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.