For Emergencies Only

Guitarists have a performance standard to adhere to: we must play from memory. Granted it’s hard to turn pages and keep playing (anyone want to be a page turner?), but this creates another aspect of performance to take into account. Sometimes your memory works really well, but other times it doesn’t. So what happens if you forget?

The Memory Post

Most memorization is sequential. It’s very hard to start a piece from anywhere and just play it from memory. So if you have a memory slip in concert, memory being depended on what preceded it turns into a nightmare. Which is where the memory post comes in.

A memory post is a point in a piece from which you can start under any conditions. Obviously the beginning of a piece is one memory post. But you should build in other points as well. Sometimes these posts occur at musical junctions (in line with the form or phrases). Other times a memory post is just an aspect of the physical sheet music. I played the Prelude to Bach’s first cello suite for a recital two years ago, and to this day I still see, in my minds eye, where the page turn is–that’s one of my memory posts.

Let me give an example of how well placed memory posts can help. Last semester I was performing for the guitar studio at school, playing the prelude to BWV 995. I got the very end, within about 15 measures of finishing, and I blanked. The next measure wasn’t there–gone completely from my memory. But I had built in a memory post that was at the beginning of the second to last line of music. I was able to just jump ahead to it and finish the piece.

Is this the ideal solution? No, we should work towards not having memory slips. But having several memory posts throughout a piece is a way to prevent crashing and burning in performance should the worst happen.

How to Build a Memory Post

Most of us do this automatically because we rarely run a piece through completely. So we get really good at starting from specific points that give us trouble. To learn larger pieces, I break them up into manageable chunks. Any of those can be memory posts.

As you get closer to performance time and your practice shifts away from small sections and more towards complete pieces, practice starting from various points. This can also be mentally rehearsed by visualizing/audiating a piece starting from different points.

I think you’ll find this relatively easy to do. But practicing starting from you memory posts is a great way to build confidence. You’ll go into a performance knowing that you can deal with memory slips; that’s one less thing to worry about.

Posted on in Guitar Performance Tips


  • Daniel

    > we must play from memory


    Well, maybe not “must” but it’s a common performance practice I suppose. -Chris

  • Kier

    Good theory, learning how to deal with screwups in the middle of songs is vital. If you can’t recover, things can totally fall apart. If you can mess something up and cover it up, most people won’t even notice. I also think playing from memory is a must. Anyone can sit there with a book and read through a song. Memorising a set of songs is half the battle. I think it also makes you look much more professional on stage.