a. Why Memorize?¶
The reasons for memorizing are so compelling that it is surprising that many people have been unaware of them. Advanced pianists must play from memory because of the high level of technical skill that is expected. For practically all students (including those who consider themselves to be non-memorizers) the most difficult passages are played from memory. Non-memorizers may need the sheet music in front of them for psychological support and for small cues here and there, but in fact, they are playing difficult passages from “hand memory” (explained below).
The rewards of this book accrue because it is a total package; i.e., the whole is larger than the sum of its parts. Memorizing is a good example. In order to understand this, let’s look at those students who do not memorize. Once a new piece is “learned”, but not yet perfected, non-memorizers typically abandon the piece and go on to the next one, partly because it takes so long to learn new pieces and partly because reading the score is not conducive to performing difficult pieces. Statistically, students who do not memorize never learn any piece well, and this handicap limits technical development. Now if they were able to learn quickly and memorize at the same time, they will be performing and making music with all their finished pieces the rest of their lives! We are not just talking about memorizing or not memorizing a piece – we are talking about a lifetime of difference in your development as an artist, and whether you really have a chance to make music. It is the difference between a performing artist and a student who never has a performable piece. There are many more advantages to memorizing; instead of listing them here, we will discuss them as we encounter them while learning how to memorize below.
Finally, memorizing benefits brain development in youth and decelerates its deterioration with age. Memorizing piano music will not only improve your memory in daily life but will also slow down memory loss with age and even improve the brain’s capacity to memorize. You will become a “memory expert”, giving you confidence in your ability to remember; lack of confidence is a major cause of poor memory as well as many other problems, such as low self esteem. Memory affects intelligence and good memory raises the effective IQ.
In my youth, life seemed so complicated that, in order to simplify it, I intuitively subscribed to the “principle of least knowledge” which posits that the less unnecessary information you stuff into your brain, the better. This theory is analogous to that for disk memory in a computer: the more clutter you delete, the more memory you have left for use. I now know that this approach breeds laziness and an inferiority complex that you are not a good memorizer, and is harmful to the brain because it is like saying that the less muscle you use, the stronger you will become because there is more energy left over. The brain has more memory capacity than anyone can jam into it in a lifetime but if you don’t learn how to use it, you will never benefit from its full potential. I suffered a lot from my early mistake. I was afraid to go bowling because I could not keep score in my head like everyone else. Since I changed my philosophy so that I now try to memorize everything, life has improved dramatically. I even try to memorize the slope and break on every golf green I play. That can have a huge effect on the golf score. Needless to say, the corresponding benefits to my piano career have been beyond description.
Memory is an associative function of the brain. An associative function is one in which one object is associated with another by a relationship. Practically everything we experience is stored in our brains whether we like it or not, and once the brain transfers this information from temporary to permanent storage (an automatic process that usually takes 2 to 5 minutes), it is there practically for life. Therefore, when we memorize, storing the information is not the problem – retrieving it is the problem because unlike the computer, in which all data have addresses, our memory is retrieved by a process that is not yet understood. The best understood retrieval process is the associative process: to recall John’s telephone number, we first think of John, then recall that he has several phones and then remember that his cell phone number is 123-4567. That is, the number is associated with the cell phone, which is associated with John. Each digit in the phone number has a huge array of associations related to our life’s experience with numbers, starting with the first time we learned numbers as a young child. Without these associations, we wouldn’t have any idea what numbers are and would therefore not be able to recall them at all. “John” also has many associations (such as his house, family, etc.) and the brain must filter them all out and follow the “telephone” association in order to find the number. Because of the huge information processing power of the brain, the retrieval process is more efficient if there are more associations and these associations quickly increase in size as more items are memorized because they can be cross-associated. Therefore the human memory is almost diametrically opposite to the computer memory: the more you memorize, the easier it becomes to memorize because you can create more associations. Our memory capacity is so large that it is effectively infinite. Even good memorizers never “saturate” their memory until the ravages of age take their toll. As more material is put into memory, the number of associations increases geometrically. This geometrical increase partly explains the enormous difference in the memorizing capacity between good and poor memorizers. Thus everything we know about memory tells us that memorizing can only benefit us.
b. Who can, What to, and When to, Memorize.¶
Anyone can learn to memorize if taught the proper methods. A proper integration of the memorizing and learning procedures can reduce the time required to learn, in effect assigning a negative time to memorizing. Almost all of the procedures for memorizing are the same as the learning procedures that we have already covered. If you separate these processes, you will end up having to go through the same procedure twice. Few people would be able to go through such an ordeal; this explains why those who do not memorize during the initial learning process never memorize well. If you can play a piece well but had not memorized it, it can be very frustrating to try to memorize it. Too many students have convinced themselves that they are poor memorizers because of this difficulty.
Because memorizing is the fastest way to learn, you should memorize every worthwhile piece you play. Memorizing is a free byproduct of the process of learning a new piece of music. Thus in principle, the instructions for memorizing are trivial: simply follow the learning rules given in this book, with the additional requirement that everything you do during those learning procedures be performed from memory. For example, while learning a LH accompaniment bar-by-bar, memorize those LH bars. Since a bar is typically 6 to 12 notes, memorizing that is trivial. Then you will need to repeat these segments 10, 100, or over 1,000 times, depending on difficulty, before you can play the piece – that is many more repetitions than needed to memorize. You can’t help but memorize it! Why waste such a priceless, one-time opportunity?
We saw, in sections I and II, that the key to learning technique quickly was to reduce the music to trivially simple segments; those same procedures also make these segments trivial to memorize. Memorizing can save tremendous amounts of time. You don’t need to look for the music each time and you can jump from segment to segment as you desire. You can concentrate on learning the technique without distractions from having to refer to the music every time. Best of all, the numerous repetitions you need, to practice the piece, will commit it to memory in a way that no other memorizing procedure will ever achieve, at no extra cost of time. These are some of the reasons why memorizing before you learn is the only way.
c. Memorizing and Maintenance¶
A memorized repertoire requires two investments of time: the first is for memorizing the piece initially and a second “maintenance” component for implanting the memory more permanently and for repairing any forgotten sections. During the lifetime of a pianist, the second component is by far the larger one because the initial investment is zero or even negative. Maintenance is one reason why some give up memorizing: why memorize if I am going to forget it anyway? Maintenance can limit the size of a repertoire because after memorizing, say, five to ten hours of music, the maintenance requirements may preclude memorizing any more pieces depending on the person. There are several ways to extend your repertoire beyond any maintenance limit. An obvious one is to abandon the memorized pieces and to re-memorize later as needed. Pieces that are well memorized can be re- polished quickly, even if they haven’t been played for years. It is almost like riding a bicycle; once you learn how to ride a bicycle, you never need to re-learn it all over again. We now discuss maintenance procedures that can greatly increase your memorized repertoire.
Memorize as many pieces as possible before the age of 20. Pieces learned in those early years are practically never forgotten and, even if forgotten, are most easily recalled. This is why youngsters should be encouraged to memorize all their repertoire pieces. Pieces learned after age 40 require more memorizing effort and maintenance, although many people have no trouble memorizing new pieces past age 60 (albeit more slowly than before). Note the word “learn” in the preceding sentences; they do not have to have been memorized and you can still memorize them later with better retention properties compared to pieces learned or memorized at an older age.
There are times when you do not need to memorize, such as when you want to learn large numbers of easy pieces, especially accompaniments, that would take too long to memorize and maintain. Another class of music that should not be memorized is the group of pieces that you use to practice sight reading. Sight reading is a separate skill that is treated in 11. Sight Reading. Everyone should have a memorized repertoire and a sight reading repertoire.
d. Hand Memory¶
A large component of your initial memory will be hand memory, which comes from repeated practice. The hand goes on playing without your really remembering each note. Although we will discuss all the known types of memory below, we will start with analyzing hand memory first because historically, it was frequently thought of as the only and best method of memory although, in reality, it is the least important. “Hand memory” has at least two components: a reflex hand motion that comes from touching the keys and a reflex in the brain from the sound of the piano. Both serve as cues for your hand to move in a pre- programmed way. For simplicity, we will lump them together and call them hand memory. Hand memory is useful because it helps you to memorize at the same time that you practice the piece. In fact, everybody must practice common constructs, such as scales, arpeggios, Alberti accompaniments, etc., from hand memory so that your hands can play them automatically, without having to think about every note. Therefore, when you start to memorize a new piece, there is no need to consciously avoid hand memory. Once acquired, you will never lose hand memory, and we show below how to use it to recover from blackouts.
