When we learn to walk at the toddler stage of our development, we are gradually forming the neurological pathways that will make the activity automatic. Once we are able to walk, we don’t need to concentrate on the activity at all. If we focus on the muscles or the individual movements involved, we interfere with the process and can actually get in our own way. Even though piano playing involves very sophisticated fine motor control, it is essentially the same thing.
Some years ago, backstage before a concert, I needed to tie up a necktie for one of my young pupils. I had done this for myself thousands of times without thinking, but I was tying it up for someone else and, because I was standing in front of them, I was effectively putting on the tie back to front. This meant I was using a completely different series of muscular movements, and I had no idea what I was doing. I had forgotten the original instructions for tying the tie, all I could go on was an automated series of muscular movements. The only way I could manage the task was to stand behind and imagine I was tying it onto myself!
Muscle memory comes during routine practice as we learn a piece, but we need to take great care to build our house on solid bedrock (rather than shifting sands) by eliminating mistakes before they have had a chance to take root. It is very risky to learn a piece with the score and only memorise it afterwards. In last week’s post, I looked at how to prepare the ground for memorisation work by analysis – making discoveries about the music’s shape and patterns just by looking at the score away from the piano.
For best results, we memorise as we learn (and not afterwards) so we won’t be relying purely on our muscle memory. Why?
Muscle memory is a great ally when we are comfortable and relaxed (such as playing for ourselves at home) but it can be our worst enemy when adrenaline and nerves enter the picture during a performance.
We have all found on at least one occasion that as soon as we remove ourselves from our comfortable and familiar surroundings, things can feel so totally different – as though we did not know the piece at all.
The solution is to take active steps to memorise and not merely hope we remember. When I begin a new piece that I will perform from memory, I always form a mental map of the whole work before studying a section at a time away from the piano, adding the muscles (i.e. the sequence of fingers) last. Here is an example from the last movement of Mozart’s Concerto in C minor, K491.
Everyone analyses differently. Here’s what I see:
1. The big picture – reduce the RH line down to the basic outline and feel the harmonic functions.
2. Notice the design of the semiquaver (16th note) figurations.
- Bar 1: beats 1 and 3 ascend with a chromatic alteration; beats 2 and 4 descend diatonically.
- Bar 2: after the sudden drop of an octave, there is an ascending scale spanning 2 octaves – the first octave is the pure melodic minor form, the second octave chromatically altered (with an extra B flat).
- Bar 3: there are 2 turns followed by an ascending/descending pattern featuring a dip down and a skip up.
3. With the score, visualise the patterns of the notes on the keyboard. If you can, sing or solfege the line.
4. Visualise again, this time without looking at the score. Don’t worry about fingering at this stage – just see the patterns of notes accurately, hearing the music as vividly as you can. Do this slowly first, rewinding the tape when necessary, until you have a clear image.
For more on using visualisation techniques, follow this link to Part 4 of my eBook Series (click here)
3. When you feel ready, move to the piano but don’t take the score with you. Put the score on the other side of the room from the piano so you can’t possibly cheat. Play the line slowly using just one finger until every twist and turn of the music is known and mastered. I like to use the 3rd finger, but you can use the 2nd if you prefer. If you blank at any stage, close your eyes and recall your image of the note patterns – returning to the score if necessary. Slowly is fine – this does not have to be done at speed!
4. Omitting the bass line, play the contents of the RH stave divided up between two hands (again, slowly is fine). There are many ways of doing this, avoid doing it the same way too often (so you don’t begin to form muscle memory with any one of these different distributions). Here are some ideas:
- 4 notes with the RH, then 4 notes with the LH
- Repeat the other way round (4 notes with the LH, then 4 notes with the RH)
- Alternate the hands in groups of 2, or 8 (or indeed groups of 3 or 5)
- Alternate the hands in irregular groups
- Play the white notes with one hand and the black notes with the other (and vice versa)
For a video demonstration of these steps, follow this link (click here)
5. Play the line using your LH and a fingering that makes sense (move the piano bench to the right so you’re not sitting awkwardly).
6. Play the line in octaves (one hand) or double octaves (both hands together).
7. Lastly, work out a fingering and practise it in.
8. I suggest returning to these steps daily for several days to cement the memorisation. Thereafter, use transposition to really test your memory.
For more on transposition as a tool for memorisation, follow this link (click here)
If you are learning counterpoint, you can apply these ideas by playing two lines together slowly with one finger in each hand. For me, this is an acid test of whether the music is in my ear and my brain or just in my muscles. If I can’t do it reasonably fluently, then I simply don’t know it well enough.
For my blog post on how I applied these methods to memorising the Goldberg Variations, follow this link (click here)
What about memorising chords or denser harmonic textures? I will offer some thoughts and suggestions on this next week.
Practising the Piano eBook Series Part 4
I am delighted to announce that Part 4 of my eBook Series is now available. You can purchase Practising the Piano Part 4 (priced at £9.99) directly from my website. It is also available on Amazon Kindle and for pre-order on the Apple iBookstore (click here for the full series catalogue which contains links to the individual volumes on all platforms).
The full series (Parts 1 to 4) can now be purchased for £35.99 (a discount of 20% off the individual part prices). If you already own one or more parts of Practising the Piano you can also take advantage of further discount bundles to complete your collection. These can be viewed on the series catalogue page here.
If you would like a video introduction and more information on the contents of Part 4, please follow this link.
Buy Practising the Piano Part 4 Now
Click on the “Buy” button below to purchase Part 4 of Practising The Piano now:
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Or save a further 20% by purchasing all four parts of Practising the Piano together:
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Further information on the complete series is also available here and additional discount bundle combinations are available on the series catalogue here.