The Memory Map: A Practice Strategy for Confident, Memorized Performance
Introduction. When was the last time you memorized your music for public performance? Was the memorization a personal choice or requirement? What was the result? While performing onstage from memory is preferable to some, for others it is a terrifying prospect. Memorization is normally expected of pianists, singers, string players, and actors, but flutists do not always perform from memory and may not have effective strategies in place to aid them when they do.
In this article I will describe a simple process that I began using over two decades ago to address a problem that many musicians face: a full-time job means less practice time. I wanted to continue performing concertos from memory but no longer had the long uninterrupted stretches of practice time needed for memorizing. The solution? A strategy with an easy-to-remember name: the memory map.
What is it? A memory map (also called mapping1) is an approach to practice in which the flutist writes down details in short-hand graphics, chord symbols, rhythmic stems, descriptive words or pictures—any notations--to trigger mental recall of the passage. Akin to a road map, the memory map becomes a condensed representation of the music. Processing these details requires a higher degree of thinking, a good remedy for mindless practice! Mapping from the outset is recommended but can begin at any point of learning a musical piece. A one-page map eventually replaces the music on the stand as more details of the work become mentally imbedded, until the map itself is no longer needed and piece can be performed confidently from memory. Over months of practice, a memory map becomes a personal, visual log of learning, as the musician pulls together the attributes of a piece that render it interesting and, hopefully, more communicatively performed.
Why use it? Muscle (or finger) memory is relatively easy to achieve, but that alone isn't enough for reliable success onstage. Perhaps you can recall a mishap in competition or a recital when one dropped note caused a stumble of considerable length. Mapping helps organize the parameters of study to achieve brain/ intellectual memory, which increases reliability. The memory map becomes a visual log of work conducted over time. The good news is that the habit of mapping becomes easier with experience, as the musician begins to think in graphic terms to suggest a theme, passage, a formal section or a page of music. It works for any age learner; the younger flutist can use pictures, invented symbols, and colors to represent a melody and its musical journey. Older students and professionals can include rhythmic details as well as form and theory.
Expert sight-readers may resist mapping and memorizing. Conversely, for the reading-challenged, this strategy can help compensate for a weakness or dysfunction. After a memory-map presentation in 2011, an audience member asked, "Why don't you just read the music?" "Because I have dyslexia," I confessed, having never before stated publicly my own dyslexic symptoms. From youth onward, memorization and later mapping were compensating tools I used to override the propensity to reverse musical figures, especially when under pressure2. That acerbic question gave me the needed push to disseminate mapping to a larger audience.
How to begin. The operative concept with a memory map is imagination! My first maps contained few details: an outline of the form in blocks, rhythmic stems of section beginnings, chord symbols, descriptive adjectives to describe mood, etc. I had memorized all my music-playing life, but the longer and more complicated works presented problems in recalling subtle variations of a theme, restatement of a theme in a different key, octave, and so on. Trial and error paved the way forward.
A map reveals an individual's thoughts and discoveries. Aside from the suggestions below, there is no right or wrong way to proceed. Next to your music, have a blank sheet of paper (or a memory-map template - see below), a pencil, and an open mind. A reading of the piece might prompt ideas to outline the form. Listen to a recording with the score if the piece is unplayable. Work from the big picture first, then over time, jot in details. (Warning! Mapping does not replace kinesthetic practice but enhances it.)
1. Overview - form and most basic characteristics
2. Melody and/or theme construction
4. Musical details - as they are discovered
Tremendous insight in mapping surfaced when I began to assign mapping exercises to my college students. Giving basic exercises to map before tackling a larger work establishes a foundation for how to think about written gestures that portray a musical line and its inherent harmony. As students become more accustomed to thinking about ways to graph the music, the assignment is met with more enthusiasm. Those who initially express a struggle to memorize become more comfortable with the task. From experience, I have found that any level of mapping seems to benefit learning and retention.
Scale exercise no. 4, from Taffanel/Gaubert's Seventeen Daily Studies, provides a simple point of departure for mapping and memorization. The major-mode series is not difficult, but memorizing the minor-mode patterns seems daunting to students until they graph it and learn the formulaic use of scale patterns and turnarounds: melodic minor (mm), harmonic minor (hm), and natural minor (nat.). (The numbers represent scale degrees.)
Please note: To better view the maps, press the Ctrl and + keys together to zoom in and Ctrl and - keys together to zoom back out.