When we talk about hand memory, we usually mean HT memory. Because hand memory is acquired only after many repetitions, it is one of the most difficult memories to erase or change. This is one of the main reasons for HS practice – to avoid acquiring incorrect HT habits that will be so difficult to change. HS memory is fundamentally different from HT memory. HS play is simpler and can be controlled directly from the brain. In HT memory, you need some kind of feedback in order to coordinate the hands (and probably the two halves of the brain) to the accuracy needed for music. Therefore, HS practice is the most effective method for avoiding the dependence on hand memory, and to start using the better methods of memory discussed below.
e. Starting the Memorizing Process¶
Start the memorizing process by simply following the instructions of sections I and II, and memorizing each practice segment before you start practicing it. The best test of your memory is to play that segment in your mind, without the piano – this is called Mental Play (MP), which will be discussed at length below. How well you understand and remember a piece depends on speed. As you play faster, you tend to remember the music at higher levels of abstraction. At very slow play, you must remember it note by note; at higher speeds, you will be thinking in terms of musical phrases and at even higher speeds you may be thinking in terms of relationships between phrases or entire musical concepts. These higher level concepts are always easier to memorize. This is why HS practice, and getting quickly up to speed, will help the memorizing step. However, to test your memory, you must do the opposite – play slowly, as explained below.
Even if you can play HT, you should memorize it HS. This is one of the few instances in which memorizing and learning procedures differ. If you can play a section HT easily, there is no need to practice it HS for technique. However, for performing the piece, memorizing it HS will be useful for recovering from blackouts, for maintenance, etc. If you test the memory (e.g., by trying to play from somewhere in the middle of a piece), you will find that it is easier if you had memorized it HS.
Memory is an associative process; therefore there is nothing as helpful as your own ingenuity in creating associations. So far, we saw that HS, HT, music, and playing at different speeds are elements you can combine in this associative process. Any music you memorize will help you memorize future pieces of music. The memory function is extremely complex; its complex nature is the reason why intelligent people are often also good memorizers, because they can quickly think of useful associations. Conversely, if you learn to memorize, your effective IQ will go up. By memorizing HS, you add two more associative processes (RH and LH) with much simpler structure than HT. Once you have memorized a page or more, break it up into logical smaller musical phrases of about 10 bars and start playing these phrases randomly; i.e., practice the art of starting play from anywhere in the piece. If you had used the methods of this book to learn this piece, starting randomly should be easy because you learned it in small segments. It is really exhilarating to be able to play a piece from anywhere you want and this skill never ceases to amaze the audience. Another useful memorizing trick is to play one hand and “play” the other hand in your mind at the same time. If you can do this, you have memorized it very well!
Memory is first stored in temporary or short-term memory. It takes 2 to 5 minutes for this memory to be transferred to long term memory. This has been verified innumerable times from tests on head trauma victims: they can remember only up to 2 to 5 minutes before the trauma incident; we saw a most vivid example of this from the survivor of Princess Diana’s fatal accident – he could not remember the accident or the few minutes prior to the accident. After transferal to long term memory, your ability to recall this memory decreases unless there is reinforcement. If you repeat one passage many times, you are acquiring hand memory and technique, but the total memory is not reinforced proportionately to the number of repeats. It is better to wait 2 to 5 minutes and to re-memorize again.
In summary, memorize in phrases or groups of notes; never try to memorize each note. The faster you play, the easier it is to memorize because you can see the phrases and structure more easily. This is why memorizing HS is so effective. Many poor memorizers instinctively slow down and end up trying to memorize individual notes when they encounter difficulties. This is precisely the wrong thing to do. Poor memorizers can not memorize, not because their memory is not good, but because they do not know how to memorize. One cause of poor memory is confusion. This is why memorizing HT is not a good idea; you cannot play as fast as HS and there is more material that can cause confusion. Good memorizers have methods for organizing their material so that there is less confusion. Memorize in terms of musical themes, how these evolve, or the skeletal structure which is embellished to produce the final music. Slow practice is good for memory, not because it is easier to memorize playing slowly, but because it is a tough test of how well you have memorized.
f. Reinforcing the Memory¶
One of the most useful memory devices is reinforcement. A forgotten memory, when regained, is always better remembered. Many people fret that they forget. Most people need to forget and re-memorize three or four times before anything is permanently memorized. In order to eliminate the frustrations from forgetting and to reinforce memory, try to purposely forget, for example, by not playing a piece for a week or more and then re-learning it. Or quit before you completely memorize so you must start all over again the next time. Or instead of repeating short sections (the method you used initially to memorize the piece), play the entire piece, only once a day, or several times a day but several hours apart. Find out ways of making you forget (like memorizing many things at once); try to create artificial blackouts – stop in the middle of a phrase and try to restart.
Memorizing new material tends to make you forget whatever you had memorized previously. Therefore, spending a lot of time memorizing a small section is not efficient. If you choose the right number of things to memorize, you can use one to control the “forgetting” of the other so that you can re-memorize it for better retention. This is an example of how experienced memorizers can fine-tune their memorizing routines.
g. Practicing Cold¶
Practice playing memorized pieces “cold” (without warming up your hands); this is obviously more difficult than with warmed up hands but practicing under adverse conditions is one way of strengthening your ability to perform in public and improve the memory. This ability to sit down and play cold, with an unfamiliar piano or environment, or several times a day when you have a few minutes, is one of the most useful advantages of memorizing. And you can do this anywhere, away from home, when your music score may not be available. Practicing cold prepares you to play at a gathering, etc., without having to play Hanon for 15 minutes before you can perform. Playing cold is an ability that is surprisingly easily cultivated, although it may seem almost impossible at first. If you have never practiced cold before, you will be surprised at how quickly you can improve this skill. This is a good time to find those passages that are too difficult to play with cold hands and to practice how to slow down or simplify difficult sections. If you make a mistake or have a blackout, don’t stop and backtrack, but practice keeping at least the rhythm or melody going and playing through the mistake.
The first few bars of even the simplest pieces are often difficult to start cold, and will require extra practice, even if it is well memorized. Often, the more technically difficult beginnings are easier to remember, so don’t get caught unprepared by seemingly easy music. Clearly, it is important to practice the starts of all pieces cold. Of course, don’t always start from the beginning; another advantage of memorizing is that you can play little snippets from anywhere in the piece, such as the most interesting parts, and you should always practice playing snippets (see 14. Preparing for Performances and Recitals). Gather as many associations as you can: What are the key/time signatures? What is the first note and its absolute pitch?
h. Slow Play¶
An important way to reinforce memory is slow play, VERY slow play, less than half speed. Slow speed is also used to reduce the dependence on hand memory and supplant it with “real memory” (we shall discuss true memory below) because when you play slowly, the stimulus for hand memory recall is changed and reduced. The stimulation from the piano sound is also materially altered. The biggest disadvantage of slow play is that it takes a lot of time; if you can play twice as fast, you practice the piece twice as often in the same time, so why play slowly? Besides, it can get awfully boring. Why practice something you don’t need when playing full speed? You really have to have good reasons to justify practicing very slowly. In order to make slow play pay off, try to combine as many things as possible into your slow play so that it does not waste time. Playing slowly, without well defined objectives, is a waste of time; you must simultaneously seek numerous benefits by knowing what they are. So let’s list some of them.
- Slow play is surprisingly beneficial to good technique, especially for practicing relaxation and correct keystroke.
- Slow play reinforces your memory because there is time for the playing signals to travel from your fingers to the brain and back several times before succeeding notes are played. If you only practiced at speed, you could be reinforcing hand memory and losing true memory.
- Slow play allows you to practice getting mentally ahead of the music you are playing (next section), which gives you more control over the piece and can even allow you to anticipate impending flubs. This is the time to work on your jumps and chords (e. Playing (Wide) Chords, Finger/Palm Spreading Exercises, f. Practicing Jumps). Always be at least a split second ahead of the music and practice feeling the keys before playing to guarantee 100% accuracy. As a general rule, think about one bar ahead – more on this below.
- Slow play is one of the best ways to purge your hands of bad habits, especially those that you might have unconsciously picked up during fast practice (FPD, 5. Practice the Difficult Sections First). FPD is mostly hand memory which bypasses the brain; this is why you are usually unaware of them.
