A Tool for Memory Work: Tracking

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):


Practice Suggestions

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!

Further reading

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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A Simple Mapping Tool for Performance

When we perform, we aim to take our listener on a musical journey. As custodians of the score, we illuminate the salient features of the composition as we have come to understand and appreciate them. We do this by shaping the work as a whole by highlighting the main arrival points and climaxes, shaping individual phrases, dwelling on those magical moments that are special to us and generally communicating our passion for and understanding of the piece. No matter how many times we have played the piece, each time we play it things will be slightly different in the detail.

Some journeys are more straightforward than others, but it always helps to have planned our route ahead. I would like to offer you a very simple mapping tool to organise a performance using a numbering system from 1 to 10 (where 1 represents the place of least intensity, 10 the greatest intensity), applied to the most obvious parameters of musical performance.

The  Parameters of Musical Performance

Insofar as these are quantifiable, here they are:

  • Main arrival places/high points/climaxes

The main arrival point (as you see and feel it) might get an 8 up to a 10, depending on how strong a climax it is. Secondary climaxes or cadential points would score less. In this rough map of Chopin’s B minor Prelude, I feel the main climax is in bar 12 (Neapolitan harmony), with an anti-climax in bar 18 (the interrupted cadence). You may well feel it differently, and this is fine. Since I don’t want this prelude to have a large feeling of climax, I only assign it a 5 (OK, so it may go a 6 if I’m feeling especially generous one day). The place where the music calms down to its softest point is the very end, which gets a 1.

Chopin B minor score

  • Range of intensity of notes within each phrase

You might want to use this discriminately, but the general idea is to identify the high point of each phrase and assign it a number. If the phrase has a strong feeling of climax, give that note (or area of notes) anything up to a 10; if the phrase is more level, the numbers will reflect this. If you want to expand your expressive range in a phrase that feels a bit dead or wooden, give each note a number. As you practise, carefully grade each note according to your scheme. You can do this in your head, but if you choose to write this in the score you will have to find a way of doing so that doesn’t conflict with finger numbers (perhaps using a different coloured pencil, italics, or putting the expression number in a circle to distinguish it from a fingering, and so on). Here is my range of expression map for the first phrase of the same Prelude (click on the image to enlarge):

Chopin B minor phrase

  • Timings/rubato/tempo flexibility

You could use 5 for the average tempo within a phrase or section, increasing the number as you push the tempo or decreasing it as you pull. If you want to add a ritard (or if it is marked), ask yourself if it is a gradual ritard. If so, consider a range from 8 – 7.9 – 7.8 – 7.7, etc. Is it a sudden change of tempo? If so, the drop may be in whole numbers. If you want to add a timing scale to your score, you might consider colour coding it. Perhaps red for climaxes/high points and green for timings? Use something you’ll remember, and preferably on a photocopy for this purpose.

Having a visual map of our intended shapings for a performance can be extremely useful, especially if we are undecided about what we want. Once we are really familiar with the route, we can deviate a little from it here and there without losing our bearings or general sense of direction. The paradox is the more concrete our performance decisions, the greater the room for spontaneity on the stage. Rather than restrict us, having a definite plan allows us even greater expressive freedom.

In Part 3 of my ebook series, I explore scale and arpeggio playing in depth. Included are many ideas for practising, as well as rhythm charts,  practice charts, other interactive features and video demonstrations.

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A Useful Research Tool – Practising the Piano

I was working with someone on the Appassionata Sonata of Beethoven this week. The rhythmic organisation of the trill in bar 3 was not clear to me, so I asked to hear this bar slowly. Slowing the trill down proved a bit of a challenge, so I came up with a solution along the lines suggested by Artur Schnabel in his landmark edition.

The principle here is that since a trill has a finite number of notes, it greatly assists performer and listener if these notes can be accounted for metrically. Here is Schnabel’s first recommendation:

He goes on to give an alternative, but more difficult version:

So which to choose, and are there other possibilities? I often find myself advising students to practise two or three strict versions of trills (if possible) in order that a freer version might emerge spontaneously in performance.

And speaking of performances, we can easily research the vast number of different recordings available on YouTube using a simple tool hidden within the settings. This feature enables us to slow the speed down so that fast surface detail becomes clear and audible – at three-quarters, half or a quarter speed. The slower the setting, the lower the sound quality and of course the musical meaning is almost entirely lost. But how useful to discover how other pianists organise details such as this trill! I have made a short video to show you how to do it.

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