I’ve blogged before about my thoughts on and struggles with memorizing music. I can definitely see improvement over my college years as far as successful memorization goes, but I admittedly still find it discouraging. I think what makes it frustrating for me is the fact that sight-reading is so easy for me, and memorizing is so not easy. 🙂
Some days, I feel like I’ve finally find a method for this memorizing madness, and other days, I feel so far away from reaching a dependable process! A few weeks ago, I made the decision to when practicing, only “learn” as much music as I can also memorize during the same sitting. During some practice sessions, I only learn 4 or 8 bars. On a good day, I can learn a whole page of music. It’s slow, tedious work, but I looking forward to seeing the results of this experiment once I finish a few pieces using this method. (It will be awhile.)
So, I’m curious — what do other teachers do? First, do you find it difficult to find time to practice regularly? Do you make it a priority to continue learning new classical repertoire? Do you find opportunities to perform solo classical repertoire, or do you learn it only for your own enjoyment and personal development? Do you memorize? HOW do you memorize?! 🙂
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21 thoughts on “Practicing, Learning, and Memorizing for Piano Teachers”
Also something I’ve been contemplating – memorizing is not such a problem for me but I’ve been struggling to figure out exactly HOW I do it so that i can teach it. Mostly, I take a small passage – a phrase – and repeat it about 10 times. Then I add on.
That seems to work. BUT – and I think this is critical but I’m sure I can’t get most students to do it – I “practice” a lot and work on my memory in my head – away from the piano – when I’m doing dishes, laundry, whatever. I go over and over it in my head – sometimes not completely consciously. Then I hit a snag and next time I’m at the piano I check it and after that the problem is fixed.
Does this make sense?
That does make sense, LaDona. I do find mental practice to be immensely helpful and find myself doing it constantly throughout the day too!
I agree with your comment — it’s important for teachers to be able to teach students HOW to memorize. I don’t have it all figured out yet, but I do make an effort to take time out of the lesson with the student to help them memorize a measure or two on the spot together. Then I tell them to continue the same process at home. I don’t want to assume that if I tell a student “memorize this piece this week” they will naturally arrive upon a good method for memorization. Just like with other things, students need to be shown effective methods for practicing and memorization. 🙂
Hi Joy, please tell me if I am wrong here, but do you happen to have this idea that memorizing music really shouldn’t be that hard … perhaps that it should actually be easy and there is something internally wrong with you if you think it is difficult for you to memorize music?
We need to remember that your list of 12 techniques (which are limiting quite a bit of other serious methods) are not isolated techniques. You need to become dedicated to practicing ALL of them on a daily basis. It’s not like person A thrives on technique 1, person B thrives on technique 2, etc. Each person needs to learn to incorporate many many many techniques daily.
The 3 most powerful for me is to analyze the music and break it down into patterns, sing everything, and begin memorizing immediately even before technique or musicality.
If one page of Beethoven is just going tonic, dominant, tonic, dominant with arpeggios up and down, what I do is just develop a simple pattern out of the music that allows me to memorize it. I teach my students to use ‘cave man’ speak. Instead of thinking ‘this is an a minor arpeggio with a descending scale leading into a dominant arpeggio in E” , I have them speak to themselves simply “a, scale, E” … that is the pattern. a, scale, E. Or ‘a, scale, 5th’
The brain can internalize patterns much more easily if you simplify the patterns and not include many extra words or useless additions to the pattern.
The other , is to sing sing sing in solfege, sing finger numbers and count the rhythms out loud. Your hands will develop a very strong connection to your brain if you develop that verbal / aural / physical connection.
The last thing is of course to begin memorizing the patterns immediately. The first week, I try to simply get the notes in my head and to be able to play the pages very slowly before I move on.
But the most important thing, I will repeat, is to incorporate all the techniques known.
I have the opposite problem! My challenge is sight reading, so it takes me longer to learn a piece, but when I do, it’s not much further to memorising it! Either way, it seems that you have to put the time in at one point or another to be able to memorise. Repetition, finding the patterns (or chord progressions etc.), and singing the melody all seem to help.
