“DID YOU… DID YOU TOUCH THE PIANO?”

This month the members of The Community of The Curious Piano Teachers have been involved in a 21-day challenge which has included memorising a piece of music away from the piano.

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-TEGGART
Tweet 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?

If you’ve ‘sat’ on the yellow seat, these tips will be old hat. If you’ve ‘sat’ on any of the other seats, then these 5 tips will come handy. (And if you’re on the orange seat – cool bananas!)

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.

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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!
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

 

This post was written by Sharon Mark-Teggart | Co-Founder & Co-Director of The Curious Piano Teachers

37 thoughts on ““DID YOU… DID YOU TOUCH THE PIANO?”

  1. Julie Cooper

    Perched on grey seat for first time on 5th August by memorising post-it rhythms & now working on transposing a piece as a step to help me memorise a grade 1 level piece of music really securely!

    Reply
  2. Sally

    A big THANK YOU for all these fabulous responses. This topic has really got you all thinking which is just what we wanted!
    But we have promised something special to 3 lucky readers who really impressed with their enthusiasm, so please step forward:

    Gay Jacklin
    Catherine R
    Jan Fulford

    If you send us an email (info@curiouspiano.org) with your home address we will get your prizes to you as soon as we can.

    Many congratulations to everyone again and happy memorising!

    Reply
  3. Jayne

    I find this interesting reading even though I’ve heard most of it before with you, Sharon, on evoco seminars. But, somehow it’s even more helpful when I see the strategies written down in a clear format!

    For me, I’m sitting on the blue chair. I’ve tried memorisation before with some success, but it always took ALOT of patience! I’m looking forward to starting the challenge in August!

    My #1 takeaway will be:
    Practicing regularly, away from the piano initially, developing the cognitive skills first!

    Reply
  4. Clare S

    I’m on the white chair. Especially after teaching ‘The Terrible Flood’. It worked incredibly well and gave such joy to me and my pupil!

    Reply
  5. Su Ancliffe

    Turquoise chair – I find that I can get about a third of the way through a piece and then my brain reverts to ‘Stand By’!

    Reply
  6. Josie

    I think I’d like a pale yellow chair, please. 🙂 I’ve been memorizing pieces since I’ve been playing the piano, but even though I’ve required it of my students, I don’t know that I’ve taught it effectively. I just tell them to play it from memory “for 3 stars”. Looking forward to implementing the “don’t touch the piano!” angle. 🙂

    Reply
  7. Claire

    I want to teach my students to memorise in the most effective way. My top take away is to do a little and often as well as understand the music.

    Reply
  8. Dixie

    My seats are white and blue. I would like to teach my students a better way to memorize and practice that myself as well.

    Reply
  9. Kimberly Handley

    Don’t touch the piano first. Begin memorizing away from the piano by analyzing the score every day until you can write it out.

    Reply
  10. Rachael I

    I’m in the turquoise and white chair. I want to improve my memory skills, so that I can be a better at performing myself, but also to help teach my pupils.

    Reply
  11. Rachel Boneham

    I’m blue a white like so many here.
    Although I actually accidentally have memorised a lot – I often play without music for songs etc at school – I’ve realised that I rely on aural skills, remembering the melody / harmonic sounds – and a fair bit of harmonic improvisation – rather than strictly memorising a whole piece. So I’m curious as to where my 21 day challenge takes me in terms of away from the piano skills and the knock on effect on my ability to teach memorisation!

    Reply
  12. Pamela D

    I’m in the brown chair. I’ve never memorised a piece, except for the Minuet from the July curiosity box, and I would like to. The main point that stands out for me is that you start away from the piano, rather than memorising it after you’ve learned it.

    Reply
  13. Yvonne

    I’m sitting in the blue seat the and white seat. I want to improve my own memorisation techniques and be able to pass the most effective ones to my pupils. Funnily enough, whilst on holiday recently I decided to try to learn a piece by memory from scratch while I had no piano. I have been convinced for some time that this approach is more effective than my usual ‘method’ of memorising once I feel secure playing from the score. I find it really interesting the detail you notice in a piece when you approach it like this.

    Reply
  14. Jan Fulford

    Great article! I have NEVER been able to memorize but sight read like crazy. My biggest fear is for someone to ask me to play something and I have no music with me. I am a yellow chair, for sure. My biggest takeaway from this article is learning AWAY from the piano. I’ve never done this. Oh, also, to memorize a piece on a much lower level because it is a new skill. Can’t wait to get started!

    Reply
  15. Kathryn H

    I’m somewhere between the blue and the yellow seat. I used to be much better at memorising, but have lost some of the skill as I’ve got older so would like to improve. The best way I can memorise anything is by teaching it. I presume this is because I am looking for patterns and cues in the music to help my pupil make sense of the music. This would reinforce the reasoning above that it’s better not to play it first. Listening to pieces seems to help me memorise more than actually playing them.

