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#1021289 - 01/11/09 09:25 AM Is memorizing pieces a bad thing?
TTigg Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 11/30/07
Posts: 873
Loc: Southern California
Strange type of question I know but allow me to try to explain.

I can sight read (although very slowly) but then my brain just kind of takes over. I mean it's not photographic (that I know of) but once I've seen/ looked at things once or twice it kind of just "sinks in".

When learning pieces I find my brain memorizing where I'm supposed to be so I am sight reading less & less. As an example (5.5mths in) I had my recital piece memorized which was a 5.5min song (5 pages) long.

As I go over stuff in my books and lessons I find that with practicing the pieces over and over it then just sinks in and I no longer need to read the notes. I do enjoy sight reading some pieces but for the most part its just going off memory. I don't think there is much I can do to "change" my memory but wanted to see what others with the same type of brain (I know I'm not the only one) do about it.. \:D

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#1021290 - 01/11/09 12:44 PM Re: Is memorizing pieces a bad thing?
AnthonyB Offline
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Registered: 09/28/07
Posts: 659
Loc: Center City, MN
Obviously, it's good to be able to do sight reading and memorization. Even thought sight reading can help you play a piece the first time through I think it can also be a crutch that is used as well. How many videos have you seen with clumsy page turning?

Of course, it's a two way street. My good memory is used instead of learning to sight read. I guess I'll just have to be happy in the mean time with exercising my memory.
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#1021291 - 01/11/09 01:04 PM Re: Is memorizing pieces a bad thing?
Monica K. Offline

Platinum Supporter until Dec 31 2012


Registered: 08/10/05
Posts: 17698
Loc: Lexington, Kentucky
I don't know if it's "good" or not, but you are definitely not the only person who does it. I end up memorizing just about everything I ever play, and if I play it at least once a week it will stay memorized.

The downside is that you can have errors creep in if you're not looking at the music and not realize you're making the errors. To me that is outweighed considerably by the advantage of being able to play something anytime, anywhere, and not being tied to the sheet music.
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#1021292 - 01/11/09 01:26 PM Re: Is memorizing pieces a bad thing?
signa Offline
8000 Post Club Member

Registered: 06/06/04
Posts: 8482
Loc: Ohio, USA
you know that memorization is a requirement for performing pianists, which is not for no reason.

actually, if you practice something long enough, you would memorize it. also, muscle memory will be in place once you learned the piece, whether or not you're still reading music while playing it. so we need to live with both skills, none of which is bad.

at the beginner stage, once i memorized a piece, i cannot read the score while playing it. but things changed for me now (thanks to my teacher), as i have improved reading skill and can read notes even when i've memorized a piece, like many intermediate and advanced players. along the way, you'd also learn to do both.

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#1021293 - 01/11/09 02:08 PM Re: Is memorizing pieces a bad thing?
DragonPianoPlayer Offline
2000 Post Club Member

Registered: 12/12/06
Posts: 2368
Loc: Denver, CO
 Quote:
Originally posted by signa:
you know that memorization is a requirement for performing pianists, which is not for no reason.
[/b]
I thought it was because Liszt did it.
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#1021294 - 01/11/09 02:35 PM Re: Is memorizing pieces a bad thing?
bluekeys Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 11/11/07
Posts: 1337
My current opinion (and please note my opinion changes regularly :rolleyes: ) is that you shouldn't memorize a piece until late in the learning process. Even if you can't help but memorize due to repetition, you should continue reading off the page and minimize looking at your hands until the piece is nearly finished. That way you end up with the option of playing from the page or memory, so if you don't play it for a few weeks or months, you can still read it and get a decent play within a few tries. It takes much longer to re-learn if you only have it memorized and can't read it.

I've also found it's very easy to memorize a piece I can play well off the page, but almost impossible to read while playing a piece learned solely by memorization.

Page turning is an issue, but it can be dealt with thru practice and/or technology (e.g. flat screen monitors and foot switches). Besides, once you can play a piece both ways, you should be able to play from memory in "performance" situations and only read during practice.

I have found that it takes me longer to learn a piece by reading than memorizing, mostly because it takes longer to learn the motions without looking at the keys, but the benefits are worth the additional time.