This topic is interesting because memorization has been my biggest struggle from a long time ago. Over the last little while, I find practicing at a silent piano works very well for me.
I play on my digital piano without turning on the power and rely on hearing the music in my head. It kinda ties in the music and the kinaesthetic aspect of performing. Very challenging to do this but seemed to have helped with a more secure memory.
I haven’t tried this! Thanks so much for the suggestion, Wendy!
I did this a lot in grad school and found it super helpful.
Joy, you’ve already seen my blog post on memorizing and sight-reading, which I think is among my blog’s best posts. I just wanted to add something in response to your question here. I am extremely confident that you are already experiencing progress in the area of practice efficiency. I’ve seen it before: when pianists transition into more efficient practice techniques, they will feel like less progress is being made when in fact it’s actually more progress. They are accustomed to learning large quantities of music, and when they have to focus on small quantities, it naturally feels like taking baby steps. I’d be worried right now if you weren’t frustrated – someone as gifted as you in sight-reading is going to experience this effect even more intensely. Imagine telling someone who is accustomed to eating cake, ice cream, cookies and pie all day long (for the past 10 years) that they suddenly need to start eating vegetables too. The initial transition will feel like a nightmare. But it’s worse for the pianist: not only is the smaller quantity, slower practice tempo, analysis, etc. painful to do (like it would be to introduce veggies into a sugar-infested diet), it also creates the illusion of slower progress because of the smaller units of music being processed at a time (at least with veggies, one would presumably start to feel more healthy within days).
Just remember you learn new information just as well as anyone else, and in fact probably quicker (ahem, summa cum laude). There is only so much information the brain is comfortable assimilating in one day, especially when all details of the music are done correctly within the first minute of practicing. So if it takes a day to memorize two lines of something, then that’s just how long it was supposed to take. Your displeasure of the learning rate will start to go away when you no longer compare it to your previous experiences learning music. 🙂 I’ve always considered myself a good memorizer, but even with a 3-minute piece I composed myself (!!!), sometimes it takes a whole month to memorize it (or much longer if my practicing is sporadic due to life circumstances).
I’ve heard students, and even teachers, argue that one should try to imagine what the sheet music looks like while memorizing music. This is terrible advice (and those who disagree should stop and ask themselves if they would also try to memorize a poem by clinging to the dots and dashes of the Morse Code representation of that poem). Remember that the whole goal is to get rid of the whole sheet music obstacle and transition your visual memory as quickly as possible to hands moving around on the keyboard. Hands moving on the topology of the keybaord is a far more powerful and reliable visual experience than clinging to our visual memory of ten thousand black dots on a page. Maybe that works well if your name is Rain Man, but for the rest of us, we’re better off looking at the keys and getting the score out of our head as soon as possible. (Not our analytical understanding of the score of course… just the score.)
The whole key to memorizing quickly is to make as much of your learning experience as possible be without the music, especially when there are a lot of register jumps in the music. Intermediate students must use music a bit longer because of all the mislearning they do, but someone like you can safely memorize immediately as long as you’re diligent in putting dynamic detail into the music from day one.
” Remember that the whole goal is to get rid of the whole sheet music obstacle and transition your visual memory as quickly as possible to hands moving around on the keyboard.”
Who says that is the goal? What if the pianist is blind? What if the pianist has perfect visual memory? Your analogy to poetry is pretty weak. Nobody ever says to ‘just’ visualize the music on the page in order to memorize it. That would be absurd. They would emphasize that it is one part of the entire picture. If I think about the directions of the movements on any of the pieces I am studying currently, I could quite easily tell you which directions the hands are moving in or if they are staying the same and also precisely on which lines and where in each line the hands are moving to new positions. I can actually visualize it.
Now, of course that isn’t the only way I memorize. It’s just one way in more than 10 that I might use.
