Ten Top Tips for Effective Memorisation: The Memory Game

Next week I’m coaching at the Overseas Masters Winter Piano Academy held at the Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey (UK). My classes will focus on sight-reading, studies and exercises, and memorisation. To prepare, I’ve been re-visiting notes and articles on these topics and found the following on memorisation techniques; it’s the first article I wrote for the Piano Professional Magazine (Autumn 2013 edition, Pg. 22-24), which is published by EPTA (the European Piano Teaching Association). If you teach the piano or wish to start teaching, you might consider joining this excellent organisation.

I hope these suggestions and ideas might be useful to those studying for their diplomas or teaching memorisation to students. There is a helpful PDF download at the end, with ten tips largely built on the ideas in the article.


The Memory Game

Hungarian virtuoso Franz Liszt (1811-1886) developed the concept of the solo piano recital and, as a result, the Romantic era became the golden age for the piano.

Liszt not only masterminded the solo recital but he devised how the piano was to be positioned on stage too; with the instrument side-on so that a pianist’s profile could be admired with the lid up facing the audience to ensure full volume. Crucially, he was also the first pianist to play from memory in public.

This potent combination guaranteed total devotion from his fans and more importantly set the stage for all future piano recitals. Liszt apparently 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’

(Living With Liszt: From the Diary of Carl Lachmund, ed. by Alan Walker)

He benefitted tremendously from performing in this way and successfully conveyed a charismatic romantic image; one which he had worked hard to cultivate. However, for subsequent generations of pianists, who have since made the concert platform their home, playing from memory has indeed been the cause of much misery. There are, of course, pianists who find memorisation a fairly straight forward process and would indeed never want to play with the score, but for most, playing from memory can cause grief and terror.

Today’s concert pianist is expected to play their entire repertoire from memory (with the exception of complex Twentieth Century works and chamber music). Successful memorisation often eludes students and they rely on learning a work digitally, praying their hands and fingers will remember where to go during performances. This approach doesn’t bode well because stress will often intervene and cause the dreaded memory lapse.

Those taking amateur music exams are not required to play from memory but if you are preparing for a concert or music festival it’s a good idea to be brave and perform without the music as it shows you really ‘know’ your piece. There are many unexpected advantages to memorisation and perhaps one of the most important is a regular brain ‘workout’. There is no doubt that once the human brain learns to retain and process information then this generally becomes a habit and one which can be very useful in many different life situations.

Memorisation does put extra pressure on public performance. A pianist needs to develop a different kind of mind-set entirely in order to perform large concert programmes without the score accurately. If you know you are going play a piece from memory before learning begins, the best approach is to learn in a very focused way from the outset, making a conscious effort to memorise every bar, nuance and phrase as you are going along. A lot of memorisation takes place in the early learning stages as you become more familiar with a work, therefore it saves much time and energy if you are able to capitalize on this, rather than to study a piece by repeated reading and focus on memorising it at a later date.

Memorisation can be a daunting prospect particularly if you have never done it before. However, this should not deter you because it is entirely possible to develop this skill at any point in your piano playing career, and your confidence will soar when you become accustomed to playing without the score. Many find memorisation ultimately affords greater freedom.

There are so many ways to enhance your memorisation technique and if you implement many of the following suggestions, you will be well on the way to developing a reliable memory.

Here are four popular methods;

Visual memory

Try to remember what the music looks like on the page. At first you might recall certain patterns of notes, key signatures or where particular passages occur in the score. This is photographic memory. It helps to keep going through the work in your mind, first of all with the score in front of you and then without the music away from the piano. The latter is a skill that is really worth developing as it allows for mental practice which can be a very useful tool.

It’s best not to rely too much on looking at your hands as this type of memory can cause problems or memory slips during a performance if not backed up with other types of memorisation.

It might be a good idea to remember or recall the physical gestures involved in playing a piece; certain movements and finger patterns can act as a guide for example. Perhaps memorise difficult passages first then practise them as a technical exercise every day.

Auditory or Aural Memory

Listen to everything you play meticulously. This might seem an obvious instruction but many do not consciously ‘hear’ what they are playing or learning.

Most humans have the ability to remember a tune and this is really about nurturing that skill to a highly sophisticated level. As with many skills, it takes a while for the mind to assimilate all the nuances that occur in a piano piece but eventually you will learn to ‘hear’ everything you play from start to finish.

Kinesthetic or Muscular Memory

The ability to remember or recall all the actual physical sensations and movements; remembering the finger patterns and shapes as well as arm, hand or wrist motions, pedalling, note repetitions and repetitive patterns. Fingerings also really help memorisation which is one of the many reasons why fingering is such an important element in piano playing.

