I gave a sight-reading and memorisation workshop to a group of guitarists in Dorking (Surrey, UK) over the weekend. This might sound quite random, but these elements are most relevant, irrespective of the instrument. I don’t play the guitar at all, and have little knowledge about the technique required to play it, but the class (consisting of 14 (mostly) adult guitarists) seemed to really enjoy the suggestions and ideas, many of which we put into practice.
Guitarist Fiona Harrison (who arranged the course), also gave a fascinating talk entitled ‘How to learn the fretboard quickly’. It was all new to me, but I managed to read the charts and work out how to find notes on an instrument I had never played, with relative ease. We used a method of finding notes, by jumping designated intervals in order to ‘land’ in the correct place on the fretboard or fingerboard (the arm of the guitar where all the notes ‘live’). This took a certain amount of mathematical counting and a little bit of visualisation.
The latter element was discussed in some detail in my memorisation class. Visualisation can be a revelation when memorising music, but it’s useful for so much more than merely memory.
For those acquainted with mental imagery and positive imaginative thought processes, visualisation will be a frequent occurrence. By visualising events, in effect, ‘watching’ them happen in your mind (akin to running a video), you are thereby encouraging their fruition. This can be a useful tool when applied to piano playing.
Memorisation is the most obvious beneficiary, because by visualising playing a piece, whether that be watching yourself play it on stage or in a performance situation, or by literally observing each and every note as it is being played (this takes tremendous effort and concentration), the visual aspect most certainly aids thorough knowledge. However, for those who would rather not play from memory (or perhaps don’t need to), but want to learn pieces, sight-read, and play scales or exercises accurately, visualising can still play an important role.
Recognition of key signatures, scales, arpeggios, and chords progressions is that much easier if visualisation techniques have been employed. The keyboard provides the perfect foil for such ventures, as it is easily recollected in the mind.
Start by training your mind to ‘watch’ yourself play (I do it by focusing on my hands and fingers only). Spend some time ‘watching’ your fingers play easy scale patterns; you could begin with C major (aim to combine this with the relative minor (A minor), in order to constantly make mental connections). Observe the pattern of notes, the shape of the black note patterns (if any), fingerings, and how your thumb turns under the palm of the hand (and the hand over the thumb). Scrupulously ‘see’ every detail as each hand plays, and always do it away from the instrument. The thought process required may take a lot of energy and imagination to begin with.
Once you have run through scales or various easy exercises in your mind (whether played hands separately or hands together), you can move onto arpeggios, chromatic scales, and then basic chordal progressions (perhaps cadences in every key at first). It may take a while to come to terms with ‘playing’ certain exercises in this manner, but when you return to the keyboard to physically play them, hopefully, recalling them will be instantaneous, with fingering and note patterns ideally assuming an immediate familiarity. At this stage, you can start ‘watching’ yourself play longer pieces or perhaps certain passages within your piece. Concentration can be easily lost, so be patient; aim to meditate (or at least quieten your mind) before a visualisation session, in preparation for the focus this technique demands (I used to do this on long haul flights!).
Applying this concept to pieces, and to sight-reading particularly, can be just as valuable. When we play at sight, it’s much easier if we recognise the various note patterns, especially when relating to keys, scalic passages and chord shapes. But once a fair amount of visualisation has been employed over a period of time, all these potentially complicated components will feel increasingly comfortable and commonplace.
It’s entirely possible to visualise any aspect of piano playing, and once you’ve grasped the concept, you could spend hours away from the piano, literally watching your hands and fingers working at different repertoire, but all in your head. It doesn’t (and isn’t intended to) compensate for the reality of playing, but you may find, on your return to the keyboard, everything falls much more naturally in place.