” but someone like you can safely memorize immediately as long as you’re diligent in putting dynamic detail into the music from day one.”
Joy admits to having good sight-reading skills. You’re assuming she is ‘advanced’ in the field of memorizing music. Based of Joy’s comments alone, I would assume the opposite – that is why she has posted 2 blog posts within a recent time period asking for advice and encouragement. She is asking for help and every technique matters – including visualizing the page. If it works for her, then it works.
My previous teacher once told me that he had a difficult time moving to another edition of the same piece after studying the piece from another edition. I knew exactly why before he told me.
Because he was used to seeing the notes in different type, different spacings, different parts of the page.
This was a man who could sight read concertos – His reading skills and visual memory were absolutely excellent. So it does work for some and I thank him so much for helping me learn the same technique – playing through a piece once or twice, closing the book and trying to play back from memory based off how the page looks.
First I would like to apologize for using strong language that surely prompted your strong response. Honestly, I didn’t think anyone in this forum would take your position, so I thought it was a safe comment to make. I was mostly trying to arouse a chuckle with that analogy. My mistake!
To address your reply, I’m not following your argument of why my Morse Code analogy is weak – I never said it was the only memorizing technique that some people advocate (you quoted the word “just” in your second paragraph – I’d like to know where you’re getting that). Regarding the analogy, in both cases the performer is having to picture an artificial representation of the music (or poetry) rather than the music/poetry itself, and that’s all the analogy needs to say.
While there are people who use this form of memorizing, the consensus I’ve seen in publications is that most or all of these people are gifted in the area of memorizing (as you pointed out, your mentor has an “excellent” memory), which could actually mean that this method is an inefficiency that makes the pianist’s job harder than it needs to be. There is no way to prove until it is actually studied by psychologists whether certain pianists experience success in memorizing because of or in spite of this score-visualizing process. The existence of pianists who employ this method does not serve as proof of whether the method is truly beneficial, just as there are pianists who are taught to use excessive curve in their fingers for various reasons (or excessive weight in the keys) and who would argue to their death that it helps them play. While “tradition” and “my respected teacher told me to” are the only reasons people can cite for curving fingers that much, actual scientific understanding of the anatomy of the hands and arms tells us otherwise. So until studies come out about memorizing, all we can really rely on is our best reasoning.
So then, as for the best reasoning I’ve ever heard on this topic, there have been authors who have written about it with reasoning that seems pretty clear to me. I can’t word it any better than what was already done about a century ago (from The Musical Quarterly in an article called “Musical Memory in Piano Playing and Piano Study” by Edwin Hughes, Vol. 1 No. 4, Oct. 1915): “In memorizing music after this fashion [visualizing the notes on the printed page], the additional mental action is involved of transferring the visual image of the printed symbols from the page to the actual keys under the fingers, and it would seem therefore that this method would be more complicated than that of learning to visualize directly on the keyboard in the first place.”
I have been unable to find text anywhere that counters this very intuitive and sensible idea in any remotely satisfying way.
Dustin — I think I did state that memorization is the goal here. The goal of my crazy experiment is to get rid of the obstacle of the score as soon as possible in the learning process. I haven’t blogged about memorization in many months and it’s something I’ve been thinking about recently very deeply, which is why I felt it appropriate to bring it up in my blog post.
Chad is right, though — and he has an advantage here because he knows me well. The frustration I am encountering right now is because I am comparing the kind of progress I am making learning a piece using my experimental method (described in the post) to kind of the progress I normally can make when learning a piece without memorizing it right away. They are entirely two different processes for learning a piece, as so clearly shown in his article that he linked to (if anyone haven’t read it yet, definitely take a moment to read it closely and study the chart thoroughly!).
To explain the reason behind my experiment a bit further, I will say that I admire the great pianists (Liszt, for one) who are said to have been able to sight-read or hear a piece and instantly be able to play it back by memory/ear. My experiment aligns itself with this kind of goal. I don’t really ever expect to be able to do that kind of feat except perhaps with intermediate level pieces, but I find it an interesting notion to consider that if we started our students out from a young age with this kind of mentality, perhaps they would have a chance at being able to do so at some level. Does this explain the reason behind my experiment more clearly?
