Memorisation – the Power of Three

Were you ever encouraged to memorise pieces when you were learning the piano? For a lucky few the answer might be ‘yes’ but I suspect for many of you this was a neglected skill.

Memorising is the second, vital connection in the Power of Three. Just like internalising (click here to read last week’s blog post), it is a skill that should be developed early on. But memorising is often viewed very cautiously by teacher and student alike.

DANGEROUS MEMORISATION!

You might have noticed that some young beginners appear to memorise their short pieces almost by accident with little or no effort? This sort of memorisation can be quite dangerous as students rely on a combination of the tune (aural memory) and following finger patterns (kinaesthetic and visual). It can be a cause of frustration for teachers as, once memorised, the written score is ignored and pupils just look at their fingers! Or, for slightly more advanced players, the memory turns out to be unreliable under the stress of a performance.

In both cases this is often because the feel and sound of the piece has been memorised but with no visual sense, auditory awareness or analytical frame to back it up. Under any kind of pressure the kinaesthetic memory often crumbles and the player is left with nothing in reserve. Professor Susan Hallam suggests this happens because musicians:

appear to learn using automated codes but attempt retrieval utilising conscious cognitive codes…this mismatch of codes may lead to failure to retrieve [1]

WHY MEMORISE?

It is the combination of visual, kinaesthetic, aural and analytical skills that make memorising such a powerful tool. Its benefits are three-fold:

  1. With no visual tie to a score the player’s listening senses are heightened
  2. The music is understood at a deeper level as every aspect has come under consideration during the memorisation process
  3. The individual’s focus has to be fully connected to the moment-by-moment performance of the piece

As a result of all of the above, players have a deeper understanding of the music and in addition, they are more likely to experience a sense of flow (to find out more about flow listen to this TED TALK). Over time musicians who memorise will develop greater sensitivity to the subtle intentions of the music. Another apparent and significant benefit is that, just like internalisation, memorisation often helps to reduce physical tensions when playing.

So it is important that all pianists learn to how memorise. Is there a right time to start encouraging young pianists to memorise? Well, I suggest that, like all the other skills I have discussed, memorising is something that should happen on a regular basis from the first lessons onwards. It has even been argued that learning is more effective and happens faster when memorisation is regularly used so including it right from the start will certainly benefit the whole learning process.

HOW TO START MEMORISING

I mentioned above the apparent ease with which many young children memorise short pieces. This often happens unconsciously and as a reaction to information overload. Reading *and* playing from notation is frequently more than the young brain can process which is why so many find it far easier just to play using the unconscious memory. So it is important for us to make sure that all the learning is taking place alongside the memorisation.

Let’s consider how this might work with a piece that appears in many piano method books – Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.

AND WHAT ELSE?

I find that some pupils know this melody and some don’t. Either way I make sure I put it in context by telling them a bit about Beethoven and the origins of the piece. Ideally I play them the relevant extract of Symphony No. 9.

Away from the keyboard look at the score together. Ask: ‘what can you see that is familiar’? There should be lots! For example, the clefs, time signature, bars and barlines etc. The best question to keep asking is ‘And what else?’ until exhausting all the possibilities.

HOW WILL IT SOUND?

Choose a target phrase and ask the pupil to ‘tap and count aloud the rhythm’. Ask them to look for as much rhythmic repetition as possible.

Subsequently move onto the pitch notation. Ask more questions: ‘what is the starting note?’ ‘what is the highest/lowest note?’ Get the pupil to play these notes on the keyboard. Then choose a bar, for example bar 2 and play the four notes. Can the pupil match up the sound with the notation? Do this as often as needed for the individual pupil.

Still away from the keyboard sing the first phrase together from the score, using either letter names, sol-fa or finger numbers. Ask the pupil to air-play the phrase on top of the piano lid then open up the lid and get them to play it for real. After all this preparation playing the piece should be really easy!

PLAYING FROM MEMORY
Finally, close the score, and challenge the pupil to sing it from memory. Discuss the score from memory, for example can they visualise the first note of the 2nd staff? Finally ask them to play it from memory.

Of course, you should adopt the same steps when pieces get longer and more complex. The secret is to break all the learning down into bite-sized, manageable chunks and furthermore, incorporate the visual, kinaesthetic, aural and analytical aspects at all times. I have shared just a few ideas to start you off but please don’t be limited by them.

For the Power of Three to be activated it is crucial that memory skills are developed from the start.

In next week’s blog post I will be discussing Improvisation – the last of the Power of Three. Please do come and join me.

[1]  Hallam, S. (1997) “The Development of Memorisation Strategies in Musicians: Implications for Education”. p. 96. The British Journal of Music Education. 14 (1), 87-97

This blog post was written by Dr Sally Cathcart, co-director and founder of The Curious Piano Teachers.

2 thoughts on “Memorisation – the Power of Three

  1. Diane paul

    When a new student develops the habit of looking down at their hands while playing and making dreadful mistakes, I resort to throwing a small towel over their hands. Usually their fingers are on the notes they need anyway. I currently have a young student who cannot stop staring downwards and ignores the music and all attempts to stop this habit. When I try the towel, she simply stares down at it and carries on drawing on her poor memory!

    Reply
    1. Lorraine Chapman

      Diane, I find this a lot too. I am doing a PhD which involves this area, would you be prepared to take part in my survey? If so (if you haven’t already!!) please could you pm me on Facebook and I will send you the link. I’d be extremely grateful!

      Thanks.

      Lorraine Chapman

      Reply

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