musician, try memorizing an etude or a section of a solo. The more often you memorize, the easier it gets.
- Sing. If you are learning a tune from the Great American Songbook, sing the melody. If you are memorizing an instrumental, or if you are memorizing a classical piece, sing it anyway. It'll help cement the melody in your head, and you may find that you play more musically.
- Learn the words. Even if you never plan to sing the song in public, learning the words is another great way to keep the new song in your head. You may also find that the music takes on new life and meaning when you learn the words, and it will help you to be a more sensitive accompanist.
- Find patterns and and forms; analyze. The more deeply you understand the music, the easier it will be to remember. Finding patterns in the music will speed up the process of memorization. When I first began memorizing chords to songs, I memorized a chord at a time, which was tedious. Later, I realized that the chords for jazz standards often follow similar patterns. It's much easier to recognize a typical 1-6-2-5 pattern than it is to memorize C6, Am7, Dm7, G7.
- Practice away from your instrument. Are your chops tired? Fingers aching? Sing the music in the car. Run through the music in your head while you're going to sleep. Visualize. Imagine the feel of the instrument, the fingerings (or slide positions) you'll use, etc.
- Memorize a little at a time. It can be daunting to memorize a big piece of music. But you don't chop a big tree down with one swing of the ax. You chop away, one swing at a time. Start with eight measures. If that's the most you can memorize in that practice session, that's fine. It's eight measures more than you had memorized before you started. Build on that.
- But still play all the way through. Even while you are memorizing a little at a time, still practice the rest of the music. By the time you've memorized most of the music, you may find that the last section is nearly memorized from sheer repetition.
- Put it away and come back to it. My main reason for memorizing is to be able to perform my repertoire without the printed music. When you perform, you need to get it right the first time. There can be only one "first" time you play a piece of music on a particular day, but I've found that the next best thing is to go away from that music and come back later. After I've memorized a song, I will often play that song and then put it away, even if there are some mistakes I want to fix. I'll practice a few other things and then go back to the song again, keeping in mind places my memory may have blanked the first time. I'll just play it once and then repeat the process: practice something else and then come back for another run through of my memory song.
- Constant review. Once I've memorized a song, I don't take it for granted. All of my repertoire needs constant review. Fortunately, I play a few weekly gigs in which I have a chance to cycle through my repertoire, but to me, that isn't enough. Part of my daily practice involves playing through my repertoire. I have an alphabetical list that keeps growing longer as I continue to memorize. I'll play through 10-15 songs a day from my memory list, just to keep everything under my fingers and in my head.
If you make a practice of memorizing your music, I'm sure you have some ideas of your own. If you have any tips for memorization, feel free to add then in the comments section below.