Play through the piece each hand separately without the score; this is especially helpful for the bass or left hand. Practising and concentrating on the left hand really is a crucial part of developing piano technique so it may be beneficial to always practice the left hand first and commit it to memory securely at the same time.

You could trust your instincts and try to play a work through in the dark; can you feel your way around the instrument and play everything precisely? This is a challenge but good fun too; it’s quite difficult just to find the correct place to start your piece.

Intellectual Memory

Undoubtedly the most important element in your memory armour; it involves total ‘immersion’ in the score. You must know your piece backwards.

Look out for typical signs in the music that will ‘jog’ your memory; key changes, chord progressions, scale passages, large leaps, dynamics etc. All these elements will support successful memorisation.

Thoroughly study the structure of a work and assess the style. The way it has been constructed, particularly harmonic structure as this helps with the sound as well. To do this you need to have studied music theory so that you are familiar with four-part harmony, chord progressions, cadences, key changes and counterpoint etc. It can help to break down complex florid or rapid passagework into chords or make a skeleton of the harmonic pattern in a movement or work, so that harmonic progressions are realised and assimilated.

My tips and suggestions:

Visualisation can be a useful tool or method. This is the ability to form mental pictures of events, images or situations. Aural visualisation is sometimes known as the ‘inner ear’ which allows a pianist to hear how the melody, harmony, dynamics and all details found in the music, will sound, in other words, ‘predicting’ the sound before it actually happens. If the ‘inner ear’ is working well, then the pianist’s fingers know what they must do in order to produce the sound. This technique can be especially effective and has been used by many artists, not only musicians. Sit quietly and imagine playing the whole piece through from beginning to end; see every hand position or movement, in effect ‘watch’ yourself play the piece. You might be surprised at just how much concentration this involves. Some find it helpful to see themselves actually sitting on the stage or wherever the performance will take place.

The trick to successful memorisation is thorough structural knowledge of a piece combined with a strong awareness of the musical or expressive qualities. Emotional connections seem to really aid memory (I have found this to be the case not only with my own playing but also with that of colleagues and students too).

Hearing the music in your mind really helps, especially focusing on the way it affects you emotionally. By learning and thinking in this way you will never forget any detail in your piano piece. Learn to play from the heart; the music needs to be part of your soul. Musicianship and interpretation play a vital role in memory but they are frequently over looked. Ostensibly, the concept behind this is that you will be so focused on the expressive and interpretive qualities that your mind won’t be overly concerned with memory or the detrimental thoughts of a possible lapse. This last point can be imperative as it’s connected to many aspects of performing; a positive mind-set really does help when memorising. An ‘I can’ attitude goes a long way, so try to quell the negative mental chatter or the ‘inner voice’ that can frequently undermine a performance.

Even after methodical analysis and careful preparation, it’s still possible to get into a muddle on stage. Nerves can sabotage practice and preparation so what do you do when a memory slip occurs? Whatever happens, don’t stop playing. Some pianists have the ability to extemporize or improvise when they lose where they are in the score until they are able to ‘find themselves’.

The majority of classical pianists don’t improvise, so an effective strategy is to make sure that you know your piece in sections and are able to ‘jump’ quite cleanly from one passage or ‘section’ to another. Try to memorise in small sections, passages or ‘chunks’ (the more sections you break the piece into the better and you are completely free to break the work down as you wish); learn the piece so you know each section thoroughly. If a memory slip does occur then you won’t be too flummoxed and will be able to keep playing to the end of the work. It’s not advisable to ‘go back’ and play the elusive passage again as this just encourages another slip and may make you even more frustrated. Once it has gone from your mind it doesn’t usually miraculously reappear a few minutes later, so it’s best to move on and finish the piece in a convincing way. Also, be able to pick up the piece from anywhere, so that if you do have a memory lapse you will always be able to keep going. It might be an idea to try to completely eradicate the slip from your mind too otherwise you will be constantly thinking about it for the rest of the performance.

