Mastering Memorization

Memorization is one of the biggest hurdles for marching band and color guard students, but a few helpful tips can make all the difference.

Directors expect their students to simultaneously memorize music, drill and routine, demanding perfection at every turn. This situation can prove stressful for marchers, but some tried-and-true memorization techniques will save you valuable time and effort.

Chunk It

Memory experts agree that “chunking”—the process of breaking larger pieces of information into individual “chunks”—can greatly improve memory retention. Musicians: break up songs into smaller sections, maybe a phrase or two at a time. This method of practicing can also make it easier to master tough fingerings. Then rehearse transitions to bring it all together.

For the color guard, instructors usually teach routines in “chunks” of eight to 32 counts at a time. Start practicing the first and master it before moving onto the second. If the routine and drill counts don’t match, take the time to change them, so they do. And do your footwork! Even if you’re only marking time, it will help when you head to the field.

Voice It

When learning color guard routines, count out loud. For particularly tough sections, substitute words in place of some counts. For example, you might say, “1, 2, and-up, hit, 5, down, and-toss, catch.” Another variation of this is to sing through each set. If your music does not have words, try counting or humming in tune with the melody.

If you’re really struggling with remembering a section, grab a friend and take turns teaching each other. Through teaching the routine, your brain processes the information at a higher level. Ever notice how the captains and coaches don’t struggle with memorization? Teaching makes it stick.

Read It

For musicians, alternate between playing with and without looking at the music, gradually relying less and less on reading the chart. Practicing away from the instrument can be a big help too. If you don’t have enough time to get out your instrument and play, take your music along with you wherever you go—you’ll be surprised when you can find small amounts of time to memorize. You can read the music and memorize between classes, on the bus, at the dentist’s office and even in the bathroom.

Repeat It

In the end, it all comes down to repetition. The more times you repeat a difficult section correctly, the more likely you will remember when it counts. Research has found that human brains require an average of seven repetitions to commit information to memory, but once you memorize something incorrectly, you need as many as 35 more repetitions to correct what you learned—so be sure what you’re repeating is right!

Make a goal of ten perfect “reps” in a row. If, say, on your sixth repetition you make a mistake, start counting again at one. It takes extra time, but the results are worth the effort.

About author

Catina Anderson

Catina Anderson has been involved in the marching arts for almost 30 years, first as a performer and then as an instructor. She is the founder/editor of, a website for color guard coaches. She earned a bachelor’s degree at Towson University and a master’s degree in education from Marymount University.