There is a philosophy that says muscular memory is so fickle that it is not to be trusted for memorised performances at all – know the music deeply enough on the mental and aural levels and the fingers will find their own way to the right keys. There are one or two pianists whose playing I greatly admire who operate like this, but I’m afraid it is a view I don’t subscribe to – as with all we do at the piano, so much depends on our pianistic legacy.

If leaving fingerings to chance like this would scare you, there are other pianists who learn two or three different fingerings for a passage in order to deliberately screw up the muscular memory. I would not want to risk getting my wires crossed when it came to the performance. No, I firmly believe that fingering needs to be worked out and written in the score.

For more on the topic of fingering, follow this link to my blog post Bespoke Fingerings

The way I challenge my muscular memory is by deliberately circumventing it, checking and reinforcing my knowledge of the score using my analytical mind and my ear. Transposition is a great way of doing this (more on this next week); making a two-handed arrangement of music intended for one hand is another.

Even though my experience has taught me memorisation is an activity best begun before we learn the notes – and continued as we learn them – it is possible to benefit from memorisation tools with a piece we have learned from the score.

Challenge: Take a piece you consider you know very well from memory. Keeping the score firmly closed, begin to play from memory, but only the LH.

It doesn’t matter if the LH is sharing material with the RH (parts of the accompaniment, odd melodic fragments, etc.) – just leave those RH elements out. it’s probably going to sound strange without the RH, but go with it. Know exactly what the LH contributes to the big picture.  I would usually suggest practising a fugue in individual parts and combinations of parts, but it is a great test of memory to see you if can play each hand separately regardless of the parts. You are going to get an extremely moth-eaten and nonsensical musical result but practising like this is well worth the effort.

If you know your piece very well, you may have found you did a reasonable job of playing the LH by itself. In that case, let’s move on to Stage 2 – using both hands to play the music the LH would be playing by itself. This is much more of a challenge, since you will be interfering with muscle memory – it’s a great test of how well you actually know the score.

Making a Two-Handed Arrangement of One Stave

This is a wonderful thing to do even if you have no plans to prepare the work from memory. Simply practise like this using the score and you’ll receive great benefit. Not only will you know the music more deeply, you’ll also be building up an accurate, full and rich sound picture. Using two hands, you’ll more easily produce a sonic blueprint of what you’re after. With this fresh in your ear, see if you can match the sounds using just the one hand. Alternate a two-handed version with the single-handed one until you can make them sound identical.

For more on this, follow the link to my blog post A Helping Hand

Tchaikovsky – October: Autumn Song

Let’s carry on with our plan of reinforcing the memory in the LH by making a two-handed arrangement of the contents of the lower stave. There is no one right way to do this and many possible ways. The arrangement can be varied each time, making sure the fingerings you come up give you the best musical results (certainly don’t write any of this fingering in). In Tchaikovsky’s October: Autumn Song, the obvious thing to do it to take the stems-up notes with the RH, and the stems-down notes with the LH. Do it again, this time the other way around. Play musically, with good phrasing and good sound.

Tchaikovsky 1

Here is how it would look if it were written out:

Tchaikovsky 2

Schubert – Impromptu in B flat

I’m going to take as my next example the first couple of bars of the B flat Impromptu of Schubert, probably many of you play it.

Schubert B flat

Here are just a few possible ways of making a two-handed arrangement of the LH stave, each one of which draws attention to a different facet of the music’s shape and structure, and poses a new challenge (RH plays upper stave; LH lower):

Schubert 1

Schubert 4

Schubert 2

Schubert 3

Schubert 5


Applications and Variations

  • Chordal passages can be practised taking some notes with one hand, the other notes with the other. When you repeat, do it the other way round. Don’t forget to apply this to the RH stave too – this should be less challenging, since the RH is generally the focus of our active listening more than what is going on underneath.
  • Here’s what I do myself but I would only suggest it to advanced students – play one hand normally and (very slowly) double it at the octave with the other hand. Thus, both hands are playing the contents of one stave. Do it both ways round, if the first way hasn’t already driven you mad.

The point of this exercise is to know the music on a much deeper level than would occur during routine drilling of the fingers over the course of time (which tends to stress muscular memory at the expense of aural perception and intellectual understanding). The problem with motor memory (or muscle memory) is that under pressure we can forget. We need to know the music on other levels as well. Even if we choose not to play from memory, a piece known thoroughly both from an aural and an intellectual perspective is bound to lead to a more convincing interpretation and playing that is richer and more secure.

For more detail on this and many other tools for memorisation, please check out Volume 3 of my eBook Series, Practising the Piano Part 4. 


Practising the Piano eBook Series Part 4

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