    Reply
  16. Jessica W

    Turquoise and white! This challenge has really got me thinking about how the way that I learn things affects how I teach, and how I need to try out things that I don’t necessarily feel are the most effective ways of learning for me, but may be super helpful for some of my students who have different strengths. So I love Sharon’s quote from the article which kind of sums up what this month’s curiosity box has been all about for me.

    Reply
  17. Val Magee

    I’m on the ‘grey’ seat so I can learn to memorise because I just don’t know how to then I can move to the ‘white’ seat so I can teach it – SO excited about that. That won’t be the end though because I will be moving to the ‘blue’ seat as I improve my memorising skills and hopefully the ‘yellow’ seat – a seasoned memoriser! Curious to see how this journey unfolds, beginning with the ’21-day challenge’

    Reply
  18. Katherine Hutchinson

    I’m in the blue/turquoise chair and the white chair. I find I do tend to memorise fairly easily and have learnt how to back up finger memory with analysis etc but I have always staredt from the point of learning the piece first, so am intrigued to try away from music first..that will be a challenge!
    And I am very keen to find ways to help some of my adults perform better by securing their natural muscle memory which they use in lessons to some stronger foundations that will survive the stress of performing in our group piano circle!

    Reply
  19. Simon Burgess

    I’m wanting to improve my skills but also want to know how to teach my pupils to learn by memorising. Haven’t a clue what the colours are apart from the white one.

    Reply
  20. Zoe Iglesias

    I consider myself a white chair since I am used to memorize entire recital programs since I was in my first year at music school. However, I have a student that simply cannot memorize; she plays very well the pieces and almost without having to look at the score, but if I take it away from the piano she freezes and cannot play anymore. I have tried memorizing the hooks with should have been already on her fingers when learning the piece -since that is the way I memorize- but she simply refuses to memorize. What can I do?

    Reply
  21. Gill Shaw

    I recognise that tag line!!

    I’m in the yellow chair. I’m an accidental memoriser (although it’s definitely aural and analytical, not just muscular). It means though that until this month’s curiosity box, while I have been using visualisation for memorising tricky bars with students, I hadn’t really approached memorisation as a skill to be taught.

    I also discovered while recording the Menuett that sometimes my memory plays tricks on me! I’ll post that on the community page this week. It was strange!

    Reply
  22. Marianne Gaspar

    I’m blue and white. I’d like to memorise with more security, so the tips on breaking the piece down seem really helpful.

    Reply
  23. Caroline Panter

    Im brown and white and I find its often something my pupils do instinctively and often better than I can. I have always been a good sightreader glued to the notation but Im starting to appreciate this often hinders a completely musical performance.

    Reply
  24. Catherine R

    I used to think that if you played a piece enough times, listened to it played by other performers enough times, you would eventually be able to play it from memory…how wrong I was! The need to analyse the structure and create hooks (finding the patterns within) are crucial tips for me. I’m sitting in the blue chair, hoping to move into the white chair soon!

    Reply
  25. Christine

    I decided to teach The Giant’s Coming, S Clarke, grade one by memory as it’s quite hard to read. Everyone who has learnt it now really enjoys playing it and it has proved quite easy to memorise. I really agree that it is best to learn from memory right from the start rather than after learning by just reading. I’m on a navy seat!

    Reply
  26. Angie

    I’m in both the grey and white seats – and I love the quote, Sharon (the one about what we don’t do, translates into what our pupils don’t do)…
    My key take-away is being organised and committed to analysing, doing all the hard work understanding the piece away from the piano.

    Reply
  27. Deborah

    I’m on the orange chair! I have tried out this piece and love it! Winnie the Pooh has always been a favourite and the scales in this piece have me imagining Piglet frightened by waves of water. I don’t teach my pupils to memorise….yet!

    Reply
  28. Gay Jacklin

    I love encouraging pupils to memorise because they often perform better. My #1 takeaway is loads of humour when teaching – try and get your pupils to laugh when they make a mistake instead of feeling bad, or even explore the ‘mistake’ by improvising something around it, or asking if it sounded better than the original.

    Reply
  29. Lizbeth Atkinson

    I have one foot standing on the turquoise chair and one foot standing on the white chair. I want to improve my own skills while helping my student to improve their own. My #1 take away from the blog above is to do it regularly. Trying to do it all at once is not a good strategy for myself or my students.

    Reply
  30. Andrew

    Visualisation is, for me, a key strategy. I sit quietly on a chair literally sitting at a piano in my mind and play the music – short excerpts to begin with, especially the difficult bits, and then slowly expand the range. This helps in more than one way, it gives the performer an inner knowledge which facilitates freedom and expression, and it allows you to sing the music inside your head so that when you come to the instrument itself you already have a target sound you are seeking. Then you simply search for that sound. And yes, I make mistakes sometimes on my inner piano and have to stop and correct them just like the physical experience, in fact I feel the movement too.

    Reply
  31. Ros Wheeler

    I know I’m cheating as I keep playing small sections at the piano before I’ve learnt the piece as a whole! At least I’m doing it from memory… I know I’m not very good at following instructions.

    Reply

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