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Memorizing Your Music

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Several years ago, I can recall reading a column by classical guitar virtuoso Michael Lorimer. The subject was "performance anxiety," and he made two points that I've never forgotten. The first was that nervousness is simply a culmination of energy, an energy that, if properly channeled, can lead to a much higher level of musical performance. The second point made was that the only real reason to be nervous about playing was if you were truly "unprepared" to perform. The obvious remedy, of course, is to be prepared. And that all starts with an issue that I continually harp on. Memorize your music, because until you do, you're not really ready to play.

One of the many phrases that's so appropriate for this topic is "I know it by heart." The key word in that phrase is "heart," because how in the world can you put your feeling into a performance if you're not quite sure where you're going? Want more cliches? How about "I know that part like the back of my hand?" Or "I could play it with my eyes closed?" Or "I can play that tune in my sleep?" Any idea what those statements mean to me? Confidence. Certainty. Preparation.

You know, memory is a fascinating subject in itself, and there are many different types of recall skills going on for a guitarist. There's pure "ear/aural" memory, "visual fretboard" memory, "physical touch" memory, "intellect" memory, and even sometimes "sight-reading" memory (though this one is a little less typical among most guitar players). All of these factors work together, one way or another, and contribute to confidently knowing where you've been and where you're headed.

Students, past and present, often ask me "When do you know when you really have something down?" My usual reply is "When I've first memorized it, then made a mistake in each and every part of the piece, forcing me to re-think and re-memorize it." So what's my point? Simple. Memorization is a tough, blue-collar job, but it's also a reality for those of us serious about our craft. However, like any other musical task, there are logical ways to go about the process.

I once managed to memorize 190 solo guitar pieces, both contemporary and classical, over a six-month span. Sound amazing? Not really. I probably averaged about thirty minutes a day doing this, and in all honesty was already familiar with the basic structure and fingering of each composition. But it really bugged me that depending on the notation was causing so many errors, as well as prohibiting me from putting my soul into each work. I knew that I just had to memorize my music.

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