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 to play the music that normally one hand will play. In other words, we make a two-handed arrangement of the notes in the bass (or treble) stave. This is supplementary to playing the left hand alone from memory, where one is still able to rely on muscular memory. Again, there is no one right way to do this, and many possible ways. The arrangement can be varied each time. For example, in Tchaikovsky’s “October: Autumn Song”, you can do this by taking the lower stave and playing stems-up with one hand, stems-down with the other.

It is both educational and fun (if not a little frustrating) to play the left hand music with the right hand, and vice versa. Because you are recreating the sounds using different muscles, you will be relying solely on your aural/analytic memories. I usually recommend doing this slowly and hands separately. It can be done hands together (in other words, with crossed hands), but this can be very hard to coordinate. Do it sparingly and very slowly, perhaps only for problem places.


In his student edition of Chopin’s Study op. 10 no. 1, Alfred Cortot suggests that, after the work has been perfected, playing in every key while keeping the fingerings of the key of C will prove excellent practice (A. Cortot, ed., Chopin: Twelve Studies, op. 10. (Paris: Salabert, 1957), 8.). Testing the memory by means of transposition is certainly excellent practice, but it is not necessary to use all twelve keys. Two or three different keys will suffice, and only for sections of the work that prove especially troublesome. Testing the memory in this way will enhance one’s understanding of the harmonic functions and the patterns of the music in general that one may miss or take for granted in the original key.

Stopping Practice

This work deliberately interrupts the muscular memory. One plays a predetermined section (a bar, a phrase, or a bigger section) and imagines the next section with the hands removed from the keyboard before rejoining the keyboard and playing the next section. It is important that the hands not drum on the lap during the silent passage, as this is making sly use of the muscular memory. Hear the music in your head; imagine the hands on the keyboard. Variants of this process are:

  • Play the left hand alone for one bar, the right hand alone for the next, and so on without pausing
  • Repeat the process, playing the bars you have previously imagined, and imagining the bars you have previously played
  • On command, remove one hand and continue playing with the other. On the next command, rejoin the keyboard with the other hand, and so on. This is challenging, as the commands will come suddenly and in unexpected places (this needs the assistance of another person)


Divide the music into sections like tracks on a CD recording, and mark these in the score. The greater the number of tracks, the safer the memory will be. Be able to start at the beginning of any track. Try beginning from a track, deliberately stopping after a few bars and skipping to the beginning of the next track. You can also back up, from track 3 back to track 2, for example. Playing tracks in a random order also helps. This builds in much more security than you need, so you will stress less.


This technique has been hailed in many fields, especially sports science, medicine, and holistic therapies. For musicians preparing for a performance, the idea is to imagine yourself playing in as vivid detail as possible, while at the same time feeling the emotions evoked by the music, as well as a calm state of mind in the presence of examiners or an audience. Imagine yourself feeling calm, confident and relaxed just before the examination or before you go onstage. Hear yourself playing the music, and see your hands and fingers execute their tasks as though through the lens of a video camera. For those with a good visual memory, imagine the notes on the page. Use all of your senses as vividly as possible. Scientists believe that this technique creates neural pathways in the brain which are followed in actual performance. Many memory slips happen because of negative self-talk.

When memorising new pieces having used these techniques, remove the score from the piano desk as soon as possible and place it on a chair behind. The reflexes for performance need to be established early on in the learning, and having the score on the desk gives false comfort. Also, one can peek without even realising it! This way, you have to stop playing to refer to the score.


Some of us memorise quickly and easily, others take longer and are less secure under stress. These techniques are like buying security features for the home: the more you have, the safer you feel. I have had students who realise they need them only after they have been in trouble. Use those that help you, and leave the rest (how we memorise is highly individual). Young children will memorise much more naturally than adults, and it would be better not to interfere with this natural process until necessary. Even if one chooses not the play from memory in the end, using these techniques means that the music is known on deeper levels than could ever happen from repeated readings.

Further Reading

For more on memorisation, please see Part 4 of my multimedia eBook series(the third section is entirely devoted to memorisation) or the following links:

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