- You now have time to analyze the details of the structure of the music as you play, and pay attention to all the expression markings. Above all, concentrate on making music.
- One of the primary causes of blackouts and flubs during a performance is that the brain is racing much faster than usual, and you can “think” many more thoughts in the same amount of time between notes than during practice. This extra thinking introduces new variables that confuse the brain, leading you into unfamiliar territory, and can disrupt your rhythm. Therefore you can practice inserting extra thoughts between notes during slow practice. What are the preceding and following notes? Are they just right, or can I improve them? What do I do here if I make a mistake? etc., etc. Think of typical thoughts you might encounter during a performance. You can cultivate the ability to detach yourself from those particular notes you are playing, and be able to mentally wander around elsewhere in the music, as you play a given section.
If you combine all the above objectives, the time spent playing slowly will be truly rewarding, and keeping all these objectives going at once will be a challenge that will leave no room for boredom.
i. Mental Timing¶
When playing from memory, you need to be mentally ahead of what you are playing at all times so that you can plan ahead, be in complete control, anticipate difficulties, and adjust to changing conditions. For example, you can often see a flub coming, and use one of the tricks discussed in this book (see 9. Polishing a Piece - Eliminating Flubs on polishing a piece) to get around it. You won’t see this flub coming unless you are thinking ahead. One way to practice thinking ahead is to play fast, and then to slow down. By playing fast, you force the brain to think more quickly, so that when you slow down, you are now automatically ahead of the music. You cannot think ahead unless the music is well memorized, so thinking ahead really tests and improves the memory.
You can think ahead on many different levels of complexity. You can think ahead one note when playing very slowly. At faster speeds, you may have to think in terms of bars or phrases. You can also think about themes or musical ideas or different voices or chord transitions. These are all different associations that will help your memory process.
The best way to play very fast, of course, is HS. This is another valuable byproduct of HS practice; you will be surprised at first, what really fast playing will do to your brain. It is a totally new experience, if you have never played this fast before. Every brain has its maximum speed, which varies widely among individuals. You should make sure that this maximum is sufficient to cover piano music. The best way to practice such speeds is by use of parallel sets. Since you have to go really fast in order to beat the brain, such speeds are not easily attainable HT. Fast play is a good way to speed up the brain so that it can think ahead.
j. Establishing Permanent Memory, Mental Play¶
There are at least five basic methods of memorizing, they are:
- Hand Memory (audio/tactile)
- Music Memory (aural)
- Photographic Memory (visual)
- Keyboard Memory / Mental Play (visual/tactile, brain)
- Theoretical Memory (brain)
Practically everybody uses a combination of them. Most people rely mainly on one and use the others as supplementary help.
We already discussed hand memory above (d. Hand Memory). It is acquired by simple repetition until the “music is in the hands”. In the intuitive school of teaching, this was thought to be the best way to memorize, because of a lack of better methods. What we want to do now is to replace it with true memory in order to establish a more permanent and reliable memory.
Music memory is based on the music: the melody, rhythm, expression, emotion, etc. This approach works best for artistic and musical types of persons who have strong feelings associated with their music. Those with absolute pitch will also do well because they can find the notes on the piano from the memory of the music. People who like to compose also tend to use this type of memory. Musicians do not automatically have good musical memory. It depends on the type of brain they have, although it is trainable, as discussed in section m. Human Memory Function; Music = Memory Algorithm below. For example, people with good music memory can also remember other things, such as the name of the composer and the name of the composition. They have good melody recall, so that they can hum the music if you tell them the title, for most compositions that they have heard a few times.
The most important function of music memory is to serve as the memory algorithm. We shall see in section “m” below that all super memorizers use some type of algorithm for memorizing. The keys to successful memorizing are having an algorithm and knowing how to use it. Musicians are lucky because they don’t have to invent an algorithm – music is one the best algorithms around! This is the main reason why concert pianists can play for hours without missing a note. Until we understood this aspect of memory, we had attributed such memory feats to “talent” or “genius”, but in reality, it is a memory skill that is easily learned, as described below.
Photographic memory: You memorize the entire sheet music and actually picture it and read it in the mind. Even those who think that they do not have photographic memory, can achieve it if they practice photographic memory routinely as they practice the piece from the very beginning. Many people will find that, if they are diligent about this procedure from day one (of when they start the piece), there will be only an average of a few bars per page that are not photographically memorized by the time they can play the piece satisfactorily. One way to photographically memorize is to follow exactly the methods outlined here for technique and memory, but to also photographically memorize the sheet music at the same time, hand by hand, bar-by-bar, and segment by segment.
Another way to approach photographic memory is to start memorizing the general outline first, like how many lines there are in the page and how many bars per line; then the notes in each bar, then the expression markings, etc. That is, start with the gross features, and then gradually fill in the details. Start photographic memory by memorizing one hand at a time. You really need to take an accurate photograph of the page, complete with its defects and extraneous marks. If you have difficulty memorizing certain bars, draw something unusual there, such as a smiley face or your own markings that will jolt your memory. Then next time you want to recall this section, think of the smiley face first.
One advantage of photographic memorization is that you can work on it without the piano, anytime, anywhere. In fact, once acquired, you must read it in your mind, away from the piano, as often as you can until it is permanently memorized. Another advantage is that if you get stuck in the middle of playing a piece, you can easily restart by reading that section of the music in your mind. Photographic memory also allows you to read ahead as you play which helps you to think ahead. Another advantage is that it will help your sight reading.
The main disadvantage is that most people cannot retain photographic memory for long periods of time since maintenance requires more work than other methods because of the high bandwidth of visual images. Another disadvantage is that picturing the printed music in the mind and reading it is a comparatively slow mental process that can interfere with the playing. However, if you follow the methods discussed here, you may find it much easier than you thought. In principle, once you have memorized a piece, you know every note and therefore should be able to map it back to the sheet music, thus helping the photographic memory. Once you have acquired most of the types of memories discussed here, adding photographic memory requires very little additional work, and you reap considerable rewards. Thus every pianist should use a certain minimum of photographic memory. The first line, containing the key and time signatures, is a good place to start.
For those who think that they do not have photographic memory, try the following trick. First memorize a short piece of music. Once each section is memorized, map it back onto the score from which you learned the piece; that is, for each note you play (from memory), try to picture the corresponding note on the sheet music. Since you know every note, HS, mapping it back from the keyboard to the sheet music should be simple. When mapping back, look at the score to make sure that every note is in the correct position on the right page. Even the expression markings should be memorized. Go back and forth, playing from photographic memory and mapping back from the keyboard to the sheet music until the photograph is complete. Then you can amaze your friends by writing down the score for the entire piece, starting from anywhere! Note that you will be able to write the whole music, forwards or backwards, or from anywhere in the middle, or even each hand separately. And they thought only Wolfgang could do it!
Keyboard memory and mental play: In keyboard memory, you remember the sequence of keys and hand motions, with the music, as you play. It is as if you have a piano in your mind, and can play it. Start the keyboard memory by memorizing HS, then HT. Then when you are away from the piano, play the piece in your mind, again HS first. Playing in your mind (mental play – MP), without the piano, is our ultimate memory goal. Keyboard memory is a good way to start practicing MP. Playing HT in your mind is not necessary at first, especially if you find it to be too difficult, although you will eventually be playing HT with ease. During MP, take note of which sections you forgot, then go to the music/piano and refresh your memory. You might try photographic memory on parts that you tend to forget using keyboard memory because you need to look at the score anyway in order to re- memorize. MP is difficult not only because you have to have it memorized, but also because you don’t have hand memory or the piano sound to help; however, this is precisely why it is so powerful.
Keyboard memory has most of the advantages of photographic memory but has the added advantage that the memorized notes are piano keys instead of tadpoles on a sheet of paper; therefore, you do not have to translate from tadpoles to the keys. This allows you to play with less effort compared to photographic memory, since there is no need to go through the extra process of interpreting the music score. The expression markings are not markings on paper, but mental concepts of the music (music memory). Every time you practice, keyboard memory (as well as hand memory and music memory) automatically maintains itself, whereas photographic memory does not. You can practice MP without a piano, thus more than doubling the time available for practice, and you can play ahead, just as with photographic memory.
