12. Learning, Memorizing, and Mental Play¶
There is no faster way of memorizing than to memorize when you are first learning a piece and, for a difficult piece, there is no faster way of learning than memorizing it. Start memorizing by learning how the music should sound: melody, rhythm, etc. Then use the sheet music to find and memorize each key on the piano for each note on the sheet music; this is called keyboard memory – you memorize how you play this piece on the piano, complete with the fingering, hand motions, etc. Some pianists use photographic memory, in which they photographically memorize the sheet music. If one were to take a sheet of music and try to memorize it note for note, this task would be impossibly difficult even for concert pianists. However, once you know the music (melody, chord structure, etc.), it becomes easy for everyone! This is explained in 6. Memorizing, where you will find more detailed discussions on how to memorize. I prefer keyboard memory to photographic memory because it helps you to find the notes on the piano without having to “read” the music in your head. Memorize each section that you are practicing for technique while you are repeating them so many times in small segments, HS. The procedures for memorizing are basically the same as those for technique acquisition. For example, memorization should be started HS, difficult sections first, etc. If you memorize later, you will have to repeat the same procedure again. It might appear that going through the same procedure a second time would be simpler. It is not. Memorizing is a complex task (even after you can play the piece well); therefore, students who try to memorize after learning a piece will either give up or never memorize it completely. This is understandable; the effort required to memorize can quickly reach the point of diminishing returns if you can already play the piece.
Two important items to memorize are the time signature (see b. What is Rhythm? (Beethoven’s Tempest, Op. 31, #2, Appassionata, Op. 57)) and
key signature (see d. Scales: Origin, Nomenclature and Fingerings). The time signature is easy to understand
and will help you to play with the correct rhythm. The key signature (how many
sharps or flats) is more complex because it does not tell you the precise key
(scale) that it is in (
C major, etc.). If you know that the composition is
in a major or minor scale, the key signature tells you the key; for example if
the key signature has no sharps or flats (as in Für Elise), it is in either
C major or
A minor (see d. Scales: Origin, Nomenclature and Fingerings). Most students know the major
scales; you will need to know more theory to figure out the minor keys;
therefore, only those with enough theory knowledge should memorize the key. If
you are not sure, memorize only the key signature. This key is the basic
tonality of the music around which the composer uses chord progressions to
change keys. Most compositions start and end with the base tonality and the
chords generally progress along the circle of fifths (see Ch. Two, 2.b). So
far, we know that Für Elise is either in
C major or
A minor. Since it
is somewhat melancholy, we suspect a minor. The first 2 bars are like a fanfare
that introduces the first theme, so the main body of the theme begins on bar 3,
which starts with
A, the tonic of
A minor! Moreover, the final chord is
also on the tonic of
A minor. So it is probably in
A minor. The only
A minor is
G# (see Table 1.III.5.b Ascending Harmonic Minor Scales), which we find in
bar 4; therefore we conclude that it is in
A minor. When you understand
these details, you can really memorize well.
Let’s revisit the time signature, which is
3/8; three beats per measure (bar),
an eighth per beat. Thus it is in the format of a waltz but musically, it
should not be played like a dance but much more smoothly because it is
melancholy and hauntingly romantic. The time signature tells us that bars like
bar 3 must not be played as two triplets because there are 3 beats. However,
there is no need to overly accent the first beat of every bar like a Viennese
Waltz. The time signature is clearly useful for playing musically and
correctly. Without the time signature, you can easily form incorrect rhythmic
habits that will make your playing sound amateurish.
Once students develop memorizing-learning routines that are comfortable for them, most of them will find that learning and memorizing together takes less time than learning alone, for difficult passages. This happens because you eliminate the process of looking at the music, interpreting it, and passing the instructions from the eyes to the brain and then to the hands. Material memorized when young (before about age 20) is almost never forgotten. This is why it is so critical to learn fast methods of technique acquisition and to memorize as many pieces as possible before reaching the later teen years. It is easier to memorize something if you can play it fast; therefore, if you have difficulty memorizing it initially at slow speed, don’t worry; it will become easier as you speed it up.
The only way to memorize well is to learn Mental Play (MP). In fact, MP is the logical and ultimate goal of all these practice methods that we are discussing because technique alone will not enable you to perform flawlessly, musically, and without getting nervous. Read III.6.j for more details on MP. With MP, you learn to play the piano in your mind, away from the piano, complete with accurate fingering and your concept of how you want the music to sound. You can use keyboard memory or photographic memory for MP, but I recommend keyboard memory for beginners because it is more efficient; for advanced players, keyboard memory and photographic memory are the same, since if you can do one, the other follows naturally. Whenever you memorize a small section, close your eyes and see if you can play it in your mind without playing it on the piano. Once you have memorized an entire piece HS, you should also be able to play the complete piece HS in your head. This is the time to analyze the structure of the music, how it is organized and how the themes develop as the music progresses. With practice, you will find that it requires only a small investment of time to acquire MP. Best of all, you will also discover that once solid MP is established, your memory is as good as it can get; you will have confidence that you will be able to play without mistakes, blackouts, etc., and will be able to concentrate on music. MP also helps technique; for example, it is much easier to play at a fast speed after you can mentally play it at that speed; very often, the inability to play fast originates in the brain. One benefit of MP is that you can practice it at any time, anywhere, and can greatly increase your effective practice time.
Memory is an associative process. Super memorizers (including some savants) and all concert pianists who can memorize hours of music depend on algorithms with which to associate their memory (whether they know it or not). Musicians are especially fortunate in this regard because music is precisely such an algorithm. Nonetheless, this “memory trick” of using music as an algorithm to memorize is seldom formally taught to music students; instead, they are often advised to keep repeating “until the music is in the hands”, which is one of the worst methods of memory because, as we shall see in d. Hand Memory, repetition results in “hand memory” which is a false type of memory that can lead to many problems, such as blackouts. With MP, you associate the music in your mind with how you produce it at the piano. It is important to practice MP without playing the piano because you can acquire “sound memory” (just as you can acquire “hand memory”) and use the sound of the piano as a crutch for recall, and sound memory can cause the same problems associated with hand memory.
Why are memory and MP so important? They not only solve the practical problems of technique and performance but also advance your musicianship and increase intelligence. You can speed up a computer by adding memory; similarly, you can increase your effective intelligence by improving your memory. In fact, one of the first signs of mental deterioration, such as Alzheimer’s, is loss of memory. It is now clear that many of those “amazing feats” of great musicians such as Mozart were simple byproducts of strong MP, and that such skills can be learned. More on MP in j. Establishing Permanent Memory, Mental Play.