And I also want to point out to both Chad and Dustin that there is a difference between being able to recall the general visual shape of the score (e.g., the notes ascend, LH arpeggiations, knowing where various sections of music appear on the page) is much different than having a photographic recollection of all the dots and lines of musical notation on the page, so that one could nearly read from the music in one’s mind. Chad’s point is that it would be silly to try to develop a photographic visual memory of the score, and his comparative analogy about poetry fits quite well. However, what Dustin said about switching to another score during the learning process is obviously true too. There will always be SOME level of a visual memory of the score present in our minds. The point here is about what the goal is. I am going to assume that most pianists don’t make it a goal to form a photographic memory of the score. So Chad’s analogy holds true.
I never imagined my little blog post would spark so much discussion!! 🙂
Also, Joy, I apologize for going back and forth between names, but your form doesn’t seem to hold my entire website blog URL , it cuts it off and it also cuts off ‘Prodigy Piano Studios’, so I’ll just use my actual name from now on.
It appears to me that Chad and I are arguing two separate points and yet agreeing if what you say is true. I have never heard of anyone encouraging a student to try to visualize each individual note on the page. I suppose if that is the case, then Chads analogy to poetry stands, but call me ignorant – I haven’t yet run into this ‘technique’ yet – I thought photographic memory is something you either have or you don’t.
Joy said that there will always be some level of visual memory of the scores in our minds – That is what I thought Chad was saying was absurd.
Perhaps Chad could clarify whether or not the perfect note by note visual is absurd, or the entire idea of picturing shapes and directions on the page.
I’ll just wait for his reply before I say anything else hah.
But Joy, do you ever practice a piece with your eyes closed? There should be different tiers of memory – Aural, Physical, Visual. If you can’t play the piece with your eyes closed, that means you could work more on your Aural or Physical memory. What I do is practice everything very strong in the beginning and work dynamics later after my fingers learn the notes. If you are not singing the music in solfege or singing the finger numbers, then I personally don’t see how you could have any sort of memory in an aural sense unless you were trained so well to be able to hear everything perfectly without practicing the singing.
I don’t think it’s clear to me at least what your memory routine actually is or what you focus on more often. I would push and push my students to focus on all 3 paths to memory so they can do them all by themselves – It’s kind of like a Vault with multiple codes and locking systems. Working together, the Aural , Visual and Physical memories will lock the memory inside the vault and you’ll have to fail at all 3 of the methods all at the same time in order for you to botch the piece performing it. If one fails you, you have 2 others to help. Such as if during a performance, you sweat a lot, get sweat in your eyes or if you accidentally look someplace where there is a bright stage light which blinds you for a few seconds. That sort of thing …
I commented on your other blog article about memorization madness and for some reason I thought you posted it a few weeks ago. I guess I didn’t look at the date cause I’m new at the whole blog thing myself lol
Hi Chad, it’s not like I’m offended or anything. It’s just in my opinion, you don’t seem to have too great of an understanding of what the eyes are capable of doing if you are saying one shouldn’t use the technique and comparing it to reading poetry.
To your poetry analogy, the reason it’s so weak is because most poetry is line by line, left to right. There are no ups and downs within it – no diagonals I should say – no movements for the eyes to capture.
If I close my eyes, I can’t see every detail – every note, etc. But I can clearly see the direction of the hands on the page. Also, where the new patterns come into to play. I don’t see how this is anything like poetry, except perhaps poetry that is free style is written in the shape of a heart of a kite , etc – but even then the movement is still lacking.
An actors script is a better analogy – what if an actor found it helpful to memorize where their part is on a page , so they know how long it might take other actors to speak their lines and it helps them to know ‘when to come in’, etc.
But music on a page still has much more movement and direction than an actors script.
