Memorising a piece takes plenty of time and energy, and requires a strategy more sophisticated than simply closing the score after several weeks of reading it. Some memory work is like buying insurance – you hope you’ll never actually need it! While some pianists memorise easily, others struggle with it and never really feel confident. We’ve all been in that horrible situation where for the life of us we can’t remember what comes next, even though we know we know the piece inside out and backwards.
In this article I introduce a tool for when you have done a certain amount of groundwork memorising a piece, but you want something extra to strengthen and test your memory – I call it “tracking”. You can use it for any piece, long or short and I guarantee it will work a treat.
Mark the Score
If you don’t want to mark up your original score, make a copy for the purposes of this exercise. Divide the piece up into meaningful units that you’re going to number like tracks on a CD. The tracks can be as long or as short as you want, but the unit you choose should at least be a phrase. You might prefer a longer section, but here short is good!
I have divided up Chopin’s Nocturne in B, op. 32, no. 1 into 12 tracks in all. The score will end up looking something like this (I am showing page 1 only):
With the marked score away from the piano (preferably over the other side of the room but certainly out of sight), here are some suggestions for practice.
1. Play track 1 and then remove your hands from the keyboard. Do something to deliberately interrupt the musical and mental flow, such as count up to 10, recite the first line of a poem or read a sentence or two from a book. Continue with track 2 and repeat the process, until you have reached the end. Make sure you can play each track perfectly from memory before proceeding to the next.
2. Play from the start of track 1, then deliberately interrupt yourself by stopping. You could stop after just a few notes, a couple of bars or you could go almost to the end of the track – vary this each time so you don’t stop in the same place. Take your hands off the keyboard, wait for a few moments and recommence with track 2. Do the same with track 2, etc. until you reach the end. Deliberately interrupting the flow then jumping to the next track bolsters the memory extremely well. Imagine the worst happening in performance and you came adrift. You would be able to skip forward and start again from the next place, as you’ll have practised doing this. Paradoxically, knowing you can do this makes you feel a whole lot calmer on the stage or in your exam and reduces the likelihood of a slip.
3. Play track 1 then imagine track 2 in your head without playing it. Hear it inwardly in vivid detail. Try not to drum your fingers on your knees, as this would be making sly use of muscular memory! Continue by playing track 3 exactly when it is due and then imagine track 4, and so on. Make sure the next time you do this you play the tracks you have previously imagined, and imagine the tracks you have previously played.
4. Play the last track (let’s say it is track 12). Then go back and play tracks 11 and 12 together. Then tracks 10, 11 and 12, and so on, until you reach the beginning.
5. If you feel you need further security, play the tracks in a random order, making sure you break in between each track. You can generate a random list by putting the tracks as numbers in a list using this great random list generator.
Note to teachers: Assign a particularly troublesome track for special practice and hear it first in the next lesson!
For more on memorisation, please see Part 4 of my multimedia eBook series (the third section is entirely devoted to memorisation) or the following links:
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