When using keyboard memory, you tend to make the same mistakes, and get stuck at the same places, as when playing at the piano. This makes sense because all mistakes originate in the brain. This suggests that we may be able to practice and improve certain aspects of piano playing by using only MP – that would be a truly unique advantage! Most of the suggestions for memorizing given in this book apply best to keyboard memory, which is another one of its advantages. MP is the best test of true memory – when you conduct MP, you will realize how much you still depend on hand memory even after you thought that you had acquired keyboard memory. Only after acquiring sufficient MP can you be free of hand memory. However, hand memory is always a good backup – even when you have lost mental memory, you can usually restore it without looking at the score by playing it out on the piano using hand memory.
For those who wish to learn sight singing and acquire absolute (or perfect) pitch, MP automatically develops those skills. The keyboard memory visualizes the keyboard, which helps in finding the right key for absolute pitch, a skill you will need when composing, or improvising at the piano. Therefore, those practicing MP should also practice sight singing and absolute pitch, since they have already partly learned those skills. See 11. Sight Reading and 12. Learning Relative Pitch and Absolute Pitch (Sight Singing, Composing) below for more details. In fact, MP does not work well without absolute pitch. Doubtless, MP is one of the ways by which the musical geniuses got to be what they were. Thus many of these “genius feats” are achievable by practically all of us if we know how to practice them. Conclusion: memory leads to keyboard/mental play, which leads to relative/absolute pitch! In other words, these are essential components of technique – when you achieve them all, your ability to memorize and to perform will make a quantum jump. Moreover, MP is the key that opens the doors to the world of concert pianists and composers.
As with any memory procedure, MP must be practiced from the very first year of piano lessons. If you are over 20 years old, and never practiced MP, it may take a year of diligent practice for you to become comfortable with it, and to use it properly; learning MP is only slightly easier than absolute pitch. Therefore, as soon as you memorize a segment, play it in your mind, and maintain it like as any other type of memory. You should eventually be able to play the entire composition in your mind. You will think back in amazement and say to yourself “Wow! That was easier than I thought!” because this book provides the basics needed for learning MP.
MP will give you the ability to start anywhere within a segment – something that is difficult to learn in any other way. You can also gain a much clearer concept of the structure of the composition and the sequence of melodies, because you can now analyze all those constructs in your head. You can even “practice” at speeds that your fingers cannot manage. The fingers can never achieve speeds that the brain cannot; you can certainly try it with partial success, but it will be uncontrollable. Thus MP at fast speeds will help the fingers play faster. When you become good at it, playing in your mind does not have to take much time because you can play it very fast, or in abbreviated fashion, skipping easy sections and concentrating only on places where you normally encounter difficulties. Perhaps the single greatest benefit of MP is that your memory will improve so much, that you will gain the confidence to perform flawlessly. Such confidence is the best known way for eliminating nervousness. If you experienced any enlightenment as you learned the other methods of this book, wait till you master MP – you will wonder how you ever had the courage to perform anything in public without being able to play it in your mind – you have entered a new world, having acquired abilities that are highly admired by any audience.
There is another advantage of MP – the more pieces you memorize in your mind, the easier it becomes to memorize more! This happens because you are increasing the number of associations. Hand memory is the opposite – it becomes harder to memorize as your repertoire increases because the possibility for confusion increases. Also, your MP skill will increase rapidly as you practice it and discover its numerous powers. Because MP is useful in so many ways, you will automatically practice it more and more, and become even better at it. All concert pianists conduct MP out of necessity, whether they were formally taught MP or not. A few lucky students were taught MP; for the rest, there is a mad scramble to learn this “new” skill that they are expected to have when they reach a certain skill level. Fortunately, it is not a difficult skill to master for the serious student because the rewards are so immediate and far-reaching that there is no problem with motivation.
Theoretical memory: At the advanced level, learning MP is easy because such students have studied some theory. A good solfege course should teach this skill, but solfege teachers do not always teach memorizing skills or MP. Theory lessons will give you the best way to memorize. By associating the music with the underlying theory, you can establish firm associations with basic concepts. Unlike all the other memories, theoretical memory has deeper associations because theory leads to a better understanding of the music and the associations are more detailed – small details that you hardly noticed before can take on major significance. At the very least, you should note the main characteristics of the composition such as key signature, time signature, rhythm, chord structure, chord transitions, harmony, melodic structure, etc.
In summary, keyboard memory should be your primary method of memory. You must hear the music at the same time, so musical memory is a part of this process. Enlist the help of photographic memory whenever it comes easily, and add as much theoretical memory as you can. You have not really memorized until you can play the piece in your mind – this is the only way in which you can gain confidence to perform musically and with confidence. You can use it to reduce nervousness and it is the fastest and easiest way to learn relative/absolute pitch. In fact, MP is a powerful method that affects practically every musical activity you conduct at and away from the piano. This is not surprising because everything you do originates in the brain, and MP is how the music was composed. It not only solidifies keyboard memory but also helps musicality, music memory, photographic memory, performances, pitch accuracy, playing cold, etc. Don’t be passive and wait for the music to come out of the piano, but actively anticipate the music you want to produce – which is the only way to execute a convincing performance. MP is how the great geniuses accomplished much of what they did, yet too many teachers have not taught this method: it is little wonder that so many students view the achievements of the great pianists as unattainable. We have shown here that Mental Play is not only attainable, but must be an integral part of learning piano.
There is no more effective maintenance procedure than using keyboard memory and MP. Make a habit of playing in your mind at every opportunity you have. The difference between a good memorizer and a poor memorizer is not so much “memory power” as mental attitude – what do you do with your brain during your waking and sleeping hours? Good memorizers have developed a habit of continually cycling their memory at all times. Therefore, when you practice memorizing, you must also train your mind to constantly work with the memorization. Poor memorizers will require a lot of effort at first because their brains are not accustomed to automatically perform memory functions continually, but is not that difficult if practiced over an extended period of time (years). Once you learn MP, this task will become much easier. Savants generally have problems of repetitive motions: their brains are cycling the same activity over and over again at all times. This can explain why they cannot perform many normal functions but can have incredible memories and amazing musical abilities, especially when we view these savants in the light of our above discussions about memory and playing music in your mind.
Maintenance time is a good time to revisit the score and check your accuracy, both for the individual notes and the expression marks. Since you used the same score to learn the piece, there is a good chance that if you made a mistake reading the score the first time, you will make the same mistake again later on, and never catch your mistake. One way around this problem is to listen to recordings. Any major difference between your playing and the recording will stand out as a jarring experience and is usually easy to catch.
A good maintenance procedure is to go through the process first used to learn/memorize the piece, such as starting from arbitrary places, playing very slowly, playing cold, etc. Make sure that you still remember it HS. This can become a real chore for major pieces, but is worth it, because you don’t want to find out that you need it during a performance. These HS maintenance sessions are not just for memory. This is the time to try new things, playing much faster than final speed, and generally cleaning up your technique. Extended HT playing often introduces timing and other unexpected errors and this is the time to fix them by using the metronome. Therefore, playing HS for both memory and technique enhancement is a very worthwhile endeavor. The best preparation for recovery from flubs during a performance is HS practice and MP. Then, if you flub or have a blackout, you have many options for recovery, such as: keep on playing with one hand, first recovering one hand, and then adding the other, or simply keep the melody or rhythm going.
l. Sight Readers versus Memorizers: Learning Bach’s Inventions¶
Many good sight readers are poor memorizers and vice versa. This problem arises because good readers initially find little need to memorize and enjoy reading, so they end up practicing reading at the expense of memorizing. The more they read, the less memory they need, and the less they memorize, the worse memorizers they become, with the result that one day they realize that they are unable to memorize. Of course, there are naturally “talented” readers who have genuine memory problems, but these comprise a negligibly small minority. Therefore, the memorizing difficulties arise mainly from a psychological mental block built up over long periods of time. Good memorizers can experience the reverse problem; they can’t sight read because they automatically memorize everything and rarely have a chance to practice reading. However, this is not a symmetric problem because practically all advanced pianists know how to memorize; therefore, poor memorizers also had the misfortune of never having acquired advanced technique; that is, the technical level of poor memorizers is generally lower than that of good memorizers.
“Sight reading” is used loosely in this section to mean true sight reading as well as practicing music with the help of the score. The distinction between sight reading a piece one had never seen and a piece that had been played before is not important here. In the interest of brevity, that distinction will be left to the context of the sentence.