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#1021295 - 01/11/09 03:38 PM Re: Is memorizing pieces a bad thing?
Akvarn Offline
Full Member

Registered: 09/26/08
Posts: 35
Loc: Norway
I have been focusing on my sight reading skills for a while. Since they have improved I am now able to play the pieces (slowly) without *needing* to memorize them, so I don't. The effect is that the pieces are memorized considerably quicker than before and I can throw away the pages if I wish to. I usually keep it in front of me, though, to avoid internalizing mistakes.

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#1021296 - 01/11/09 03:57 PM Re: Is memorizing pieces a bad thing?
packa Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 02/05/05
Posts: 1397
Loc: Dallas, TX
I also memorize quickly and automatically without much conscious effort. Unfortunately, I sometimes get a note or a rhythm wrong and find that it's already in memory before my teacher points out the error. Then I have to relearn and rememorize and that is sometimes harder than the first time.

It is also true that, while I memorize the notes and fingering quickly, I don't have the same quick memory of the other things in the score like dynamics and articulation. So, my rule is to ALWAYS practice with the music in front of me and to make myself really LOOK at the music to try to see everything that's there and not just the notes. This doesn't stop me from memorizing quickly but it helps to keep double-checking with the actual score.
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#1021297 - 01/11/09 05:17 PM Re: Is memorizing pieces a bad thing?
Coolkid70 Offline
Full Member

Registered: 03/27/08
Posts: 378
Loc: Irvine, CA
 Quote:
Originally posted by DragonPianoPlayer:
 Quote:
Originally posted by signa:
you know that memorization is a requirement for performing pianists, which is not for no reason.
[/b]
I thought it was because Liszt did it. [/b]
I thought I saw a few words floating around that Clara Schumann started this tradition. Maybe somebody knows for sure?
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#1021298 - 01/11/09 05:22 PM Re: Is memorizing pieces a bad thing?
Ode2Joy Offline
Full Member

Registered: 10/30/08
Posts: 94
Loc: southern cal
It seems I have the same issue. I'm not trying to memorize, but I think the repetition from practice just puts pieces into memory. I do have a very difficult time reading the piece once it is memorized. For example, I especially find it challenging to "read" several of the Bach 2 part inventions that I've recently learned, but seem to play it smoothly without the music. While I think it is predominantly muscle memory that I am relying upon, I find older pieces are pretty secure in memory and that reading them requires a significant amount of effort.

I will try what Paul suggested about really LOOKING at the music as I play and learn new pieces.
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#1021299 - 01/11/09 05:43 PM Re: Is memorizing pieces a bad thing?
Devane Offline
Full Member

Registered: 04/09/08
Posts: 401
Loc: Ireland
I memorise, otherwise I wouldn't enjoy playing because what you would hear is a stuttered version of the piece. \:\(

Pianist Magazine did an article recently. They are pro-memorisation. It talks about Hands-separate as being a valuable tool also.
I can usually do this but tend to forget the HS afterwards as I stop doing it once my HT is working well enough.


Interesting quotes from it.......


"In the process of learning a piece, committing it to memory signifies moving to a higher level in mastering it."

"If you have memorised a piece very well, you should be able to play both hands, separately, from memory. However, if you can't play either, it means you haven't memorised sufficiently"
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#1021300 - 01/11/09 05:52 PM Re: Is memorizing pieces a bad thing?
Mark... Offline
4000 Post Club Member

Registered: 11/27/06
Posts: 4372
Loc: Jersey Shore
I think only very advanced pianists sight read cold. I believe most of us sight read warm, ie memorize with the notes as a guide...

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#1021301 - 01/11/09 07:07 PM Re: Is memorizing pieces a bad thing?
Mr Super-Hunky Offline
4000 Post Club Member

Registered: 04/17/05
Posts: 4195
Loc: Arizona.
I honestly don't think it's possible to NOT memorize a piece after playing it a brazillion times.

As far as improvising goes, once a piece becomes thoroughly memorized, why not add in a little flair and mix it up a bit.

For me, the same exact piece over and over again is torture.

