memory

The Floating Fermata

So you’re learning a new piece and you’ve done as much slow and separate-hands work as you feel is penance enough – at least for today – and now you want to play the darned thing through up to speed and just enjoy. Sounds familiar? My first suggestion is go ahead and try that, see what happens. If you are consistently able to play accurately, fluently and comfortably then chances are you have indeed done enough groundwork. But if you find yourself stumbling, baulking, stiffening up or playing wrong notes, rhythms and fingerings then it would seem that the playing is not yet capable of being on autopilot and you still need the help of your brain! You need to dig the foundations still deeper and slow down while you process the information from the score. Call on your inner craftsman and take pleasure in the building process itself, knowing the playing will be stronger and more secure later on as a result. You will reap what you now sow. There are several practice tools I use as a bridge between the slow, painstaking work and the exhilaration of playing through at speed. I have written about these extensively in Volume 1 of my ebook series on The Practice Tools, but I would like to share one with you here that is extremely effective. I call it The Floating Fermata. The Floating Fermata When we listen to unprocessed playing, we are aware of frequent stops and pauses while the player figures out what is supposed to be happening next. They are suffering from buffering, the playing sounds like a clip that hasn’t fully loaded. All might go well for a few bars and then there […]

Tackling a Programme

I had an interesting question from a reader in Australia, so this week I thought I would address the issue of how to learn a programme consisting of multiple pieces. Do keep your questions coming in, I will do my best to answer them. Q. I want to learn to play, say, two sonatas, or six difficult pieces, or (if have just started to play) three small “easy” pieces. How should I learn them? Say the sonatas have three movements each. Should I learn one movement at a time until I have it under my belt, and then go to the next, do the same, and afterwards go and learn the third? Once completed, do I then start the next sonata and learn it in the same way, or would it be more (or less) productive to start learning all six movements at the same time? A. The question is an excellent one as it shows how necessary it is to bring planning, organisation and time management skills into the practice room. Assuming I want to have all these pieces peak together, let’s work backwards from the end point. For example, if my recital or exam date is March 1st, I will need to aim to be fully prepared two weeks before that. Prior to that, I’ll need to arrange three run-throughs in front of different people (teacher, trusted friends, piano meet-up group, festival, etc.). The stages of our work will look approximately like this: Day of exam or recital. The week or so before: under-tempo run-throughs combined with spot practice and general maintenance (including some slow practice and using the memory tools). Marking (going over lightly) the programme, some visualisation, relaxation techniques if needed. Have […]

By |February 28th, 2014|Performing|8 Comments

A Tool for Memory Work: Tracking

Memorising a piece takes plenty of time and energy, and requires a strategy more sophisticated than simply closing the score after several weeks of reading it. Some memory work is like buying insurance – you hope you’ll never actually need it! While some pianists memorise easily, others struggle with it and never really feel confident. We’ve all been in that horrible situation where for the life of us we can’t remember what comes next, even though we know we know the piece inside out and backwards. I have written in depth about memorisation – have a look at The Analytic Memory and Tools for Memorisation. Here is a tool for when you have done a certain amount of groundwork memorising a piece, but you want something extra to strengthen and test your memory – I call it tracking. You can use it for any piece, long or short and I guarantee it will work a treat. Mark the Score If you don’t want to mark up your original score, make a copy for the purposes of this exercise. Divide the piece up into meaningful units that you’re going to number like tracks on a CD. The tracks can be as long or as short as you want, but the unit you choose should at least be a phrase. You might prefer a longer section, but here short is good! I have divided up Chopin’s Nocturne in B, op. 32, no. 1 into 12 tracks in all. The score will end up looking something like this (I am showing page 1 only): Practice Suggestions With the marked score away from the piano (preferably over the other side of the room but certainly out of sight), here are some suggestions for […]

Back Up!