It is more important to be able to memorize than to sight read because you can survive as a pianist without good reading ability, but you can’t become an advanced pianist without the ability to memorize. Memorizing is not easy for the average pianist who was not trained in memory. Good readers who cannot memorize face an even more formidable problem. Therefore, poor memorizers who wish to acquire a memorized repertoire must do so by starting with a mental attitude that this is going to be a long term project with numerous obstacles to overcome. As shown above, the solution, in principle, is simple – make it a practice to memorize everything before you learn the piece. In practice, the temptation to learn quickly by reading the score is often too irresistible. You need to fundamentally change the way you practice new pieces.
The most difficult problem encountered by poor memorizers is the psychological problem of motivation. For these good readers (poor memorizers), memorizing seems like a waste of time because they can quickly learn to play many pieces reasonably well by reading. They might even be able to play difficult pieces by using hand memory, and if they have a blackout, they can always refer back to the music in front of them. Therefore, they can manage without memorizing. After years of practicing piano this way, it becomes very difficult to learn how to memorize because the mind has become dependent on the score.
Difficult pieces are impossible under this system, so they are avoided in favor of a large number of easier compositions. With this awareness of potential difficulties, let’s try to work through a typical program for learning how to memorize.
The best way to learn how to memorize is to memorize a few, new, short pieces, instead of memorizing something you can already play. Once you successfully memorize a few pieces without too much effort, you can start building confidence and improving the memorizing skills. When these skills are sufficiently developed, you might even think of memorizing old pieces you had learned by reading but had not memorized well.
Piano sessions should be either memorizing sessions or technical practice sessions. This is because playing other things during memory sessions will confuse the material being memorized. During technical practice sessions, you almost never need the score. Even during memorizing sessions, use the score only in the beginning and then put it away.
As an example of short pieces to memorize, let’s learn three of Bach’s 2-part Inventions: #1, #8, and #13. I will go through #8 with you. After learning #8, try #1 yourself and then start on #13. The idea is to learn all three simultaneously, but if that proves too taxing, try two (#8 and #1), or even just #8. It is important that you try only what you think you can comfortably handle, because the objective here is to demonstrate how easy it is. The schedule given below is for learning all three at once. We are assuming that you have learned the material thus far, and that your technical level is sufficient to tackle the Bach Inventions. The pedal is not used in any of the Bach Inventions.
Bach’s *Invention* #8, day one; The time signature is
3/4 so there is one
beat per quarter note and each bar (measure) has 3 beats. The key signature
shows one flat, which places the key one step counter-clockwise from
major on the circle of fifths – or
F major (not
D minor because the
music does not use
C# and starts and ends with notes of the
Begin by memorizing bars 2 to 4 of the LH, including the first two notes (conjunction) of bar 5. It should take less than a minute to memorize; then start playing it at speed. Take your hands off the piano, close your eyes, and play this section in your head (MP), visualizing every note and key that you play (photographic and keyboard memory). Then do the same for the RH, bars 1 to 4, including the first 4 notes of bar 5. Now return to the LH and see if you can play it without the score, and similarly with the RH. If you can, you should never have to refer to this part of the score again, unless you have a blackout, which will happen once in a while. Go back and forth between the LH and RH until you are comfortable. This should take only a few minutes more. Let’s say that this whole procedure takes 5 minutes; less for a fast learner. You will find fingering suggestions on most sheet music; for example, W. A. Palmer’s “J. S. Bach, Inventions and Sinfonias” by Alfred.
Now learn bars 5 to 7, including the first 2 notes of the LH and the first 4 notes of the RH in bar 8. This should be completed in about 4 minutes. These are all HS practices; we will not start HT until we finish memorizing the whole piece HS. However, you are free to try HT at any time, but do not waste time practicing HT if you do not make immediate, fast progress because we have a schedule to follow! When starting bars 5 to 7, don’t worry about forgetting the previously memorized bars – you should put them out of your mind. This will not only reduce mental tension and confusion (by not mixing different memorized sections), but also make you partially forget the previously memorized section, forcing you to rememorize for better retention. Once you are comfortable with bars 5-7, connect bars 1-7, including the conjunctions in bar 8. It may take 3 minutes to do both hands, separately. If you forgot bars 2-4 while learning 5-7, repeat the learning process – it will come very quickly and the memory will be more permanent. Don’t forget to play each section in your mind.
Next memorize bars 8-11, and add them to the previous sections. Let’s assign 8 minutes to this part, for a total of 20 minutes to memorize bars 1-11 and to bring them up to speed, HS. If you have technical difficulties with some parts, don’t worry about it, we will work on that later. You are not expected to play anything to perfection at this time.
Next, we will abandon bars 1-11 (don’t even worry about trying to remember them – it is important to remove all sense of anxiety and to let the brain concentrate on the memory task), and work on bars 12-23 only. Break this section up into the following segments (the conjunctions should be obvious): 12-15, 16-19, and 19-23. Bar 19 is practiced twice because this provides extra time to practice the difficult 4th finger in the LH. Work only on bars 12- 23 until you can play them all in succession, HS. This should take another 20 minutes.
Then finish off bars 24 to end (34). These might be learned using the following segments: 24-25, 26-29, and 30-34. This may require another 20 minutes, for a total of 1hr to memorize the whole thing. You can now either quit and continue tomorrow, or review each of the three sections. The important thing here is not to worry about whether you will remember all this tomorrow (you probably won’t), but to have fun, maybe even trying to connect the three sections or to put the beginning parts HT to see how far you can go. Work on parts that give you technical problems when you try to speed them up. Practice these technical workouts in as small segments as you can; this frequently means two-note parallel sets. That is, practice only the notes you can’t play satisfactorily. Jump from segment to segment. The total time spent for memorizing on the first day is 1 hour. You can also start on the second piece, Invention #1. Between days 1 and 2, practice playing in your mind whenever you have extra time.
Day two: review each of the three sections, then connect them. Start by playing each section in your mind before playing anything on the piano. You might need the sheet music in some places. Then put the music score away – you will seldom need them again except for emergencies and to double check the accuracy during maintenance. The only requirement on the 2nd day is to be able to play the whole piece HS from beginning to end, both on the piano and in your mind. Concentrate on bringing up the speed, and go as fast as you can without making mistakes. Practice relaxation. If you start to make mistakes, slow down and cycle the speed up and down. Note that it may be easier to memorize playing fast, and you might get memory lapses playing very slowly, so practice at different speeds. Don’t be afraid to play fast, but make sure that you balance this with sufficient intermediate speed and slow play so as to erase any FPD. Beginners have most difficulties at chord changes, which often take place at the beginning of a bar. Chord changes create difficulties because after the change, you need to play a new set of unfamiliar notes.
If you are completely comfortable HS on the 2nd day, you might start HT, using the same small segments used to learn HS. The first note of bar 3 is a collision of the two hands, so use only the LH for this note, and similarly in bar 18. Play softly, even where “f” is indicated, so that you can accentuate the beat notes to synchronize the two hands and practice relaxation. You will probably be slightly tense in the beginning, but concentrate on relaxing as soon as possible.
Moderate speed is often the easiest speed to play from memory because you can use the rhythm to keep you going and you can remember the music in phrases instead of individual notes. Therefore, pay attention to the rhythm from the very beginning. Now slow down and work on accuracy. To prevent the slow play from speeding up, concentrate on each individual note. Repeat this fast-slow speed cycle and you should improve noticeably with each cycle. The main objectives are to completely memorize it HS and to speed up the HS play as much as possible. Wherever you have technical difficulties, use the parallel set exercises to develop technique quickly. You should not need more than 1 hour.
Day three: learn HT in the three major sections as you did with HS. As soon as you notice confusion setting in HT, go back to HS to clear things up. This is a good time to further increase the speed HS, up to speeds faster than final speed (more on how to do this later). Of course, those with insufficient technical skill will have to play slower. Remember: relaxation is more important than speed. You will be playing faster HS than HT, and all attempts at increasing speed should be conducted HS. Since the hands are not yet well coordinated, you should have some memory lapses and it may be difficult to play HT without mistakes unless you play slowly. From here on, you will have to depend on the slower post practice improvement to gain any major improvement. However, in 3 hours over 3 days, you have basically memorized the piece and can play, perhaps haltingly, HT. You can also play the entire piece in your mind.