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#1021302 - 01/12/09 12:09 AM Re: Is memorizing pieces a bad thing?
alsh Offline
Junior Member

Registered: 01/08/09
Posts: 1
Loc: Michigan
Well, some of us are memory limited. I play a piece a bizillion times, it doesn't sink in. But I can sight read faster than most people think. My companion player at church can memorize easily, but sight reading is a challenge. I would rather have my problem.
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#1021303 - 01/12/09 12:25 AM Re: Is memorizing pieces a bad thing?
AnthonyB Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 09/28/07
Posts: 659
Loc: Center City, MN
 Quote:
Originally posted by alsh:
Well, some of us are memory limited. I play a piece a bizillion times, it doesn't sink in. But I can sight read faster than most people think. My companion player at church can memorize easily, but sight reading is a challenge. I would rather have my problem. [/b]
Welcome to the forum, alsh.

Most likely people just use what comes easier for them.
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#1021304 - 01/12/09 07:25 AM Re: Is memorizing pieces a bad thing?
TrapperJohn Offline
3000 Post Club Member

Registered: 02/11/08
Posts: 3539
Loc: Chocolatetown, USA
 Quote:
Originally posted by signa:

actually, if you practice something long enough, you would memorize it. also, muscle memory will be in place once you learned the piece, whether or not you're still reading music while playing it. [/b]
Exactly what is meant by the term "muscle memory" - I've seen references to this a number of times but never with an explanation or definition. Can someone elaborate? Thanks.

Regards, JF
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Every difficulty slurred over will be a ghost to disturb your repose later on. Frederic Chopin

As good at piano as I am at golf - very high handicap!

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#1021305 - 01/12/09 09:10 AM Re: Is memorizing pieces a bad thing?
TTigg Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 11/30/07
Posts: 873
Loc: Southern California
Thanks for all the good answers, I figured I wasn't alone. Agreed, I will try to pay more attention to the pieces (even whilst my brain does it's thing).

Devane,
Thanks for the link

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#1021306 - 01/12/09 09:17 AM Re: Is memorizing pieces a bad thing?
bluekeys Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 11/11/07
Posts: 1337
 Quote:
Exactly what is meant by the term "muscle memory" - I've seen references to this a number of times but never with an explanation or definition. Can someone elaborate?
I'll take a stab at it:

"Muscle memory" is the ability to play something semi-consciously due to rote repetitions, as opposed to gaining a mental understanding of it. In general, if you can say or write out the notes of a passage you have a mental understanding of it. If you can only remember it by sitting at the piano and playing, then you have muscle memory. The optimum situation for a memorized piece is to have both, so you can be thinking ahead mentally, yet let the hands use muscle memory to play the current passage. Additionally, if one type of memory fails, you can often rely on the other to avoid mistakes.

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#1021307 - 01/12/09 09:47 AM Re: Is memorizing pieces a bad thing?
sotto voce Offline
6000 Post Club Member

Registered: 08/15/06
Posts: 6163
Loc: Briarcliff Manor, NY, USA
I think it would be helpful to keep in mind that sight-reading is specialized form of reading music with a specific technique, environment and purpose. It would clarify the discussion and the advice given to maintain the distinction.

Steven
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#1021308 - 01/12/09 10:10 AM Re: Is memorizing pieces a bad thing?
rada Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 09/07/06
Posts: 1124
Loc: pagosa springs,co
I think memorization becomes a bulk of knowledge. So great I don't need to carry around 50 books to play the piano. Beyond that it forces my brain to understand the music in another manner, a different level so to speak.
This allows me to be creative and improvise.

rada
www.pianopassions.com

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#1021309 - 01/12/09 11:58 AM Re: Is memorizing pieces a bad thing?
Kymber Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 09/25/08
Posts: 1348
Loc: MA
I do the same thing.

If your concern is that you want to improve your sight reading then I would recommend you sight read something new/different everyday and never sight read the same thing two days in a row.

