Using Your Ears to Memorize Songs for Beginner Piano Students
This article is for teachers of beginner piano students who are memorizing a song. The focus here is making sure the student knows the overall melody and structure of a piece away from the piano to facilitate smooth recollection while playing.
For beginner piano students, the task of memorizing a song can range in difficulty from being quite easy, because of sheer repetition or muscle memory, or quite a daunting task, because of factors such as nervousness or not being sure of how to start the process. As piano teachers, we know that simple patterns in beginner piano pieces can be explained and coached pretty easily, but one tactic I have found that works well—in addition to touching on patterns and basic theory points—is getting students to engage their ears and memorize a song from a singing perspective away from the piano.
The Challenge in Memorization – Engaging the Ears!
In my studio, I’ve found that beginner students who are memorizing pieces often start from only being able to read the notes fluently when the sheet music is in front of them, not from a perspective of thinking of the music as an actual song. This is where a teacher can begin the process of memorization. Playing the piece for the student (even after they have learned it with the music) and having them listen to it objectively is a great first step. Then, asking the student about observations about the form, like how many times a pattern or section repeats, as well as basic changes, helps them get a sense of the entire piece and what happen throughout.
Even for very simple pieces that are only 8 to 16 measures long can be difficult for a beginning piano student to memorize, so this process can be applied and detailed at any level. It may feel like a very basic challenge to even an experienced teacher, but to reach every student, we have to put ourselves in their shoes.
Can Your Student Sing the Piece Being Memorized?
Many times, I’ve found that students who experience difficulty in memorizing a song cannot sing it from memory. If a student is having trouble with this task, I like to get away from the piano for a second and work on memorization of the words (if available) or just signing the melody on a syllable like “la”.
Please note, many students (especially young beginners) do not have a very accurate sense of pitch, and it varies sharply based on age range and pitch identification. This is totally okay! Things you will be listening for as a teacher are identifying if a melody is moving up, or a section repeats, etc. Getting a general idea is just fine. With songs that have lyrics, this is even better, because the student can think through the words to attach them to a melody.
Other Factors – Like Hand Positions and Song Forms
Other important factors to bring into initial memorization and engaging the ears include knowing hand positions throughout the piece. Some students struggle with this as the first step, so establish a way to practice setting up the correct starting position. I like to focus on placement of the thumbs, knowing if a song is in a basic C position, G position, etc. If any hand position changes are present in the piece, try creating a game around finding all the places that move.
For song forms, this is just making sure sequences, ascending and descending lines are covered, and what the overall structure of the song is (like how many times the A section is played, or if a melody has a parallel or contrasting answer). This will vary piece by piece, but giving a student some context helps tremendously.
The Memorization Challenge!
Once a student has been coached through the memorization procedure and he or she is ready to attempt a piece from memory, create a secondary challenge to really secure the memory work and double check memorization proficiency. The final challenge for the student should be playing the piece while looking at his or her hands and humming or singing the melody while playing. The singing of the melody may be a bit too difficult, but looking at your hands should definitely be a component.
My piano teacher in college was actually the one who tuned me into the fact that often times, students look away from their hands when they are playing a piece from memory, because they are trying to channel their muscle memory. Therefore, they can’t play while looking at their hands, because it distracts them. If that’s the case, I think a great challenge is making eye contact with your hands while playing as a great test of memory work!
There is such a huge dialogue that can be opened up about memorization–this article simply offers tips for a beginner on their first memorization attempts. I like starting the practice of memorization by engaging the student’s perception of every song they play as being a real song—one they can sing and play and feel is really making music. So, help your students open up their ears towards better memorization!