Now start on Invention #1, while you polish up the first piece. Practice the two pieces alternately. Work on #1 until you start to forget #8, then go back and refresh #8 and work on it until you start to forget #1. Remember that you want to forget a little so that you can relearn, which is what is needed to establish long term memory. There are psychological advantages to using these “win-win” programs: if you forget, that is exactly what you were looking for; if you can’t forget, that’s even better! This program will also give you an idea of how much you can/cannot memorize in a given amount of time. Youngsters should find that the amount you can memorize at one time increases rapidly as you gain experience and add more memorizing tricks. This is because you have a run-away situation in which the faster you memorize, the faster you can play, and the faster you play, the easier it becomes to memorize. Increased confidence also plays a major role. Ultimately, the main limiting factor will be your technical skill level, not the memorizing ability. If you have sufficient technique, you will be playing at speed in a few days. If you can’t, that may mean that you need more technique – it does not mean that you are a poor memorizer.
Day four: There is not much you can do to rush the first piece technically after two or three days. For several days, start practicing #8 by playing HS, then HT, at different speeds according to your whim of the moment. As soon as you feel ready, practice HT, but return to HS if you start making mistakes, have memory lapses HT, or if you have technical problems getting up to speed. Practice playing the piece HT in segments, jumping from segment to segment at random throughout the piece. Try starting with the last small segment and work backwards to the beginning.
Isolate the trouble spots and practice them separately. Most people have a weaker LH, so bringing the LH up to faster than final speed may present problems. For example, the last four notes of the LH in bar 3 (Inv. #8), 4234(5), where (5) is the conjunction, may be difficult to play fast. In that case, break it up into three parallel sets: 42, 23, and 345 and practice them using the parallel set exercises. Then connect them: 423 and 2345. 423 is not a parallel set (4 and 3 play the same note), so you cannot play this as fast as parallel sets. First bring them up to nearly infinite speed (almost a chord) and then learn to relax at those speeds, playing in rapid quads (see b. Parallel Set Exercises for Intrinsic Technical Development). Then gradually slow down to develop finger independence. Join the parallel sets in pairs and, finally, string them all together. This is actual technique enhancement and therefore will not happen over-night. You may see little improvement during practice, but you should feel a distinct improvement the next day, and a lot of improvement after a few weeks.
When you can play it HT, start playing HT in your mind (MP). This HT practice should take a day or two. If you don’t complete the task of playing MP at this step, for most people, you never will. But if you succeed, it will become the most powerful memory tool you have ever used.
By day 5 or 6, you should be able to start piece #13 and begin practicing all three pieces every day. An alternate approach is to learn only piece #8 well first, then after you have gone through the entire procedure so that you are familiar with it, start #1 and #13. The main reason for learning several pieces at once is that these pieces are so short that you will be playing too many repetitions in one day if you only practiced one. Remember, from day one, you will be playing at speed (HS), and from day two, you should be playing at least some sections faster than final speed. Also, it takes longer to learn these three pieces, one at a time, than three together.
Beyond day two or three, how fast you progress will depend more on your skill level than memory ability. Once you can play the entire piece HS at will, you should consider the piece memorized. This is because, if you are above the intermediate level, you will be able to play it HT very quickly, whereas if you are not that advanced, the technical difficulties in each hand will slow the progress. Memory will not be the limiting factor. For HT work, you will obviously have to work with coordinating the two hands. Bach designed these Inventions for learning to coordinate the two hands and, at the same time, to play them independently. This is the reason why there are two voices and they are superimposed; also, in #8, one hand plays staccato while the other plays legato.
All three pieces discussed above should be completely memorized in one to two weeks and you should begin to feel comfortable with at least the first piece. Let’s say that for over a week, all you did was to concentrate on memorizing new pieces. Now if you go back to old pieces that were memorized previously, you will find that you don’t remember them as well any more. This is a good time to re-polish those old pieces and to alternate this maintenance chore with further polishing of your new Bach pieces. You are basically done. Congratulations!
How well you can play from memory depends on your technique as well as how well
you have memorized. It is important not to confuse lack of technique with the
inability to memorize, because most people who have difficulty memorizing have
adequate memory but inadequate technique. Therefore, you will need methods for
testing your technique and your memory. If your technique is adequate, you
should be able to play comfortably at about 1.5 times final speed, HS. For #8,
the speed is about
100 BPM on the metronome, so you should be able to play
both hands at about
150 BPM HS. At
150 BPM, you got Glenn Gould beat
(albeit HS - he plays at around
140 BPM)! If you cannot do well above
BPM HS, then you must improve your technique before you can expect to play HT
at anything close to
100 BPM. The best test for memory is whether you can
play it in your mind. By applying these tests, you can determine whether you
need to work on technique or memory.
Most people have a weaker LH; bring the LH technique up as close to the RH level as possible. As illustrated above for bar 3 of the LH, use the parallel set exercises to work on technique. Bach is particularly useful for balancing the LH and RH techniques because both hands play similar passages. Therefore, you know immediately that the LH is weaker if it cannot get up to the same speed as the RH. For other composers, such as Chopin, the LH is usually much easier and does not provide a good LH test. Students with inadequate technique may need to work HS for weeks before they can hope to play these inventions HT at speed. In that case, play HT at comfortably slow tempi and wait for your HS technique to develop before speeding up HT.
Bach’s music has a notorious reputation of being difficult to play fast, and is
highly susceptible to FPD (fast play degradation, see 25. Hands Together and Mental Play). The
intuitive solution to this problem has been to patiently practice slowly. You
don’t have to play very fast to suffer FPD with many of Bach’s compositions. If
your maximum speed is
20 BPM, whereas the suggested speed is
then for you,
20 BPM is fast and at that speed, FPD can rear its ugly head.
This is why playing slowly HT and trying to speed it up will only generate more
confusion and FPD. Now we know the reason for that notorious reputation – the
difficulty arises from too many repetitions of slow HT play, which only
increases the confusion without helping your memory or technique. The better
solution is HS, segmental practice. For those who had never done this before,
you will soon be playing at speeds you never dreamed possible.
Quiet hands: Many teachers justifiably stress “quiet hands” as a desirable objective. In this mode, the fingers do most of the playing, with the hands moving very little. Quiet hands is the litmus test for technique acquisition. The elimination of unnecessary motions not only allows faster play, but also increases control. Many of Bach’s music were designed for practicing quiet hands. Some of the unexpected fingerings indicated on the music score were chosen so as to be compatible with, or facilitate, quiet hands play. Some teachers impose quiet hand playing on all students at all times, even for beginners, but such an approach is counter-productive because you can’t play quiet hands slowly so there is no way to teach it at slow speed. The student feels nothing and wonders why it is any good. When playing slowly, or if the student does not have sufficient technique, some extra motion is unavoidable, and is appropriate. To force the hands to be motionless under those conditions would only make it more difficult to play and creates stress. Those who already have quiet hands technique can add a lot of motion without detriment when playing slowly or fast. Some teachers try to teach quiet hands by placing a coin on the hand to see if it is quiet enough so that the coin will not fall off. This method only demonstrates the teacher’s recognition of the importance of quiet hands, but it harms the student by creating stress. If you are playing Bach at full speed using quiet hands, a coin placed on your hand will immediately fly off. Only when playing beyond a certain speed does quiet hands become obvious to the pianist, and necessary. When you acquire quiet hands for the first time, it is absolutely unmistakable, so don’t worry about missing it. The best time to teach the student what quiet hands means, is when playing sufficiently fast so that you can feel the quiet hands. Once you have it, you can then apply it to slow play; you should now feel that you have much more control and a lot more free time between notes. Thus quiet hands is not any specific motion of the hand but a feeling of control and the near total absence of speed walls.
In the case of the Bach pieces discussed here, the quiet hands become necessary at speeds close to final speed; without it, you will start to hit speed walls at the recommended speeds; obviously, the speeds were chosen with quiet hands in mind. HS practice is important for quiet hands because it is much easier to acquire and feel it in your hands when played HS, and because HS play allows you to get to quiet hands speed more quickly than HT. In fact, it is best not to start HT until you can play in the quiet hands mode with both hands because this will reduce the chances of locking in bad habits. That is, HT with or without quiet hands is different, so that you don’t want to get into the habit of playing HT without quiet hands – you will never get up to speed! Those with insufficient technique may take too long a time to attain quiet hands, so that such students may have to start HT without quiet hands; they can then gradually acquire quiet hands at a later time, by using more HS practice. This explains why those with sufficient technique can learn these inventions so much faster than those without. Such difficulties are some of the reasons for not trying to learn pieces that are too difficult for you, and provide useful tests for whether the composition is too difficult or appropriate for your skill level. Those with insufficient technique will certainly risk building up speed walls. Although some people claim that the Bach Inventions can be played “at any speed”, that is true only for their musical content; these compositions need to be played at their recommended speeds in order to take full advantage of the technical lessons that Bach had in mind. There is an over-emphasis on speed in this section because of the need to demonstrate/achieve quiet hands; however, do not practice speed for speed’s sake since that will not work because of stress and bad habits; musical play is still the best way to increase speed – see i. Practicing for Speed.