Some people have trouble memorizing so I see it as a bonus to be able to memorize.
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And finally soared in the morning glow while non-believers watched from below.”
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#1021310 - 01/12/09 12:25 PM Re: Is memorizing pieces a bad thing?
TrapperJohn Offline
3000 Post Club Member

Registered: 02/11/08
Posts: 3539
Loc: Chocolatetown, USA
 Quote:
Originally posted by bluekeys:
 Quote:
Exactly what is meant by the term "muscle memory" - I've seen references to this a number of times but never with an explanation or definition. Can someone elaborate?
I'll take a stab at it:

"Muscle memory" is the ability to play something semi-consciously due to rote repetitions, as opposed to gaining a mental understanding of it.

. . .

If you can only remember it by sitting at the piano and playing, then you have muscle memory. [/b]
You're saying, in effect, that "muscle memory" is a convenient shortcut name for the complex psycological/physical processes that occur thru constant repetition of a piece until it's memorized and subsequent performances of the piece are accomplished more or less automatically (with little or no conscious effort) such that it "seems" as if the muscles guiding one's arms, hands and fingers have "a mind of their own" with a sort of built-in "memory" - does that about sum it up?

Regards, JF
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Every difficulty slurred over will be a ghost to disturb your repose later on. Frederic Chopin

As good at piano as I am at golf - very high handicap!

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#1021311 - 01/12/09 02:07 PM Re: Is memorizing pieces a bad thing?
bluekeys Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 11/11/07
Posts: 1337
 Quote:
You're saying, in effect, that "muscle memory" is a convenient shortcut name for the complex psycological/physical processes that occur thru constant repetition of a piece until it's memorized and subsequent performances of the piece are accomplished more or less automatically (with little or no conscious effort) such that it "seems" as if the muscles guiding one's arms, hands and fingers have "a mind of their own" with a sort of built-in "memory" - does that about sum it up?
Yup.

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#1021312 - 01/12/09 02:37 PM Re: Is memorizing pieces a bad thing?
Mr Super-Hunky Offline
4000 Post Club Member

Registered: 04/17/05
Posts: 4195
Loc: Arizona.
I have a theory, untested of course.

It seems that people who are better at memorizing and improvising tend to be poorer sight readers and vice versa.

I've met a few really great sightreaders who cannot improvise to save their life other than whip out pre-canned chords and stuff.

Also, some people who are great at improvising seem to be a little slow at sight reading.

I wonder if different parts of the brain are being used. It seems that if this is true, a *creative* person would do much better at improvising (and composing) as opposed to an analytical thinker.

The more structured analytical type may have a harder time at improvising while doing much better at reading a written score.

Just a theory, maybe true, maybe not.

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#1021313 - 01/12/09 02:41 PM Re: Is memorizing pieces a bad thing?
TTigg Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 11/30/07
Posts: 873
Loc: Southern California
 Quote:
Originally posted by mr_super-hunky:
I have a theory, untested of course.

It seems that people who are better at memorizing and improvising tend to be poorer sight readers and vice versa.

I've met a few really great sightreaders who cannot improvise to save their life other than whip out pre-canned chords and stuff.

Also, some people who are great at improvising seem to be a little slow at sight reading.

I wonder if different parts of the brain are being used. It seems that if this is true, a *creative* person would do much better at improvising (and composing) as opposed to an analytical thinker.

The more structured analytical type may have a harder time at improvising while doing much better at reading a written score.

Just a theory, maybe true, maybe not. [/b]
Hmmmm interesting indeed but (for me at least)...

I'm a very Type A, actually classed once (at a sales training) as Analytical Achiever. You know the ones who love all the little awards and trophies and pats on the back

I am also quite the creative type and even in my short training have messed about and "added" stuff to various pieces. This also flows over into modifications I've done to my house / car depending on what it was I was trying to get done..

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#1021314 - 01/12/09 03:31 PM Re: Is memorizing pieces a bad thing?
Ken. Offline
Full Member

Registered: 01/07/08
Posts: 284
I also find that after playing the same piece over and over eventually I have it memorized without really trying that much. Sometimes I miss things like dynamics or certain fingerings, so even though you think you have it memorized it is a good idea to read through it again to make sure you haven't missed anything.

