Memorising your piano pieces

‘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 (pictured above) 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!


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

How should I practice my scales?

The music exam season is virtually upon us and so  the inevitable question of scale practice arises.  Whether you are taking Grade 1 or Grade 8, you will need to practice your scales regularly. There is always a strong temptation to just play them through quickly moving on to more interesting parts of your exam. Try not to do this. Scales can be both fun and  rewarding as well as a real challenge. Think of them as little adventures up and down your keyboard and relish the fact that your fingers and hands can play at speed with excellent co-ordination.

It can be a good idea to establish a practice schedule when tackling scales. It’s not so important when taking the lower grades but when you reach Grade 5 and above there are many scales/keys to learn so aim to work at them methodically.

1. One way to make sure each scale is worked at regularly is to have a little practice chart looking at 3 or 4 keys per day in rotation. Then you can practice all the different technical exercises in those keys; similar motion scales, thirds/sixths apart, contrary motions and all forms of arpeggios. This is very effective and ensures complete preparation.

2. Once you have established this chart, take your time with each key fully absorbing and memorizing each key signature. It can be too easy to blindly practise E major without really knowing it contains four sharps and is related to C sharp minor! All these things are important and can help build your confidence so when the examiner asks you to play a scale in the exam, you don’t get flustered.

3. Fingering is so important when playing scales and without real adherence to it you will be unable to play at speed. So really learn the suggested scale fingerings as you start playing each scale and then stick to them. Separate hand practice can help here.

4. Always start practising slowly so that both hands are well co-ordinated and try to produce a full tone or sound as this will help build up finger strength. Gradually increase the speed over a few weeks.

5. Scales should be played rhythmically and with purpose. Some students find it a good idea to practice them with a metronome. If you don’t fancy this, then you need to find a way of establishing a regular pulse.

Here are a few tips to make scale practice easy. Start enjoying your scales – they CAN be fun!!


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


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Do music examiners account for nerves?

Do music examiners account for nerves? Several readers have asked me this question recently. Everybody feels some kind of anxiety before an exam. It doesn’t really matter what type of test is being taken, it’s just the fear of being scrutinized. Some students deal with nerves better than others and the most effective way to cope is to be very well prepared. I have already written about performance anxiety several times on my blog as it is a hugely important topic and you can read my suggestions here.

Examiners do bear in mind just how nerve wracking a music exam can be – they know that students are human and will make mistakes. However, they will only mark what they hear and are likely to comment if too many errors are made. It is worth remembering that even if you don’t play to your usual standard due to nerves, but have fulfilled the basic exam criteria and manage to play reasonably well, then you will pass.

Candidates exhibit nerves in different ways; some will forget scales, others will restart one of their pieces. If the errors are fairly minor (and they generally are amongst most candidates) then very few marks will be lost and the overall result won’t be affected too much. It’s easy for candidates (especially adults) to magnify their errors whilst in the exam room. They let the odd mistake create worry and doubt in their minds. This negative thinking can affect the rest of the exam so it’s best not to dwell on past imperfections.

If you have prepared extremely well for you piano exam and have had several practice runs (to friends and family or maybe other pupils at your teacher’s practice) then you should feel confident. This is the only way to deal with pre exam worry. The examiner DOES want you to get a good mark so try to enter the exam with a really positive mindset and don’t let the odd wobbly moment undermine your ability. Remember most students do pass and you should be no exception. Good luck.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.