Sorry for putting the word just in quotes, I tend to do that when I want to stress a word, I didn’t mean to quote you.
The best reason a curve is good is because it creates an arc – and a triangle (the strongest shape known to man) is circumscribed within the arc. This creates the most power out of the fingers – most pianists understand weight distribution as well – add more weight from the body into the piano to create a bigger sound, take weight out to create a softer sound.
But to say that visual memory of the page hasn’t been proven to be effective doesn’t mean that one can’t train their eyes to see the direction of music on a page. If for nothing else, it is to train the eyes to be able to picture an entire page with blocks of notes and directions of notes.
Your next statement about pianists who employ the method says nothing as to if the method is effective is precisely my point. You seem to have , with your strong language, completely discounted the idea to begin with. I said if it works for you, it works for you. As a teacher, if after many attempts with my students, some of them perhaps couldn’t quite grasp this – or if they closed their eyes and couldn’t for the life of them picture anything or any direction or movement – then I would chalk that up as it being a poor technique for them. But another student might be able to close their eyes and see the direction of the music which would help them to know what direction their hands are moving and then to use other techniques to narrow down the actual notes – analyzing the pattern structures theoretically, or a visual memory of the hands, etc.
“In memorizing music after this fashion [visualizing the notes on the printed page], the additional mental action is involved of transferring the visual image of the printed symbols from the page to the actual keys under the fingers, and it would seem therefore that this method would be more complicated than that of learning to visualize directly on the keyboard in the first place.”
That is a straw man, first off. The author here is clearly missing the point. It is easier to close your eyes and picture the entire page with the ups and downs and diagonals than it is to clearly be able to play a video in your head of your hands moving at lightning speed from the beginning of the page to the end. The reason of course is because the brain remembers stills pictures. It can’t remember in a split second the minute or 2 minutes it might take to watch the hands move in direction on the piano.
The visualizing the page method is best for simply knowing the big picture. When is a completely new musical pattern going to appear? Does that part of the page have a ton of black dots or a small number of black dots?
One of my students is playing ‘star wars’ main theme. At this exact moment, I can picture with my eyes open the pages of the music and where the main patterns change. First page, 4 measures, 4 measures, next page – 4 measures, 2 measures, 3 measures, 3 measures , flip the page – 4 measures, 4 measures, 2 measures.
Each page only has 2 measures per line except for the second page where the bottom half includes 6 total measures, 3 on each line (that being 4 lines total for each page so far) , then the last page goes back to the 2 measures per line pattern.
I for one can’t see why this information is NOT helpful. If you could explain it to me, I would be all eyes. =)
As I mentioned earlier, this isn’t about focusing on one technique over another – but to be able to employ them all together and then find out which are the best for you. That’s all I’m saying.
It appears we hijacked Joy’s thread – But I find these conversations interesting so I hope she doesn’t mind too much. 🙂
Joy and Dustin: I skipped a step in my previous response, which refers to remembering the general visual shape of the score. Sorry for the confusion. The point all along has just been that visualizing any abstract representation of the music (whether by using photographic memory or by using vague impressions of the score) requires more effort, not less, on the part of the brain when performing on stage.
Please tell me where you are getting this still picture information. As I understand memory, we can remember video, and we do so quite well. It is known as visual dynamic memory (as opposed to static). And your requirement above is silly – one doesn’t need to remember a 2-minute video “in a split second” in order to perform a piece. One only needs to remember the video as it progresses in real time. I can see the “video” of my own memorized pieces right now as I sit in my chair, and this memory is so strong that I could easily perform my music using this memory and physical memory alone (void of audio and analytical memory). So the quotation I used from Musical Quarterly is not a straw man and it does not miss the point, and I still haven’t heard any arguments that even remotely counter the logic expressed in Hughes’ quote.