Marcel Moyse' 24 Petites Etudes Melodiques, (Leduc) are excellent novice-level examples for mapping. Etude no. 17 illustrates a diatonic, arpeggiated framework for octave-length chromatic scales. A semester-long assignment included learning this etude and transposing it to the additional eleven keys. At the end-of-semester scales exam, students were asked to play the exercise in six random keys at 138 =, either from memory or with a memory map. Most didn't ask to use a map.
Another version of No. 17 is even simpler.
In efforts to address the mapping of more complex works, I developed a memory-map template. This further organized my routine of writing down the form of a concerto movement on the left with space to add harmonic progressions, while jotting theme fragments or directional lines on the right-side staff paper.
Memory Map template:
The next three musical selections and their maps illustrate a short melody, a difficult orchestral excerpt and a concerto movement, respectively. Theobald Boehm's Scottish Air provides a novice-level assignment for students to map. The simple ternary form, four-bar phrases, and singing melody can be quickly mapped and committed to memory.
Theobald Boehm's Scottish Air, from Tone Development Through Interpretation.
Used with permission of McGinnis & Marx Music Publishers Copyright © 1962
Applications for mapping abound. A particularly difficult passage in principal flute part of Alexandre Glazunov's Violin Concerto, op. 82 follows. The sequence pattern, notated as diminished thirds, is simplified when mapped; thinking instead of major seconds is easier to learn and play, especially at the fast tempo. Memorizing this passage is wise indeed!
Glazunov, op. 82, circle 24 and map
Standard repertoire for college curriculums and audition lists, Mozart's Concerto in G Major, K. 313 is a rite of passage for flutists. The three maps below illustrate the progress of mapping over time.
Mozart: Concerto no. 1 in G Major, first movement.
K. 313 Map a: determine the form; K. 313 Map b: add theme fragments; K. 313 Map c: fill in details
Constructing a Memory Map provides a practice strategy that ensures a more secure and confident performance, whether one elects to play from memory or not. Any level of mapping seems to benefit learning and subsequent retention. The habit of mapping becomes easier over time, as one starts to imagine the music in graphic terms, leading to increased mental organization. This strategy can help the reading challenged compensate for a weakness or dysfunction. Incorporating music theory, style characteristics, and the composer¹s intentions into the mapping process leads to intellectual memory, which greatly aids memorization under pressure. Ultimately, discovery of musical details through more organized study leads to a deeper connection to the music, resulting, hopefully, in a more communicative performance. What audience wouldn¹t appreciate that!
Colgin-Abeln, Melissa. The Memory Map. Flute Talk Magazine, Vol. 29, No. 3. Nov. 2009
Dunsby, Jonathon. Memory and memorizing. Grove Online: www.grovemusic.com Accessed June 14, 2008.
Mishra, Jennifer. A Theoretical Model of Musical Memorization in Psycomusicology, Vol. 19: Spring 2005.
Moyse, Marcel. 24 Petites Etudes Melodiques. Paris: Leduc, Cie., 1932.
____________. Tone Development Through Interpretation. New Jersey: McGinnis and Marx, 1962.
Shockley, Rebecca Payne. An Experimental Approach to the Memorization of Piano Music with Implications for Music Reading. D.M.A. Dissertation, University of Colorado at Boulder, 1980.
____________. Mapping Music: For Faster Learning and Secure Memory - A Guide for Piano Teachers and Students. Madison, WI. A-R Editions, 1997, 2001.
____________. What is Mapping? Piano Journal—The European Journal for Pianists and Piano Teachers, Vol. 20 No. 58, Spring 1999. EPTA (UK) Ltd. Pp. 28-29
____________. Mapping Music: Some Simple Strategies to Help Students Learn. American Music Teacher 56:2 (Oct-Nov. 2006), p. 34-36. International Index to Music Periodicals, http://iimp.chadwyck.com/home.do. Accessed June 1, 2008.
Taffanel, Paul and Gaubert, Phillipe. Seventeen Daily Exercises, from The Complete Method for Flute. Paris: Alphonse Leduc.
1. I am indebted to Dr. Rebecca Payne Shockley, Professor of Piano Pedagogy at University of Minnesota, whose pioneering work in mapping has furthered my research. Please see her list of publications at the end of this article
2. Dr. Shockley's DMA dissertation, An Experimental Approach to the Memorization of Piano Music . . ., sheds light on dyslexics and mapping. pp. 95, 105