I first published this post way back in June, 2013, and it has been buried in the archives ever since. I decided to update it and republish after the subject of copying out music by hand came up in a recent lesson. You can do this from the score or from memory.
*** *** ***
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 pencil and paper for this – have manuscript paper sitting on the top of the piano, and devote a few minutes to this exercise. If you’ve run out of paper, here is a site you can print off free downloadable manuscript paper.
I invite you to try an experiment. Take a piece you consider you know very well, maybe something you have played regularly. Write out the first phrase from memory. Put the score way out of sight so you’ll not be tempted to peek. This is such an acid test that you may even find you baulk at the time signature, or the tempo indication, let alone the notes in the first bar.
Slips and Errors
In diagnosing your own mistakes, ask yourself if it really is a technical problem that causes you to stumble or an error in perception. In other words, do you really know what is going on in the bar in question without a shadow of doubt, or are you glossing over that LH bit? Are you absolutely certain which fingers should go where? How long is that bass note, exactly? If you’re not sure, there are a few ways to find out. Playing each hand alone at quarter speed is often a good way to find out, but if you’re up for a challenge – try writing it out!