I can do the same general score visualization you describe, and I often do when a piece is in its infancy of memorizing, when other forms of memory are not quite yet developed to where they are enough to get me through a piece. But this is a temporary stepping stone to get me to the ultimate goal of developing a more robust visual memory of hands moving on the keyboard. Just because we have a certain type of memory of something doesn’t automatically mean it’s good to put forth deliberate effort to hold on to it and make it a permanent part of our experience performing. I can remember many sensations or ideas that I experience during my practicing, but it doesn’t mean that remembering every one of those things when I’m on stage is going to help me perform.
If one is accustomed to looking at the score, then of course (in the immediate future) they’re going to perform better if they visualize the score than if they don’t. I’ve done that, but it feels no different for me to do that than it felt for me to read scores 25 years ago by using clef acronyms (Every Good Boy Does Fine, etc.). Yes, those acronyms can be good initial learning tools to get you where you want to go, but ultimately it’s an abstract piece of unnecessary information that only serves as a middle man between the person and the goal of reading notes on the staff fluently.
Reading music is the most complicated visual task that human eyes can possibly do when it comes to reading anything, so on those grounds alone you could dismiss any analogy I can possibly come up with. But that misses the point – analogies only serve to make a point clearer (not to actually serve as proof of the point itself). The point: whether you’re reciting a poem, acting in front of an audience, “performing” the tasks required by some position in a vehicle assembly line, or singing a song, while some kind of visual “aid” might help in the initial learning process, this aid is unnecessary and even debilitating for fluid, masterful performance. Those who “perform” masterfully in their assembly line by continuing to visualize the instruction diagram they first learned from, or if Morgan Freeman does his final take in a Hollywood blockbuster by still visualizing the lines on the physical script (somehow I doubt he does), etc., are not doing themselves any favors (and if their performance is truly masterful under such extra mental effort, that is only an indication of the excess mental energy they have – again they are probably succeeding despite this technique, rather than because of it, while under the illusion that it is actually helping them). It is just an extra step in the process. You (even as you use your score-visualizing technique) are still having to do the same thing I do when I perform: you still have to tell your hands where to go, and looking at your hands is only going to serve as an additional layer of helpful memory. Of course, if a blind pianist is not used to using this kind of memory, and they suddenly start trying to, they’re going to think it’s getting in their way, but in fact they’re reprogramming their brain to take advantage of one of the greatest tools we have in our memorizing arsenal.
It was unnecessary for you to debate my curved fingers point, because while I was talking about fingers that are too curved, you instead talked about fingers that are merely curved. These are two entirely different topics that we do not disagree with, although I would cite other reasons for it than yours. I’m not going to, because I don’t have the time or desire to debate it.
Oops, didn’t mean to use the word “blind” at the end of my 2nd-to-last paragraph – I was initially going to go in one direction but then decided on another. Just ignore the word “blind”. I think I
kneadneed twoto spend more thymetime prufe-reeding my posts.
Oh, and I wasn’t really debating the curved finger thing, I was just rambling on about it probably cause I was tired heh.
But I would say that extra curved fingers to change the tone quality because less of the fleshy part of the finger is on the key and it’s more of the harder tip / nail edge on the key – One could use this technique for a certain passage but no, tradition and ‘my teacher told me’ are not good arguments, I agree.
Hey, we agree on something! =)
Brother had his wedding this weekend so I’ve been a bit out of it for a few days – Food and drinks and travelling 🙂
I totally agree with you that reading music is the hardest visual task the mind can perform – Or at least commonly performed. Piano music itself is the most difficult out of all instruments and perhaps a conductor has to have even stronger visual skills reading full scores than pianists do.
I’m going to quote this passage from you:
“I can do the same general score visualization you describe, and I often do when a piece is in its infancy of memorizing, when other forms of memory are not quite yet developed to where they are enough to get me through a piece. But this is a temporary stepping stone to get me to the ultimate goal of developing a more robust visual memory of hands moving on the keyboard. Just because we have a certain type of memory of something doesn’t automatically mean it’s good to put forth deliberate effort to hold on to it and make it a permanent part of our experience performing. I can remember many sensations or ideas that I experience during my practicing, but it doesn’t mean that remembering every one of those things when I’m on stage is going to help me perform.”
