Memorization: Tips for Bass Players

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.

Dr. Donovan Stokes is on the faculty of Shenandoah University-Conservatory. Visit him online at and check out the Bass Coalition at

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Share your thoughts

  1. Meamory musically has become an interesting thing for me,i have been put in a lot of situations latley and have a vast collection of mostly -classic-rock-blues type stuff(in my meamory banks)…….I was horrible while young,I tried writing things out but that took so much time itself……..over and over i just tried harder and harder,meamory is such a muscle,……so many moments in my life i’m reminded of that were forgotten but now songs come easily to remember,all of these above help but beyond all of them just keep at it……eventually it will come much easier

  2. Simon Ciaccio

    Taking that further, how can we develop good memory skills while were learning the song for the first time…
    For example, [bassist] playing a jazz tune you’ve never played before with a pianist as they shout out the changes for one chorus, then stop for the second. How can we develop skills to memorize these changes instantly? any interesting ways of thinking about changes that might work for you?

  3. Charlie

    Knowing your bass, and the sections of the song are the fundamentals. Then you only have to remember the sections that contain all the moves.

  4. I visualize the song while driving. I know that if I can see my fingers playing the song from start to finish in my mind, I am confident I will be able to remember it live.

  5. James Bird

    I’ve had couple of instances on stage where I’ve looked down at the set list for the next song and thought, “Uh oh, how does that one go?”. This was when I was younger and in a bunch of bands at the same time, that were all doing original songs. Sometimes a song would get from rehearsal room to stage in days and didn’t get time to bed in. The drummer does the count in and magically the subconscious takes over and I’m there. It can be terrifying but you have to relax into it, fear can paralyze, trusting yourself can be miraculous.

  6. I find that having even very basic notes jotted on the set list is helpful. Just knowing the key and verse/chorus chord changes will get you 90% of the way there. Solos and fills take care of themselves.

  7. Kelvin

    It can be a challenge for me because I’m usually a merc and I tend to get last minute calls to fill in for a missing performer and usually have to learn several songs on short notice. I try to “own” every song I have to play onstage. I sing it even when I’m not playing it, like when I’m driving or going for my walks. Plus being the bass player often means being an unofficial stage director where everyone looks at me for the cues of when a part changes. If anything really throws me it’s when someone else, usually the singer, goes to the wrong part. That’s when chaos ensues. Do you follow him or stay on the songs true path? I try to stand fast but what happens when half the band follows him? It can be a problem. More than any other instrument, when the bassist is playing the wrong part, it can be glaring and obvious even when it’s not his/her fault.