Remember the episode from the TV show Friends where Phoebe teaches Joey to play the guitar? The premise: “Don’t touch the guitar.” Click here to watch.
So, in relation to the video clip from Friends, the joke has been: “Did you… did you TOUCH the piano?!”
Today I’m going to share 5 tips for memorising piano music *away* from the instrument. But first, I’m going to share some insights from my personal, and initially toilsome, journey into memorisation.
I USED TO BE RUBBISH AT MEMORISING – HERE’S HOW I IMPROVED
Just yesterday Sally asked me: “So what did you find difficult when you memorised music as a young piano pupil?” Fact was, when I attended piano lessons throughout my childhood and into my teenage years, memorisation just wasn’t on the radar. I was never required, by my teachers, to perform from memory. Quite frankly, I was playing advanced level repertoire (eyes glued to the score) before I even remotely considered the idea of playing music from memory.
However, when I started teaching the piano I became convinced of the value of memorising music – through attending seminars, doing courses and reading around the subject. Memorisation: it’s being able to sit down and play music – anywhere, anytime – without the score; it’s having a better understanding of the music; it’s being able to communicate the emotion and character of the music. Not to mention the fact that it’s an awesome learning opportunity.
At this point I also realised that, because memorisation didn’t feature in my playing, it didn’t feature in my pupils’ playing either. What we don’t do will often translate into what our pupils don’t do.
WHAT WE DON'T DO WILL OFTEN TRANSLATE INTO WHAT OUR PUPILS DON'T DO - SHARON MARK-TEGGARTTweet quote
When I started to develop my memorisation skills I used to start by learning the piece first, at the piano, with the score. How well did that work? Honestly? Not very well. One day, a single sentence from an article Successful Memorising written by Jenny Macmillan shed light on where I was going wrong: “Do not learn the piece first and then decide to commit it to memory” (p6).
The other problem was that I threw myself in at the deep end. I expected myself to be able to memorise the same level of music that I was reading.
What’s my secret? If memorising is a new venture, start by memorising very simple repertoire. That way, you give yourself every chance of successfully memorising the piece because there is less complexity involved. Then you can increase the level of difficulty incrementally. Also, initially memorise away from the piano. Graham Fitch’s blog post The Analytic Memory, which includes the following quotes, is well worth reading.
“The only really successful way of learning a work… is to do so… away from the instrument” (Glenn Gould)
“I have never actually started to work on a new piece of music at the piano” (Gina Bachauer)
So remember, until you’ve throughly analysed the score away from the piano: “don’t… don’t TOUCH the piano!”
WHICH ONE’S YOUR SEAT?
As a piano teacher, what type of Memoriser are you? Seasoned (a real pro) or needing to start at the very beginning (just like me some years ago)? An ‘improving’ memoriser (can-be, determined-to-be, better)? Or maybe you’d like to understand the process of how to teach pupils to memorise?
5 TIPS FOR MEMORISING *AWAY* FROM THE PIANO
Last month I used a train journey to Dublin to memorise a grade 1 piece of piano music by June Armstrong called The Terrible Flood – inspired by Chapter 9 of Winnie The Pooh in which “Piglet is entirely surrounded by water”.
At the time, the members of The Community were having a fascinating debate about the piece. It’s one of those pieces that sounds and looks so much harder than it really is – to the extent that the composer suggests that pupils learn it by rote.
- Listen to the piece with the score. June Armstrong’s website has an audio track for every piece of music within every collection, so all I needed initially on the first leg of my train journey was the score, my iPhone and earbuds. You can also watch a video of this piece (slower tempo). The piece is one of thirty in the book called Enchanted World – of which there are 3 composer-signed copies up for grabs in our Summer Competition (see below).
- Analyse the structure and create hooks. For this I needed a set of coloured pens and a few copies of the score. (On different copies I tended to mark different things. That way, one score doesn’t become too cluttered). One ‘hook’ was knowing that there were five phrases, which I marked with numbers on the score. Another was knowing that phrases one and two started on E6, while phrases three, four and five started on E3.
- Focus on the shapes and patterns. I used these ‘hooks’ as starting points, and then proceeded to identify musical shapes. For example, the fifth phrase of this piece starts on E3 (hook) with a RH thumb (hook) going up 4 steps – tuck in thumb – up another 4 steps – tuck in thumb – up and then down 5 steps (and then repeat the pattern). Here’s a question: which notes were played with thumbs? Try playing it!
- Start in different places. This is where that analysis usefully kicks in. I knew that there were five phrases. I knew that phrase 3 is a five-finger ascending/descending/ascending/descending pattern starting on E3 (hook) using the notes E F# G# A# B. I knew that phrase 4 has exactly the same shape, only this time the notes are just E F G A B.
- Do it regularly. Finally, I revisted the piece over a couple of days. (On day 2, back on the train again, I realised that not every phrase was secure after trying to write out the entire piece from memory). Research by Adcock suggests that we need daily encounters with the stuff we’re memorising in order to really remember. In a study, Group 1 read through material to be memorised 16 times in 1 day. Group 2 read through the material once every day for 16 days. Two weeks after each group completed the learning, they were tested. Group 1 remembered 9% of the material while Group 2 remembered 79%. So it pays to do it the ‘little but often’ way, especially if memorising music isn’t a familiar process.