You seem to suggest that you have in the past visualized the page in it’s infancy of memorizing. You then go on to say that you wouldn’t do this during a performance. But I never said that this technique is best during a performance, only that it’s good information to know – then once you know it – you can forget it. Just because you are not thinking of something at the time doesn’t mean the brain doesn’t remember it at some level. I am quite convinced that the brain actually remembers it quite well even though you are not focusing on it at the precise moment of performance.
Just like other techniques – Closing your eyes – Singing the melody while you play – Playing with the piano turned off – Playing a video back in your head away from the piano – all these things are what you would NOT do in an actual performance, but I think we can both agree they could potentially be helpful while studying the music?
What I was trying to say about the still picture and the video is that they are 2 separate things. Sure, the brain can remember video and we can close our eyes and imagine something seemingly in real time. But we can also utilize our capacity for static memory. I don’t think comparing the two is appropriate, if only to suggest that it would indeed be silly to try to visualize the music WHILE performing – I agree that is silly and the logic is sound from the quote you supplied of that man you mentioned earlier. But I never thought the idea was to encourage someone to do this WHILE performing – Only to use it as one technique out of many than forget it during the performance.
Thanks for the clarification. I thought before that you were referring to the memory you have during performance – if that were the case, it would require a great deal of extra-musical training of the mind. Glad we’re on the same page there.
You said, “I am quite convinced that the brain actually remembers it quite well even though you are not focusing on it at the precise moment of performance.” When you say “remembers”, I assume you mean that your brain is actually accessing these memories on stage (otherwise it wouldn’t make any sense to talk about remembering – we “remember” what pumpkin pie smells like all the time, but such memories are just collecting dust while we play piano). While I can’t dispute what happens in your brain since you know your mind better than I do, I must say this doesn’t resonate at all with me. I don’t feel that even the most subconscious part of my brain is imagining the score, unless the piece is really freshly learned (in which case I think the score memory distracts me more than it connects me further with the music).
For me, memorizing is as much muscle memory as anything else. When I am first learning a piece with the goal of absolute mastery for a performance, I am very focused and work on small sections at a time….always with the music in front of me. I use the metronome a lot, I figure out what fingering works and use it consistently, I follow the correct dynamics and articulations, etc. And I use LOTS of repetition, working a very small section at a time up to the recommended tempo. This is also how I train my students to practice…..constantly telling them “playing straight through a piece is not practicing at all…it’s performing.” When a piece is learned in this manner from the beginning, you will find that, at some point, you can just take away the music and find that you can play almost the whole thing by memory. You’ve trained your mind and your body from the beginning……and created an optimum situation for your heart to just feel the music. I can tell you that, without exception, every time I have just taken the music away from a student who has practiced this carefully, they have been able to play about 75% of the piece by memory. Dynamics, etc. are often weak, but the notes and rhythms are there. The student who tends to just play straight through the piece several times a day, however, is never successful at this. If there are sections that fell apart, then we know there was already some sort of weakness there. We go back and work on those sections in the same manner….mostly with the music.
As a professional accompanist, I rarely have to actually play by memory. However, I do have to be able to follow the soloists’ music while I am playing my own. Many times, this requires that I spend a lot more time looking at their part than my own. So, I learn accompaniments using the same method….starting out with the goal of absolute perfection, but with the added element of needing to know my part inside and out so well that if the soloist makes a huge mistake in the middle, I can be quick on my feet (or fingers) to make adjustments to cover it. So, in some ways, I have to know the music even better than someone who is performing solo by memory.
Practice – a regular consistent time every day. Quantity versus quality that is what matters. Your comment is 4-8 bars is all you can memorize – that is an excellent amount to learn in a small setting. Our brains can only memorize small bits of information. Practicing and listening to recordings of the music (while watching your score) is one of the fastest ways to memorize music