For those with stronger RHs, quiet hands will come first with the RH; once you know the feel, you can transfer it to the LH more quickly. Once it kicks in, you will suddenly find that playing fast becomes easier. This is why HT practice doesn’t work for learning new Bach pieces – there is no way to get to quiet hands quickly HT.
Bach wrote these Inventions for technical development. Thus he gave both hands equally difficult material; this provides more challenges for the LH because the bass hammers and strings are heavier. Bach would have been mortified to see exercises such as the Hanon series because he knew that exercises without music would be a waste of time, as demonstrated by the effort he put into these compositions to incorporate music. The amount of technical material he crammed into these compositions is incredible: finger independence (quiet hands, control, speed), coordination as well as independence of the two hands (multiple voices, staccato vs. legato, colliding hands, ornaments), harmony, making music, strengthening the LH as well as the weaker fingers (fingers 4 and 5), all major parallel sets, uses of the thumb, standard fingerings, etc. Note that the ornamentals are parallel set exercises; they are not only musical ornaments but are also an integral part of technical development. Using the ornaments, Bach asks you to practice parallel sets with one hand while simultaneously playing another part with the other hand, and producing music with this combination!
Be careful not to play Bach too loud, even where f is indicated. Instruments of his time produced much less sound than modern pianos so that Bach had to write music that is filled with sound, and with few breaks. One of the purposes of the numerous ornaments and trills used in Bach’s time was to fill in the sound. Thus his music tends to have too much sound if played loudly on modern pianos. Especially with Inventions and Sinfonias, in which the student is trying to bring out all the competing melodies, there is a tendency to play each succeeding melody louder, ending up in loud music. The different melodies must compete on the basis of musical concept, not loudness. Playing more softly will also help to achieve total relaxation and true finger independence.
If you want to learn one of the 3-part Inventions, you might try Sinfonia
#15 which is easier than most of the others. It is very interesting, and has a
section in the middle where the two hands collide and play many of the same
notes. As with all Bach compositions, this one contains a lot more than first
meets the eye, so approach it with care. First of all, it is allegro vivace!
The time signature is a strange
9/16, which means that the groups of six
1/32 notes in bar 3 must be played as 3 beats, not 2 (three pairs of notes
instead of two triplets). This time signature results in the three repeat notes
(there are two in bar 3) that have thematic value and they march across the
keyboard in characteristic Bach fashion. When the two hands collide in bar 28,
raise the RH and slide the LH under it, both hands playing all the notes. If
the thumb collision is problematic, you might eliminate the RH thumb and play
only the LH thumb. In bar 36, be sure to use the correct RH fingering:
Finally, let’s discuss the last necessary step in memorizing – analyzing the structure, or the “story”, behind the music. The memorizing process will be incomplete until you understand the story behind the music. We shall use Invention #8. The first 11 bars comprise the “exposition”. Here, the RH and LH play basically the same thing, with the LH delayed by one bar, and the main theme is introduced. The “body” consists of bars 12 to 28, where the roles of the two hands are initially reversed, with the LH leading the RH, followed by some intriguing developments. The ending starts at bar 29 and brings the piece to an orderly finish, with the RH re-asserting its original role. Note that the ending is the same as the end of the exposition – the piece effectively ends twice, which makes the ending more convincing. Beethoven developed this device of ending a piece multiple times and raised it to incredible heights.
We now present some explanations for why developing such a “story” is the best way to memorize a composition permanently. That is how all great musicians organized their music.
m. Human Memory Function; Music = Memory Algorithm¶
The memory function of the brain is only incompletely understood. There is no proof for the existence of “photographic memory” in the strict sense of the phrase, though I have used this terminology in this book. All memory is associative. Thus when we visually “memorize” a Monet painting, we are actually associating the subjects of the painting with something deeper in our memory, not just a two dimensional picture composed of so many pixels. This is why great paintings or unusual photographs are easier to remember than similar images of lesser significance, though both may have the same bandwidth (number of pixels). As another example, if you take a photograph of a circle on a sheet of paper, the photo will be accurate; the diameter and location of the circle will be exactly correct. But if you make a “photographic memory” of the same circle in your mind and then try to redraw it on another sheet of paper, the diameter and location will be different. This means that you memorized it conceptually (associating with some previous knowledge about circles and approximate sizes and locations). How about photographic memory of the music score? I can actually see it in my mind! Isn’t that photographic? It is easy to prove that this, too, is associative – in this case, associated with music. If you ask a musician with “photographic” memory to memorize a full page of random music notes, he will have great difficulty memorizing even a single page, although he may have no trouble photographically memorizing a 20 page sonata quickly. This is why there is no better way to memorize music (photographic or otherwise) than from the standpoint of music theory. All you have to do is to associate the music with the theory and you have it memorized. In other words, when humans memorize something, they don’t store the data bits in the brain like a computer, but they associate the data with a basic framework or “algorithm” consisting of familiar things in the brain. In this example, music theory is the framework. Of course, a super memorizer (who may not be a musician) can develop methods for memorizing even a random sequence of notes by devising an appropriate algorithm, as we now explain.
The best evidence for the associative nature of human memory comes from tests on good memorizers who can perform incredible feats such as memorizing hundreds of telephone numbers from a phone book, etc. There are numerous memory contests in which good memorizers compete. These good memorizers have been extensively interviewed and it turns out that none of them memorize photographically, although the end result is almost indistinguishable from photographic memory. When asked how they memorize, it turns out that they all use associative algorithms. The algorithm is different for every person (even for the same task), but they are all devices for associating the objects to be memorized with something that has a pattern that they can remember. For example, for remembering hundreds of numbers, one algorithm is to associate a sound with each number. The sounds are chosen such that they form “words” when strung together, not in English, but in a new “language” that is created for that purpose. Japanese is a language with such a property. For example, √2 ≈ 1.41421356 which can be read as a phrase that translates roughly to, “good people, good people are worth looking at”, and the Japanese routinely use such algorithms to remember strings of numbers such as telephone numbers. To 7 decimals, √3 reads “Treat the entire world!” and √5 reads “On the 6th station of Mt. Fuji, an owl is crying.” The amazing thing is the speed with which good memorizers can map the object to be memorized onto their algorithm. It also turns out that these good memorizers are not born that way, although they may be born with mental capabilities that can lead to good memory. Memorizers develop after much hard work in perfecting their algorithms and practicing every day, just like pianists. This “hard work” comes effortlessly because they enjoy it.
A simple, but less efficient, algorithm is to map the numbers into a story. Suppose that you want to memorize the sequence of 14 numbers 53031791389634. The way to do it is to use something like the following story: “I woke up at 5:30 AM with my 3 brothers and 1 grandmother; the ages of my brothers are 7, 9, and 13, and my grandmother is 89 years old, and we went to bed at 6:34 PM.” This is an algorithm based on life’s experience, which makes the random numbers “meaningful”. What is so intriguing is that the algorithm contains 38 words, yet it is much easier to remember than the 14 numbers. In fact, you have memorized 132 letters and numbers with greater ease than the 14 numbers! You can easily test this for yourself. First memorize both the 14 numbers (if you can – it is not easy for me) and the above algorithm. Then 24 hours later, try to write down the numbers from memory and from the algorithm; you will find the algorithm to be much easier and more accurate. All good memorizers have devised incredibly efficient algorithms and have cultivated the art of rapidly transferring any memory job onto their algorithms.
