A student recently asked me what is the best way to memorize a piano piece… for example;
- Testing your memory by covering up the sheet music and trying to play small chunks at a time?
- Trying to remember the piece from the way it sounds (i.e. by ear)?
- Trying to remember the fingering patterns / physical movements required to play the piece?
- Singing through the piece in your head?
- Studying the sheet music carefully away from the piano?
My initial answer to my student was (in summary) that it’s a combination of all these different approaches.
Then, last night as I was trying to memorize a Chopin Prelude I hadn’t played for some years, and reflecting on my performing experience in the past, I started thinking about it on a deeper level.
Chopin is my favorite of the classical composers, but one of the challenges (I find) with Chopin is his pieces are often harder to memorize than pieces generally — because Chopin quite often has several sections that are very similar to each other with small, subtle differences from one iteration of a theme to the next.
And so it’s very easy to get mixed up from one section to the next. (Did that ornamentation occur in the third or fourth iteration of that theme?)
So what is the solution? How do you memorize piano pieces so you can reliably, stably perform them with the confidence of a concert pianist?
The answer is… OBSERVATION — CAREFUL OBSERVATION.
Just because we can play a piece (with the sheet music) doesn’t mean we know it.
Now we can of course do the basic things like memorizing it in small sections, then checking the sheet music.
And perhaps when you’re playing it on your own at home, this may seem like enough.
But when you’re playing it on stage, battling nerves, etc. and someone in the audience coughs, farts, has a heart attack, or maybe their phone rings… basic memorization is not going to be enough to maintain your focus and get you through the performance.
In fact, most memory lapses (by performers on stage) are not memory lapses at all… they are lapses in concentration — which I’ll return to later. But first…
How To Memorize Piano Pieces For Performances
To memorize your pieces deeply and thoroughly you need to carefully observe and memorize what is happening at each moment throughout the piece on a number of different levels.
(Note: Initially focus on just one of the following levels at any given time).
After you have done your basic memorization, i.e. memorized the sequence of the notes for each hand separately as well as hands together, do each of the following steps:
Step 1 — Note the harmonies
Looking at the sheet music, SLOWLY play through the piece several times taking careful note of the harmonies (what chords / intervals are being played at each moment throughout the piece).
Then test yourself (in small sections if necessary) by seeing whether you can remember at each moment (without looking at the sheet music) what chord / interval is coming up next?
Step 2 — Note the sequence of physical movements
Then, looking at the sheet music, SLOWLY play through the piece several times taking note of the sequence of physical movements — changes in fingering / hand position and wrist / arm movements.
Then test yourself (in small sections if necessary)… Can you remember at each moment (without looking at the sheet music) what physical movements, changes in fingering etc. are coming up next?
Step 3 — Memorize it by ear
Then, looking at the sheet music, SLOWLY play through the piece several times playing by ear, by which I mean at each moment imagining the sound of the next notes / chords just ahead of when you play them.
Then test yourself again (in small sections if necessary)… Can you at each moment (without looking at the sheet music) ‘hear in your inner ear’ the sound of the notes / chords that are coming up next?
Step 4 — Observe the other details
Then, looking at the sheet music, SLOWLY play though the piece several times observing anything else on the score note covered in steps 1-3 — details of dynamics, phrasing, tempo indications, accents, etc.
Then test yourself again… Can you remember at each moment (without looking at the sheet music) what ‘other details’ (change in dynamics, etc.) are coming up next?
Step 5 — Go silently through the sheet music
By now, you think you know the piece inside out and so we must therefore be close to finishing???… Not quite.
Now move away from the piano and SLOWLY look through the sheet music SILENTLY, playing the piece slowly in your head (not on the piano keyboard).
Take note of every detail you have studied so far.
As you look through the sheet music, can you hear each note / chord? Are you seeing in your mind’s eye each sequence of harmonies unfold, the sequence of physical movements of your hands on the keyboard, the details of the phrasing?
Step 6 — Go silently through the sheet music with your eyes closed
OK, good. Now close the book and closing your eyes, repeat Step 5.
Can you see each event on the sheet music in your mind’s eye? Can you visualize each physical movement of your hands on the keyboard? Hear the sound of each note / chord in your head? Do you know at each moment of your ‘inner performance’ what chord is coming up next?
OK, now you’re almost done.
The fact is, by memorizing the piece on so many different levels, you are extremely unlikely to genuinely forget any part of the piece.
Even if you forget (at a given point) the notes that are coming up next — if you have memorized and can play the piece;
- by ear
- by chords
- by the sequence of hand movements
- by visualizing each bar of the sheet music, etc.
... you will still know and be able to play that part of the piece you would otherwise have ‘forgotten’.
However, there is just one last step before you’re ready to reliably perform… preparing for distractions.
Preparing For Distractions During Piano Performances
Distractions are what lead to lapses in concentration, which the audience will incorrectly perceive as memory lapses.
To prepare for / prevent this, turn up the tv or radio really loudly and go back to your piano keyboard.
Now (without looking at the sheet music), SLOWLY deliberately play the piece, savoring each event… relishing your knowledge of all the different levels of every moment of the piece.
Be in the moment. Ignore the din of the tv or radio.
If there is construction work going on next store, great. Relish the distraction training this provides.
In fact, if you can get hold of a recording of some drilling, banging hammering from a construction site and play this really loudly while you test your memory, this is ideal.
If your family are home, ask them to make some noise in the background, open and close doors, clang some pots and pans together, enter and leave the room randomly, etc.
NOTE: At each point in the article I have emphasized the word “SLOWLY”. Practicing a piece (learning how to play it) and memorizing it should be treated separately.
The purpose of going slowly while memorizing a piece is to give yourself time to think… time to deeply register each event into every fiber of your being.
Once you have finished memorizing it, you can of course play it at full tempo.
And there you have it folks… Now you’re ready to perform!
Just to put the above in context, what I have just briefly described is the sort of advanced preparation a concert pianist might undertake before going on stage to perform.
If you’re a beginner piano student (or thinking of beginning), or if you’re happy playing on your own at home with the sheet music in front of you, please don’t be deterred by the above, as it may not apply to you.
For intermediate to advanced students seeking to enhance your performing abilities, the above suggestions are definitely well worth considering.
Whether you (dear reader) are a beginner or intermediate player, I do encourage you to consider starting your piano lessons journey with Musiah by taking our Free Online Piano Lessons 14 Day Trial.
There is no cost, no risk and no pressure. Just a really great opportunity to see if online piano lessons with Musiah are right for you.
I hope you found this article helpful. Thanks for reading, and please feel free to comment below.
Brendan Hogan L.Mus.A, A.Mus.A.
Piano Teacher & Musiah Inventor
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