Is Memorizing Each Piece Necessary?

Question: Is it imperative that you study a piece until you memorize it before moving to another piece?

Example: In my books that I am working from I will study a piece until I can play it well by reading from the page then I move to the next piece.

But, when I go back to play the piece again after several weeks, I am very rusty and would have to practice it all over again even though I could perfect it again after a bit of practice.

Is that normal? Or should I memorize the piece first before moving on?

(I just found this site and it is very, very good! Thank you for your work.)

– Anthony (Delaware, USA)

Albert’s reply: Like the muscles, the mind works on a strict “use it or lose it” basis. It’s perfectly normal not to be able to play a piece perfectly after not having practiced it for several weeks. Practice is a constant, and there is no getting around it!

There are two ways in which your playing of a piece can deteriorate. The first is simply muscular. Many piano pieces are physical very challenging, and the piano repertoire is rich with music that can pose severe challenges to even the greatest of virtuosos. Such pieces require constant, careful practice and need to be approached the way an athlete prepares for an event.

The second way your playing of a piece can worsen with neglect is memory. The better your musicianship (the sum total of all musical faculties, skills and knowledge), the more secure your long-term musical memory will be.

Musical memory is thus cumulative, and it needs to be exercised. However, to answer your first question, it is by no means imperative to memorize each piece before moving to another. Since your method of memorizing a piece relies heavily on reading it, your mind will automatically make impressions of the score as you read, whether or not you set out to memorize the piece. For pieces that you do wish to play from memory, you should explicitly seek to take a mental photo of the score.

Moreover, you’ll naturally learn to memorize music faster by constantly feeding your mind more music. Always practice with the utmost care regardless of whether you’re committing a piece to memory or not. For other pieces, lay a careful foundation through slow and solid work, writing in your fingerings and practicing them as seriously as you do your performance repertoire. Then move on to the next piece. This practice will increase your mind’s capacity to absorb music.

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