Memorising your piano pieces

Franz Liszt: Photo courtesy of www.stephenhicks.org

‘Who developed the concept of playing from memory?’ This question is pursued on the lips of  many piano pupils, conservatoire students, and professionals. Memorising a work  (playing without the score or committing a work to your memory) certainly puts an extra strain on an artist. Every note must be meticulously rehearsed and learned to the point of distraction (or might I suggest obsession in some cases). Whilst a small number pianists find memorising a piano piece a relatively easy task, others struggle and live in fear of the errant memory lapse on stage. So who do we have to thank for this sometimes gargantuan task?

The piano came into its own in the middle of the 19th century during the Romantic era; before this period, pianists would have been lucky to appear briefly in a concert and they certainly would not have played from memory.

A pianist then came along who changed all that forever; Hungarian pianist and composer, Franz Liszt (1811-1886). Liszt single handedly developed the concept of the solo recital (his word too). Before Liszt it was unthinkable to have a whole evening concert featuring one artist playing just one instrument. Liszt recognised the power of the virtuoso not just by the idea of a pianist playing incredibly complex and flashy pieces that run all around the keyboard (although this can be impressive), but also the importance of image and crucially stage presence and charisma. He cultivated almost rock star status and was pursued and idolized everywhere he went. This was partly down to the way he approached performing (as well as his beautiful piano playing and his good looks!).

Liszt not only developed the solo recital idea but he devised how the piano was to be positioned on stage too (with the piano side-on so that the pianist’s profile can be admired and the lid up facing the audience to ensure full volume). He was also the first pianist to play from memory. This potent combination guaranteed total devotion from his fans and more importantly set the stage for all future piano recitals for the next 200 odd years. In his lessons and masterclasses (the masterclass was another Liszt brainchild), he often commented on the importance of playing without the score;

‘Look up and away from the keys, and you will play with greater inspiration. Neglect of this is the cause of much of the crippled playing one hears’.

Liszt benefitted tremendously from performing in this way and successfully conveyed the romantic image he worked so hard to cultivate. However, for those mere mortals who have since made the concert platform their home over subsequent generations, playing from memory has indeed been the cause of much misery.

Today a concert pianist cannot be taken seriously unless he or she plays everything without the score and many students are frequently perplexed as to how to sucessfully memorise pieces. Those taking amateur music exams are not required to play from memory but if you are preparing for a school concert or music festival it’s a good idea to be brave and perform without the music as it tends to give a more polished performance and shows you really ‘know’ your piece.

So here are a few basic tips for all those interested in developing their memory skills:

1. If you know you are going to commit the piece to memory then start memorising from the outset. As you learn the note patterns and fingerings make sure your fingers and brain are memorising carefully as you progess line by line (or bar by bar).

2. Look out for obvious signs in the music that will ‘jog’ your memory; key changes, chordal progressions, scalic passages, large leaps etc. All these elements will aid memorisation. They will act as sign posts.

3. It’s best not to rely solely on digital memory (i.e through the fingers) alone. This is one way to come unstuck during performance. A better idea is to have a thorough knowledge of the work’s structure particularly the harmonic structure. Study it methodically and intellectually even before you start memorising.

4. You will benefit from knowing the piece aurally, digitally and mentally before you work on the interpretation. One tip I always find useful when memorising is to concentrate on the interpretation and on ‘hearing’ the music in my mind, epecially focusing on the  way it affects me emotionally. By doing it this way  you will never forget anything.

Under pressure, our memory sometimes lets us down so do make sure you have many practice performances without the score before your ‘big’ concert. Good luck and happy memorising!

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12 thoughts on “Memorising your piano pieces

  1. Enjoyed reading this artlicle Mel!! Always interested in reading how Liszt and us mere mortals learn the art of memorisation. I find also visualising the music in front of you helps. Imagining the various patterns and the physical image of the music can trigger the fingers into the next section. Of course, like all practise, the more varied the better. Relying on just one method isn’t always safe!

    • Thanks Craig – you are so right – never rely on one memorizing method – visualising music is a great idea too 🙂

  2. Very good synopsis of the history, issues, and approaches. One other thing that is useful to learn is how to keep going if you do have a memory slip. Part of it is simply deciding ahead of time that you will NOT STOP no matter what happens, but there’s also an element of figuring out how not to live in fear of a slip, because such fear tends to make one contract physically and emotionally and block out expressiveness. Any words of wisdom on that aspect? Thanks —

    • Thanks so much Harriet. Great observation – how to keep going is so important isn’t it? – and it is all mental as you say – I will write another blog post as you suggest.

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  5. Dear Mel,

    Really useful pointers.Memorizing every piece we play also helps “maintaining” performance proficiency at concert level, especially when practising as though it was the concert night itself and not stopping no matter what happens.

    When we play with the score, we make sounds with our brains. When we play without the score, we make music from our hearts.

    • Dr. Alan Walker sites Liszt as the first pianist to ‘consistently’ play with the piano positioned so the audience would see his profile. This would suggest that any other pianist/s who did this were experimenting and therefore were not regarded as important or influential in this respect…..

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