I received the following question this week from a concerned double bassist:
“How can I keep from having memory slips on stage?”
Even experienced performers may have the occasional memory faux pas on stage. However, there are some things we can do to minimize the risk.
Be prepared early.
The earlier you can play something from memory in the practice room, the more likely you will be confident playing from memory in public. I suggest aiming at having a work memorized several months prior to a public performance.
Once you can play it in the practice room from memory, play the piece every day twice. Play it once using music, and once from memory. Do this for at least two weeks beyond the day you feel confident in having memorized the piece. We want to really lock it in.
Once you have done this, try playing it from memory for some friends. See how you do when there is a small audience, but without the pressure of a truly public performance. Do this a several times before you bring it onstage.
Practice in a different key.
Take it up a step, down a step, etc. For complete saturation, take the piece around the circle of fifths. This approach isn’t viable for every style or piece. It’s less feasible to transpose, for example, a classical music concerto.
Write it out. By hand. On paper.
If you are using sheet music to start with, begin by copying your part directly from the sheet music. Do this two, or three, times.
If you are playing changes by ear, create a chart or lead sheet to work from, and then write out the changes several times.
Next, try to write out your part (or the changes, as appropriate) from memory.
- Be sure to include any bowings, dynamics, tempo changes, etc., as well as the notes and rhythms.
- When you can write our your part from memory with no mistakes, you have taken your memorization of a work to a high level
- When you can do this, several times, your memorization and knowledge of the piece will be exceptionally solid
Focus during the performance.
Provided that a performer is properly prepared, a memory slip will only occur if their mind wanders during a performance. Depending on the complexity of the work, even a short lapse in focus can create a problem.
Maintaining focus in a performance situation is especially difficult for the less-experienced performer, no matter how prepared they might be. For inexperienced performers, becoming (and remaining) focused on stage is often easier said than done. For these folks, such performance anxiety can derail even the most prepared performance.
If this describes you, then I suggest performing in public more often. Play with music and also from memory, but perform for other people, a lot. Doing so, will reduce the unfamiliarity of the public stage and lessen any latent performance anxiety, which will decrease the chances of a memory slip on stage.