Memorizing and sight reading are both good, so you should practise both.
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#1021315 - 01/12/09 04:33 PM Re: Is memorizing pieces a bad thing?
Sundew Offline
Full Member

Registered: 07/04/07
Posts: 281
Loc: England
I would class myself as more logical than creative. I cannot memorise, though increasing familiarity with the piece does help with my practice, when I try to play blind I freeze. Just once I realised I was staring out the window whilst my fingers were producing music with a fair degree of accuracy. As soon as I had the realisation I froze, so maybe for me it is a mental block. I assumed at the time 'muscle memory' had taken over.

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#1021316 - 01/12/09 05:37 PM Re: Is memorizing pieces a bad thing?
packa Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 02/05/05
Posts: 1397
Loc: Dallas, TX
 Quote:
Originally posted by John Frank:
You're saying, in effect, that "muscle memory" is a convenient shortcut name for the complex psycological/physical processes that occur thru constant repetition of a piece until it's memorized and subsequent performances of the piece are accomplished more or less automatically (with little or no conscious effort) such that it "seems" as if the muscles guiding one's arms, hands and fingers have "a mind of their own" with a sort of built-in "memory" - does that about sum it up?[/b]
This is probably an adequate approximation but the whole question of levels of memorization is pretty subtle and hard to pin down.

I'm not sure it's really possible to play something with little or no conscious effort. It seems like you have to be thinking or feeling something about the music even if you let you fingers find the notes on their own.

I know there are lots of folks who can memorize and play a piece from memory but can't then play one hand or the other separately. Or they can't play just the harmony or just the melody line from memory. Or they can't play the piece at a tediously slow tempo (this is a good exercise by the way for a memorized piece). They are also unable to tell you at any place in the piece (from memory) what key they are in or to describe the harmonic progression of a passage. I would say that these folks are relying entirely on a learned pattern of unified two-hand movements that they can't easily disassemble into its component parts. I would call this muscle memory.

I think you must develop a stong muscle memory for any piece you can play from memory, but my teachers have always stressed that you need to do more and try to internalize everything about the piece, not just the notes.
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#1021317 - 01/13/09 07:39 AM Re: Is memorizing pieces a bad thing?
TrapperJohn Offline
3000 Post Club Member

Registered: 02/11/08
Posts: 3539
Loc: Chocolatetown, USA
packa - thanks for the details and clarification - your points seem reasonable and your definition of muscle memory may be more precise than mine, or an important addendum to it.

I wonder why playing a piece "at a tediously slow tempo" (as you say) is "a good exercise for a memorized piece" (if by "exercise" you mean perhaps "test")?

Regards, JF
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Every difficulty slurred over will be a ghost to disturb your repose later on. Frederic Chopin

As good at piano as I am at golf - very high handicap!

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#1021318 - 01/13/09 08:53 AM Re: Is memorizing pieces a bad thing?
Peyton Offline
2000 Post Club Member

Registered: 06/02/06
Posts: 2501
Loc: Maine
 Quote:
Originally posted by mr_super-hunky:
I have a theory, untested of course.

It seems that people who are better at memorizing and improvising tend to be poorer sight readers and vice versa.

I've met a few really great sightreaders who cannot improvise to save their life other than whip out pre-canned chords and stuff.

Also, some people who are great at improvising seem to be a little slow at sight reading.

I wonder if different parts of the brain are being used. It seems that if this is true, a *creative* person would do much better at improvising (and composing) as opposed to an analytical thinker.

The more structured analytical type may have a harder time at improvising while doing much better at reading a written score.

Just a theory, maybe true, maybe not. [/b]
That fits me. I can improv, write songs and eventually memorize classical pieces by repitition... but I can't sight read very well at all.


Also, FWIW, when I took lessons I remember my teacher telling me that my ability to memorize through muscle memory and my weakness at sight reading and "understanding" what I was playing would eventually interfere with my classical playing. She was right. I forget pieces very easily if I don't play them constantly and I'm terrible at playing for people for when I get tense my muscle memory fails me. I'm also, as Pacca so wisely brings up, unable to change my "patterns" and play it very slowly or with one hand at a time or pick up the piece at any point in the work.

I think this reinforces pacca's points. We need to not just rely on muscle memory but on a fuller understanding of the work.
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