In an effort to assist students with their learning, I will often ask for the beginning and the end of the piece in a lesson. Or perhaps even work on the last movement a bit before embarking on the first (I have written about this in a previous post so I won’t repeat myself here). If I didn’t do this the beginnings would always tend to be better than the endings, because they have received more time, attention and repetition. I would like to offer a couple of thoughts for backwards practice that I think will help to shift problems as well as provide a bit of variety in the practice routine. Practising Backwards – Phrase by Phrase I was very happy to hear Simone Dinnerstein talk about this type of practice in a radio interview she gave on Performance Today (listen from 6:40, although the whole interview is interesting). I have been doing this for years, and can attest to its enormous value. The purpose of this is to strengthen memory by training us to break the habit of knowing the music only in sequence. If we know a piece only in relation to the phrase or section that has come before it, we are at serious risk of a breakdown if we lose our place in performance. Practising like this means we know our piece literally backwards as well as forwards! Play the last phrase (or section) of a the piece. Go back to the phrase (or section) before that, and now play the two phrases in sequence. Repeat this process until you reach the beginning. Our natural tendency to start at the beginning means we are often more comfortable with beginnings than endings. An added bonus of this […]

Write it Out!

Back in the 90s when I used to commute from London to New York each month to see students there, I was thinking of a profitable way of filling in the flying time. During that period, I was preparing for my first few performances of The Goldberg Variations and decided to do something I had heard Rosalyn Tureck speak about – write out the piece from memory in manuscript. Naturally, this took many hours over the course of some months, but I succeeded in doing it and it was a real eye-opener. Did I know the music absolutely, or was I relying on fingers slyly drumming on my tray table to prod me when I hit a blank? In all honesty, I probably did recourse to some mile-high finger twiddling but my aim was to draw on my ear and my brain, which I managed to do by and large but certainly not perfectly. It was an exercise that proved far from easy, but I am extremely glad I did it. It gave me extra confidence that I ended up knowing the piece deeply from memory. This was going to extremes, I fully recognise (frankly, life is too short). However, I often do find myself writing out a small section (it might be a bar or two, or a phrase) that does not seem to succumb to the rigours of routine practising. Students often say “I always go wrong there!”, but if you always go wrong there, then knowing this fact is a surely a gift as the problem should beget a solution. Write that bit out, I suggest. It doesn’t even have to be from memory – just copy those few bars out. I would suggest old-fashioned […]

Firm Foundations

A late, esteemed colleague who had amazing sight reading skills once told me he never read through more than once a new piece he was about to learn. It was just too risky for him – on a second reading he would already have been forming habits that would hinder him in the finished version, when it eventually rolled off the other end of the production line. This might be sloppy fingering, sketching (rather than etching) accompanimental figuration, or even learned-in wrong notes. Yes, practice makes permanent and habits are formed alarmingly quickly. Let’s make sure they are good habits rather than bad ones. A mañana attitude to proper learning of a piece, while giving us a limited amount of instant pleasure is actually the shoddiest possible of foundations if we have any aspirations to perform it at any point in the future. If we allow ourselves repeated buskings where we guess at those passages we don’t have the patience to work out thoroughly, or gloss over others where our random fingering is clearly not working, we can expect a shoddy end result – no matter how much time we put in later. By then it is often too late, and we can expect to reap what we have sown, no matter how lofty our vision of the music or how talented we are. Just think how much time, energy and money has been spent today propping up The Leaning Tower of Pisa compared with how much it cost to erect it in the first place! Good practice habits not only enable us to feel good about our work and about our playing, they allow a structure to emerge from rock, enabling it to withstand the forces of […]

Mirror Mirror On The Wall

I once had to do up someone else’s tie and found the only way I could do it was to stand behind and pretend I was putting it on myself. I had simply forgotten which bit went over where, how the loop was formed, and so on. If you asked me how it was done, I wouldn’t be able to tell you, I could only show you. This is because the series of actions had long ago become unconscious and was now a muscular habit, a reflex. Playing the piano is a bit like this, except it is infinitely more complex! Let’s say a passage from a piece you have been playing for years suddenly goes awry for no apparent reason – perhaps the memory is giving you problems – one solution is to play it cross-handed. The left hand plays the right hand part, and vice versa. Do this extremely slowly, and maybe even arhythmically. Playing this way gives you a completely new experience of the passage, because you are using a totally different series of muscles. You have to think about each and every note, and its relationship to its neighbours – there’s no relying on motor memory. If you can do this, then you know the passage deeply – inside out, back to front and sideways. More to the point, you know you know it! Use this sparingly – it is certainly worth experimenting with, if you can bear it. SYMMETRICAL INVERSION There is another practice technique, whereby you create an exact symmetrical version in one hand of a passage you are playing in the other. You match identical fingers and intervals and play the mirror image of the other hand simultaneously. Virtuosos such […]

