We've all been there. The big gig. Your band has practiced hard for this very moment. Friends, families, and loving fans pack the venue, and they absorb every note dripping from your instrument. The songs should feel like second nature at this point, but something is amiss.
An upcoming chord change is near and as you dig inside your head for the answer, you're met with darkness. The change is fast approaching and your mind scrambles around every crevice to find the solution to this anxiety. Sadly, it's just not there. Memory has failed you and, suddenly, you’re playing the wrong note. Being the good musician that you are, you rub off the memory slip and continue on. The audience is none the wiser.
Mistakes like this happen all the time, and learning how to recover from them is an essential skill as a performer – but it's even better to prevent them from happening in the first place. There are strategies out there to help improve memorization for performances. Different strategies will work for different people, but here's one four-step process to try.
Step 1: get deep with perception
Many preach the benefits of muscle memory, but when you're deep in a performance, muscle memory isn't something you should rely on. That style of memory will easily collapse under pressure, and suddenly, you'll be in front of a crowd, deep in a memory slip.
Unless you're sight reading a piece for the first time onstage, you'll be better off having a deep perception of a given piece. When you firmly grasp the inner workings of a song, that'll help make for solid memory. You want to know how to play each phrase inside and out and find ways to make deep connections with every aspect of the song. That way, when you're onstage, you'll spend minimal time recalling the details.
Before you begin trying to memorize a song, make sure that your technical aspects are on lock. If there are any mistakes in your fingerings, for instance, that will just be one more thing to think about onstage. During a performance, you want the mind to be as free as possible so that you can focus on bringing artistry to the song.
To help form a deeper perception of a piece, start by finding patterns in the sections and phrases of the song. Analyze the melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic aspects, taking special note where each begins and ends. From there, you want to create a visual map of sorts. Take time to establish an emotional connection with each phrase. How does it make you feel when you play that part? Try even writing those feelings down, as that will only help with your connection.
Step 2: ingrain in the membrane
When you ingrain something, that means you construct meaningful memory paths. You want the information on these paths to stick and flow easily. This will involve some repetition, but be careful: mindless repetition will not help construct meaningful memory paths. Learn the art of mindful repetition before beginning.
To help with ingraining, you should organize your practice sessions efficiently. For example, have memorization sessions in which you limit the amount of music to learn. Overloading your brain too quickly will prevent information from being retained. You want to limit learning, at least at first.
When you start to practice, get a mental image of a small section of the music before playing anything. If you can get through it flawlessly in your head, you're doing well. But if it seems fuzzy, there's no point in playing it just yet. Review the song in your head by sections. Complete each section in your a head a few times without error, and then begin connecting them with other pieces.
To further aid in ingraining these memories, make use of different techniques. For example, try singing just the bassline, or physically writing out passages that you find hard to memorize.
Step 3: maintain in the membrane
Even if you've mastered step two, none of it will matter unless you maintain it, which is actually quite simple to do. Just keep up your various memorization techniques on a consistent basis. Make a schedule and stick with it.
Additionally, don't just practice the music, but actually practice performing. Try recording your performances from now on to catch things that you wouldn't have noticed in the moment. Go back, give them a listen, and find the parts where you slip up. Target these sections and then bring them back to the ingraining laboratory for some tweaking.
When reviewing your performance, take it seriously. Get detailed with it. Reinvent the piece if you have to. You may even find that the errors don't have to do with memorization at all. Perhaps you just need to come up with a different fingering. Just because a song is "finished" doesn't mean you can't still take new approaches or incorporate new ideas into it.
Step 4: total recall
Before even taking the stage, make sure you're in a performance-ready state. There are all kinds of warm-up exercises that are designed to help you do this, so find one that works for you and get in the zone.
When you're onstage and in the midst of a song, make sure you're aware. It's all too easy to let the environment of a gig overwhelm your senses, but you need to stay in the moment with your music. As you're singing or playing, think about the present and prepare for the future. Try not to slip into mindless playing.
Awareness doesn't have to compromise your attitude, by the way. You can have fun and remain aware at the same time. Stay positive up there onstage. Approach each piece with confidence, even if you do have a memory slip or two.
Again, there are all kinds of memorization strategies for different people. For this reason, it's important to experiment with the different types and see which one works for you. It'll be hard work, but once you're onstage playing your songs with confidence and without error, you'll be glad you took the time to practice memory.
Anthony Cerullo is a nomadic freelance writer and keyboard player. In his spare time, he can be found reading, hiking mountains, and lying in hammocks for extended periods of time.