In part one of this article we looked at some of the general principles of memorising music. In part two I want to discuss some of the more practical details.
There are at least two aspects of memorising music that the piano student should be aware of; muscle memory and mental or intellectual memory. Muscle memory is rather hard won and can only really come through long hours of practice and repetition. This is rather unfortunate for us piano players because it is the type of memory that we most often have to rely on, particularly when playing vary fast or technically demanding music. However, the other type of memory, mental or intellectual memory, is no less important – though it is often rather neglected. It is this type of memorising that I want to talk about in this article and offer a practical approach to learning.
Imagination is the key to this type of memorising so I want you to take a moment to picture in your mind the piano keyboard. Visualise the layout of the white and black keys and try to see the whole length of the keyboard in your mind. Now pick a note on the keyboard – middle C for example – and imagine yourself playing it. Don’t move your hands or fingers, let it all happen in your mind. Be sure to imagine this happening as vividly as possible (it may help if you close your eyes).
Now the fun begins. Play, in your imagination, middle C followed by the two notes above it – D and E. Play them in an even rhythm – C, D, E – and hold the last note (the E) for two counts. Imagine playing this with your right hand. Now, with your left hand, play middle C followed by the two notes below – B and A – holding the A for two counts. The full sequence then is; C, D, E in the right hand followed by C, B, A in the left. Run through this sequence in your mind until it becomes easy. Avoid the temptation to go to the piano and play it. It is important that you do this all in your imagination.
We are going to repeat this sequence now but with a couple of small changes. The way the notes move will be the same but each hand will start on a different note. The right hand will start on D – playing D, E, F. The left hand will start on B – playing B, A, G. Once again, play through this sequence in your imagination only and until it becomes easy.
Now go back to the first sequence and play it again in your imagination. Then repeat the second sequence. Make sure you have thoroughly learnt these two sequences before moving on.
You may have noticed that between the first and second sequences the right hand moved up a step from C, D, E to D, E, F and the left hand moved down from C, B, A to B, A, G. To visualise this, repeat the first and second sequences together but only play one hand at a time. In the right hand you will play C, D, E followed by a pause where the left hand would be playing, then D, E, F. In the left hand you will play C, B, A follow by a pause, then B, A, G.
Now imagine the two hands continuing this pattern. The right hand moving up and the left hand moving down, only don’t play any notes, just move your hands into position. Now go in the reverse order. Move your right hand down a step and your left hand up a step, then once more until your hands are in the starting position. This is the basis of what you are about to play next. Keep it in mind as you play through the last part of this exercise exactly the way you did with the first two sequences. Practice just four, or even two, bars at a time and repeat each part until it becomes easy. Remember to always go back and play through the earlier sequences as well before you have time to forget them. Even if you think you have remembered it, test yourself anyway just to make sure.
Once you can play though each part of this piece in your mind, with ease and from memory, then try playing it on the piano. Don’t use the sheet music. If you feel like you have forgotten something or got something wrong, move away from the piano, study the music again, test yourself away from the piano, then try again at the piano. For this particular exercise it is very important not to use the music at the piano. When learning new music in general I recommend a combination of this sort of practice and practice at the piano with the music but for now keep the sheet music and the piano separate.
This may be quite difficult to do at first but like anything else the more you practice it the better you will get. And trust me, your memory will thank you for it.