Part of what induces anxiety among many pianists when performing from memory is just how the kinaesthetic sensations (muscle memory) may change when an audience is present. It doesn’t seem to matter if that audience is one person hovering over the piano in an informal situation or a concert hall filled with people. What we know we know when playing in the comfort of our own studio risks becoming unfamiliar when adrenaline enters the picture, and many excellent pianists and musicians find themselves crumbling inside as fingers refuse to cooperate and the mind freezes and goes blank.
For myself, when preparing a programme from memory I find I need to devote a considerable amount of time in my practice to making sure I know the music upside down, inside out, backwards and sideways. I aim to bolster aural and analytic memory while steering clear of muscle memory as far as is possible. Nobody spends a lot on insurance hoping they’ll need to make a claim, but it does offer peace of mind – even if you are not planning to play from memory, a certain amount of memory work (which after all is just deep learning) is indispensable to the security and quality of the eventual performance.
For more on analytic memory, follow this link to my blog post
In recent years, as part of my work as principal tutor on the Piano Teachers’ Course UK, I have discovered the benefit of mind maps in learning and memorising. A musical mind map is a diagram that represents aspects of a piece (structure, poetic meaning, story line, etc.) in colours, symbols, pictures and/or words. The traditional mind map as described by Tony Buzan in his book Quick Steps to a Better Memory looks somewhat different to the mind maps I have seen for a musical score, but the beauty of this idea is that it is flexible and open to all sorts of possibilities – and is very personal. This mind map about tennis is one way of doing it.
Here is a diagram for Burgmüller’s Ballade (from op. 100), my reproduction is from my memory of a map quickly scribbled in a lesson by an 8-year old (who is much more artistic than I). As I was taking her through the piece, we chatted about the designs she saw and heard in it, and (with a little encouragement) she came up with a map that looked something like this.
The musical designs are very clearly represented here, and we found that after just one or two lessons we could remove the score and use the map as an intermediary stage before the piece was fully and reliably memorised.
For a link to the score, click here
Here is a very different approach to a more advanced piece. This map uses some images, a storyline and some poetry to add meaning and to stimulate the imagination. Instead of worrying about the pedal, whether the twos-against-threes are accurate or whether the LH is moving in elliptical circles in the middle section (all of which stuff belongs in the practice room), we can focus our mind on the communication of the musical message in performance. If our artistic image is sharp enough, anxiety and nervousness can be reduced to a minimum with the aid of a map such as this. For Jo Sanderson’s mind map for the Grieg Nocturne, follow this link to the powerpoint presentation.
Jo did the Piano Teachers’ Course in 2014/15, and teaches privately in Cheltenham.
For a link to the score, click here
For more information on mind mapping for musicians, I can recommend Rebecca Shockley’s excellent book Mapping Music: For Faster Learning and Secure Memory (A Guide for Piano Teachers and Students)