We recently had a piano teacher write to us with a problem involving piano students she labelled, “instant memorizers”. After reading that first sentence you may be thinking, “Hmmmm… doesn’t sound like much of a problem at all… I mean there are worse things than instant memorization… right?!”
However, she went on to explain, as I thought she might, that many of her “instant memorizers” were also “rapid forgetters”.
As piano teachers, we spend weeks helping some students memorize a piece, so the idea of delaying memorization for other students at first seems down right odd. But there are very real and important reasons that you may want to help your students avoid the trap of immediate memorization.
The Immediate Memorization Trap
So what’s the trouble with immediate memorization? For some students there may be no issue at all – their brain just remembers music well. But others tend to head into a cycle of rushing to learn and memorize a piece, only to then forget it shortly down the road. These students are not gaining the benefits of spending time studying a score, and are not building the needed memorization skills that come as a result of truly understanding a piece.
So why does this happen and what can we do to help?
When memorization comes easy, piano students quickly abandon their music and let their ears guide them to the instant gratification they crave. Their score is simply an annoyance to get through. But after several weeks have passed (and other pieces have been added to their “brain bank”) they have no strategies to call upon when their piece is no longer in their “easily-accessible” memory.
The key to helping instant memorizers is in finding a way to bring relevance to their score; giving them the tools they need to actually understand what they are playing (and the desire to do so). If you have a student who struggles with this problem, try the following:
1) Try putting the “teacher preview” aside. Instead, let your piano students be the first to play through a piece. Their aural memory of the piece should come from their own learning.
2) Teach on the page – help your students find patterns, sequencing, common chord tones, primary chords, and repeating intervals directly on their piece. Discover the “math behind the music” to give your piano students the knowledge they need to actually understand their piece. (If you’d like to read more about this idea, check out this post.)
3) Use visual cues on their page to either bring attention back to the score or to assist with trouble spots. If your students have a visual “helper” they will be less likely to avoid their music in favour of relying on their ears and memory simply because it seems easier to do so. (If you’d like to read more about this idea, check out this post.)
4) Once the piece is ready to be memorized, help your students create mental landmarks based on what they have learned in #2 above. For example, instead of always beginning from… the beginning, ask for the piece to be played “From the section where the main theme is repeated up a third.” etc. If your piano students stumble while memorizing, use theory cues to get them back on track (“That note was a 5th higher than the one before it and you’re heading into a V7 chord with your left hand”).
5) Once a piece is fully and successfully memorized, be sure to spend time avoiding it’s decay. Memorization lapses should bring you directly back to the score and back to those mental “theory landmarks”. Review what should happen both with and without the score and from varying starting points within the piece.
The Good News!
The great, wonderful and fabulous news is that piano students who have an aptitude for memorizing have already cleared a significant hurdle that causes many others to struggle. Once they’ve learned to pair score understanding with memory, they’re likely to become your most successful students!
If you need help learning how to teach theory “on the page” then our resource “Pssst….Your Piano Teacher Thinks This is Theory” is your answer. Designed to be used with any method book or sheet music, these 88 activities will have your students connecting with their score and having an absolute blast with theory that is absolutely, positively, most definitely NOT BORING!