I use the following strategy in my memorisation classes and students have found this helpful:

  1. Listen to the work before you start learning it and observe the score carefully. Be aware of how the work makes you feel and spend time focusing particularly on interpretation.
  2. Take a short passage (perhaps a four bar phrase or a line or two of a piece) and start by memorising the left hand on its own, and then the right hand. Be able to play them through accurately without the music, noting all the unusual features (i.e. large leaps, scale passages etc.). Also pay special attention to fingerings as they can be very useful as a memorisation aid. When you have done this you may find it beneficial to reverse the roles and play the left hand line with the right hand and vice versa. This allows your mind to really know the shape of the musical lines rather than only relying on digital learning which can be dangerous. Practising a line of music with one finger at a time can be advantageous too.
  3. Then play the passage hands together using the score at first then taking it away as soon as possible. Observe which passages you find difficult to recall. Work thoroughly on those areas (by repeating as well as mentally finding patterns to remember). Most passagework has some unusual feature which will help act as a ‘signpost’. The more ‘signposts’ you can find the better.
  4. Sing the melodies in your piece and then play them with and without the accompaniment so that you become even more aware of the musical structure. Another valuable exercise at this point may include playing the accompanying material in a piece from memory or playing the accompaniment with the bass line first (if there is one) and then with the melody line. It can be helpful to do all this at slow speeds allowing your mind to digest the musical lines and phrases.
  5. Work the passage up to tempo with a metronome but without using the score. It’s really important to emphasize how repetition really does assist memory. As mentioned earlier, it’s a good idea to play the piece or the sections within your piece without the score as soon as possible so that your fingers and brain accustom themselves to this swiftly.
  6. Repeat steps 2 – 5 on other sections of the piece.
  7. Practice other pieces before coming back to test your memory during practice sessions. You will probably find that you can’t remember every detail at this stage. Memory takes time and persistence so just keep working on it.
  8. Test your memory on the same passages the next day (and on consecutive days) before resuming working on other sections in the piece.

Once you have committed your piece to memory, work at it backwards, i.e. playing and analysing the last phrase first. Learning backwards can really work well and professionals sometimes employ this method.

Young children will generally memorise far more easily than adults, and we all have highly individual ways of remembering music. The success of memorisation is normally just persistent practice and sometimes it’s necessary to have a memory lapse or a stumble under pressure whilst playing in public, because only then do we realise what we must do to safeguard our memory for the next performance. Don’t expect to memorise in one practice session either, memory takes time and work, so divide your piece into small sections or passages and you will make progress every day. Good luck!

Ten Top Tips for Effective Memorisation

So you want to play the piano photo 5

© Melanie Spanswick


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.


More Memorising tips

That poor piano...

I had some interesting responses to the post I wrote a few days ago dealing with memorisation (which you can read here). It was suggested that I should also focus on what happens when memory fails – i.e. a memory slip! So here are my thoughts on this incredibly stressful event in any pianists life. Memory slips happen to virtually everybody at some point and they can be difficult to ‘get over’ because lots of courage is needed to get back on stage and try again. However, this is a must if a pianist is to overcome the problem.

Whilst Liszt and Clara Schumann both loved to play from memory (and indeed invented the concept), it does put so much extra pressure on public performance. A pianist needs to develop a different kind of mind set entirely in order to perform large concert programmes without the score effectively. If I know I am going play a piece from memory before learning begins, I approach it in a different way from the outset thus making  a conscious effort to memorize every bar, nuance and phrase as I’m going along. A lot of memorisation takes place in the early learning stages as you become more familiar with the piece.

One problem with memorising digitally i.e. fingerings, note patterns, shapes on the keyboard and how the work ‘feels’ under the fingers (although this type of memory is normal and should be cultivated), is that it makes forgetting very easy. Reliable memorisation really comes from thinking about the music and analyzing it. If you can spend time working through the piece away from the piano looking at the structure and form, then this will be a great help when playing without the score. It was also aid your interpretation skills too.

Even after methodical analysis and careful preparation, it is still possible to get into a muddle on stage. Nerves often undermine practice and preparation so what do you do when a memory slip occurs? Whatever happens, don’t stop playing! Some pianists have the ability to extemporize or improvise when they lose where they are in the score until the ‘find themselves’; apparently Vladimir Horowitz, amongest others, was blessed with this ability and used it from time to time.

I can’t improvise at all sadly, so I make sure that I know the piece in sections and am able to ‘jump’ quite cleanly (hopefully!) into another section or passage of the work. I find it’s not helpful to ‘go back’ and play the elusive passage again as this just encouarges another slip and can make you more and more frustrated and upset too. Once it has gone from your mind it doesn’t seem to reappear miraculously a few minutes later so it is best to move on and finish the piece in a convincing way. I find it helpful to try to completely eradicate the slip from my head otherwise I am constantly thinking about it for the entire recital.

I hope this is helpful to those working on their memory skills. Everybody finds their own way of remembering ultimately and the main factor in successful memorisation is to do it regularly in front of an audience thus building confidence. 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.


 

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.