Tools for Memorisation

Here is the second part of my article MIND OVER MEMORY, published last year in Pianist Magazine. Remember, everyone who has ever played the piano in public has had that horrible experience of losing their way – including professionals and great artists. Here are some insurance policies you might want to consider taking out. Toold for Memorisation These tools may be used as part of the note-learning process (ideal), or after the notes have been learned, even partially, to check and reinforce the memory. One-finger Practice It may seem perverse to play a line from memory with one finger, but it is a marvellous tool for checking if the music is in the aural/analytic memories or merely in the muscular. If you only know the music by muscular memory, you’ll have difficulty doing this, and if it is only in the muscular memory, it might not be strong enough to withstand the stresses of performance. This technique works especially well for passage work and contrapuntal music (where two voices can be played simultaneously with one finger in each hand). If you are taking one line, you can ring the changes by playing the white notes, say, with one finger in one hand, and the black notes with one finger in the other hand. Making a Skeleton This involves playing only selected components of the music (from memory, of course!): Play the melody and bass lines minus accompanimental or background material Play the accompaniment alone, or the accompaniment with the bass line, etc. Play hands separately from memory, especially the left hand (the ear usually tends to focus on the right hand) Swapping Hands This is a glorified version of practising hands separately, by using both hands […]

The Analytic Memory

I have had several requests for an article on memorisation. Since I already wrote one last year for Pianist Magazine, entitled Mind Over Memory, I thought I would include it here. This is Part One, dealing with the most neglected aspect of memory, using one’s brain. Next week, I will give specific tools for memorisation. ***   ***   *** Mind Over Memory (Part One) What NOT to do: Learn the piece with the score until eventually you find you can play it without! While this method may work if you are playing in cosy situations (such as for yourself, a trusted teacher or a few friends), it will often let you down in a recital or exam when you are nervous because the stakes are higher. Why? Firstly, muscular memory tends to be easy come, easy go. Under the stress of performance, muscles tighten and the mind plays tricks that can cause memory cues to break down, sometimes irretrievably and always to the detriment of self confidence. Secondly, we must take steps to memorise actively, and not merely hope we remember. Given that the way we encode the information (practising) is vastly different from the way we decode it (performing), there is a considerable margin for error, and terror! I liken this to the tightrope artist who risks nothing when the rope is close to the ground, but everything when it is several meters up in the air. We have all found that as soon as we remove ourselves from our comfortable and familiar surroundings things can feel so totally different, as though we did not know the piece at all. To the student who complains that they can play it perfectly well at […]

A Short Essay on the Life of a Pianist

After a recent post, I received a request in the form of a comment from a reader, suggesting I might expand on my last paragraph. The last paragraph was as follows: I wonder how many people embark on serious piano studies because they want to be performers or because they are passionate about music, about the piano and about playing the piano? Public performance is quite a different thing, it’s not for the thin-skinned or the faint-hearted. The act of performance is an art in itself, distinct from one’s abilities as a musician or as a pianist. It is like any sort of performance art, be it acting, dancing, or walking the tightrope. Actually, walking the tightrope is an analogy I often use for performing solo piano works from memory in public. The only safety nets are the ones we build in during our practising, and I reckon I spend a huge amount of time and energy in my own practice securing the memory. This is basically the equivalent of spending a fortune on insurance policies you hope you never need to use. In his later years, the great pianist Sviatoslav Richter gave up playing from memory and brought his scores, along with a trusted page turner on to the platform with him. He even eschewed the limelight, preferring a muted lamp by the side of the piano. In interviews, he said the time spent memorising or maintaining the memory was no longer worth it, and that he could learn a multitude of new pieces in the time it would have taken him to attend to his memory. There are those, it seems, who were born to play the piano in public, and I don’t […]

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