Can pianists take advantage of this use of efficient algorithms? Of course we can! How do you think Liszt memorized and could perform more than 80 compositions within a short period of time? There is no reason to indicate that he had any special memory abilities, so he must have used an algorithm. But that algorithm is all around us – it is called music! Music is one of the most efficient algorithms for memorizing huge amounts of data. Practically all pianists can memorize several Beethoven sonatas easily. From the point of view of data bits, each sonata represents over 1,000 telephone numbers. Thus we can memorize the equivalent of over 10 pages of phone numbers – something that would be considered miraculous if they were actually phone numbers. And we can probably memorize more if we did not have to spend so much time practicing for technique and musicality. Therefore, what pianists achieve routinely is not that different from what those “genius memorizers” are famous for. Music is an especially efficient algorithm because it follows some strict rules. Composers such as Liszt were familiar with these rules and formulas and could memorize faster (see 4. Mozart’s Formula, Beethoven and Group Theory for Mozart’s formula). Moreover, musical logic is inborn in all of us, which is a part of the music algorithm that we do not have to learn. Therefore, musicians have an advantage over practically any other profession when it comes to memorizing, and most of us should be able to achieve a level of memory close to that of good memorizers in memory contests. This is because we now know a lot about how it is done.
It is now possible to understand how memorizers can memorize many pages of phone numbers. They simply end up with a “story”, instead of a string of numbers. Note that a 90 year old man may not be able to remember your name, yet he can sit down and tell you stories for hours or even days from memory. And he doesn’t have to be any kind of memory specialist to do this. Thus if you know how to use your brain, you can do things that seemed at first to be utterly impossible.
So then, what is it about associations that actually enable us to do something we otherwise cannot do? Perhaps the simplest way to describe this is to say that associations enable us to understand the subject to be memorized. This is a very useful definition because it can help anyone to do better in school, or in any learning endeavor. If you really understand physics or math or chemistry, you don’t need to memorize it, because you can’t forget it. This might seem pointless because we shifted our question from “what is memory?” to “what is association?” and then to “what is understanding?”. It is not pointless if we can define understanding: it is a mental process of associating a new object with other objects (the more the better!) that are already familiar to you. That is, the new object now becomes “meaningful”.
What do “understand” and “meaningful” mean? The human memory function has numerous components, such as visual, auditory, tactile, emotional, conscious, automatic, short term, long term, etc. Therefore, any input into the brain can result in an almost infinite number of associations. However, most people make only a few. Good memorizers have brains that continually make numerous associations with every input, in an almost automatic or habitual way. The large number of associations ensures that even if some of them are forgotten there are enough left to maintain the memory. However, that is not enough. We saw that in order to memorize, we must understand, which means that these associations are connected and ordered in some logical way. Understanding is like filing everything in a well organized way into a file cabinet. If the same information is strewn randomly all over the desktop and on the floor, you won’t easily find the information you need. The brains of good memorizers are constantly seeking “interesting” or “amazing” or “mysterious” or “outrageous”, etc., associations (file cabinet locations) that make recall easier. The “meaningful” and “understanding” associations of memory make good memorizers effectively more intelligent; thus good memory can raise the effective IQ. This is somewhat analogous to computers: adding memory can speed up a slow computer.
The associative nature of memory explains why keyboard memory works: you
associate the music with the particular motions and keys that must be played to
create the music. This also tells us how to optimize keyboard memory. Clearly,
it is a mistake to try to remember each keystroke; we should think in terms of
things like “RH arpeggio starting from
C, which is repeated in the LH an octave
down, staccato, with happy feeling”, etc., and to associate these motions with
the resulting music and its structure; i.e., memorize groups and families of
notes and abstract concepts. You should make as many associations as possible:
Bach’s music may have certain characteristics, such as special ornaments and
colliding hands and parallel sets. What you are doing is making the action of
playing “meaningful” in terms of how the music is produced and how well you
“understand” the music. This is why practicing scales and arpeggios is so
important. When you encounter a run of 30 notes, you can remember it simply as
a section of a scale, instead of 30 notes to memorize. Learning absolute pitch
or at least relative pitch is also helpful for memory because they can provide
additional associations with specific notes. The most common associations
musicians make are with emotions evoked by the music. Some use color or
scenery. In conclusion, “Born memorizer” is a phrase without a definition,
because every good memorizer has a system, and all the systems appear to follow
some very similar basic principles that anyone can learn.
n. How to Become a Good Memorizer¶
Nobody becomes a good memorizer without practice, just as nobody becomes a good pianist without practicing. This means that anyone can become a good memorizer with proper training, just as anyone can learn any language under the right conditions. Most students have enough desire to memorize and therefore are willing to practice; yet many fail. Why do they fail, and are there simple solutions? The answer is yes!
Poor memorizers fail to memorize because they quit before they start. They were never introduced to effective memory methods and had experienced enough failures to conclude that it is useless to try to memorize. One helpful device in becoming a good memorizer is to realize that our brains record everything whether we like it or not. The only problem is that we can’t recall that data easily.
We saw that the ultimate goal of all the memory procedures we discussed is good, solid MP. My initial understanding of MP was that it could be performed only by gifted musicians. This turned out to be false. We all conduct MP in our daily lives! MP is just a process of recalling items from memory and arranging them or using them, for planning our actions, solving problems, etc. We do this practically every moment of our waking hours, and probably even during sleep. When a mother with 3 kids wakes up in the morning and plans the day’s activities for her family and what to eat and how to cook each dish for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, she is conducting a mental procedure just as complex as what Mozart did when he played a Bach Invention in his head. We don’t think of this mother as a genius on the level of Mozart only because we are so familiar with these mental processes which we conduct effortlessly every day. Therefore, although Mozart’s ability to compose music was indeed extraordinary, MP is nothing unusual – we can all do it with a little practice. In today’s teaching/training practices, MP has become standard in most disciplines that require utmost mental control, such as golf, figure skating, dance, downhill ski, etc. It should also be taught to piano students from the very beginning.
Another way to improve memorization is to apply the “forget 3 times” rule; namely, that if you can forget and re-memorize the same thing 3 times, you will usually remember it indefinitely. This rule works because it eliminates the frustration from forgetting and it provides 3 chances to practice various memorization/recall methods. Frustration with, and fear of, forgetting is the worst enemy of poor memorizers, and this method alleviates that frustration.
Finally, you must “understand” and organize anything you memorize. Maintain an
orderly filing cabinet of information, not memories scattered randomly all over
the brain, that can’t be easily retrieved. Everything you memorize must be
classified and associated with other things in memory that are related to it.
For example, instead of memorizing the sequence of sharps and flats in the key
CGDAEBF), you can “understand” it as a result of the circle of
fifths, which is easy to visualize on a keyboard. Because of the large number
of associations, this “understanding” is retained permanently in memory. These
techniques will make you a good memorizer in just about everything, not only
piano. In other words, the brain becomes constantly active in memorizing and it
becomes an effortless, automatic routine. The brain automatically seeks
interesting associations and constantly maintains the memory with no conscious
effort. For older folks, establishing this “automation” habit is harder, and
will take longer. As you succeed in memorizing these initial items (such as a
piano repertoire), you will begin to apply the same principles to everything
else and your general memory will improve. Therefore, in order to become a good
memorizer, you must change the way you use the brain, in addition to knowing
all the memory tricks/methods discussed here. This is the hardest part –
changing how your brain operates.
Memorizing is necessary for learning a piece quickly and well, playing musically, acquiring difficult technique, performing flawlessly, eliminating nervousness, etc. To memorize piano music, simply use the rules for learning, with the added proviso that you memorize everything before you start to practice that section. It is the repetition during practice, from memory, that automatically implants the memory with little or no additional effort compared to the effort needed to learn the piece. The first important step is HS memorization. When you memorize something beyond a certain point, you will almost never forget it. For memorizing, you can use music (melodic) memory, hand memory, photographic memory, keyboard memory, and music theory. You should have two repertoires: memorized and sight reading. The human memory function is associative and a good memorizer is good at finding associations and organizing them into an “understanding” of the subject matter. A super memorizer is an expert in the development and use of efficient algorithms for memory. Music is an efficient algorithm; absolute pitch will also help. All these memory methods should culminate in Mental Play – you can play the music, and hear it, as if you have a piano in your head. MP is essential for practically anything you do at the piano and it enables you to practice memorizing at any time. Good memorizers are good because their brains are always memorizing something automatically; you can train the brain to do this only if you can do MP. MP brings with it a whole new world of musical capabilities such as playing a piece from anywhere in the middle, absolute pitch, composing, performing without flubs, etc., which we had mistakenly attributed to “talent”. Good memory can raise your effective IQ. Many of those miraculous feats that the musical geniuses are fabled to have performed are within reach of all of us!