My high school teacher once told me that the pianist became afflicted by the requirement of memorization because of the habits of Clara Schumann, a renowned concert pianist of her day and wife of Robert Schumann.
Wikipedia summarizes her life thusly:
Clara Schumann (néeClara Josephine Wieck; 13 September 1819 – 20 May 1896) was a German musician and composer, considered one of the most distinguished pianists of the Romantic era. She exerted her influence over a 61-year concert career, changing the format and repertoire of the piano recital and the tastes of the listening public. Her husband was the composer Robert Schumann. She and her husband encouraged Johannes Brahms, and she was the first pianist to give public performances of some of Brahms’ works, notably the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel.
At any rate, the trend/curse is now inviolate, so we musicians must learn to memorize. In this post, I’d like to share with you a few of my memorization tricks learned over the years.
1) Start memorizing the day you start learning the piece. Don’t practice for weeks and weeks relying on the music because you’ll only find it harder and harder to break you dependence. Furthermore, unless you’ve developed sophisticated page turning methods, you will probably not be able play the piece fluently until you are off of the page. Maybe that’s why Clara insisted upon it . . .
2) Divide the piece into reasonable chunks for learning sessions. Always work in musical phrases. Mark these sections. As you practice, these sections will become so firmly ingrained that if performance, if you make an error, you will be comfortable picking up again at these points. So they are advantageous in the memorization process and later in the performance/memorization link up.
2) Memorize measure + 1 note by measure at first. Always practice a beat further than the measure you choose to work on, to help your memory make connections between learned parts. The first time you practice a measure (+1), play it through a few times paying attention to what you are doing. Then take the music away. At first, this will be a slow and painful process, but ultimately, you will find that you learn the music in a more firm way and that the rewards will be worth it. Try reciting the notes to yourself. You can start hands separately if the music is of the type where that would be beneficial. Play it 20 times in a row, with a metronome, until you can play it without hesitations. When you start the next measure, begin on the +1 note of the previous worked on measure and play through to the next plus 1.
IMPORTANT: Don’t just learn the notes here. Learn the articulation, ornamentation, and dynamics here and use them every time you play. Articulation can be exceptionally hard to change after the fact.
3) String memorized measures together to learn whole phrases. Play over and over again until you can hardly stay it anymore. Use a metronome and build up tempo slowly. For simpler pieces, you may be able to start with whole phrases, but make sure you play the whole phrase, plus a small portion of the next phrase to aid in fluency.
4) Employ penny practicing. Take a stack of ten pennies and place on the left side of the piano. Pick a phrase to work on and pick a manageable metronome tempo. Play the phrase through with the metronome perfectly or until it is perfect. For everytime you play it perfectly, move a penny to the right of the piano. For every time you play it incorrectly, no matter how small the error, move all the pennies back to the left side of the piano. Move the metronome a tick or so faster every time you think you can do it without losing all of your pennies. For more difficult passages, this might mean after you have moved all ten pennies across the piano.
Even without noticing, you will stop using the music as you do this and you will be able to play the whole measure without any hesitations. A further benefit of this style of practicing is that it can be sort of meditative and help you to practice mindfully, concentrating only on the task at hand.
Do this step until you are at maybe 75% of the goal tempo for the piece.
5) Start joining phrases together, using penny practicing. You will need to smooth out the hesitation spots in the music, where you have not been playing straight through. You will not need to start the metronome at as slow of a tempo as you ended up using in step 4, but it will be slower than the tempo you used to start step 4. At this point, you should be working toward the ideal tempo for the piece, as best it can be approximated with a metronome. If you are working on a piece where a lot of rubato will be employed, it is best to play most of the passages as fast as your fastest section (judgment calls are needed here).
The metronome practice will make sure that you can play through the piece section by section by memory without any hesitation.
6) Analyze chord structure and other structural elements of the piece. This step can be employed at any stage of the memorization process. If you are comfortable and well-versed in harmonic analysis, this can be particularly helpful in memorizing pieces such as Chopin Waltzes (the left hand) or alberti bass lines from Classical pieces. Often, virtuosic passages are merely varied arpeggios. Learn them as such and you will remember them much more easily.
7) Identify patterns and adopt fingering that follows a pattern. Where passages form patterns that can be played with the same or essentially the same fingering, take the time to figure that fingering out. It will make your motor memory 100% easier. Also take the time to determine what the exact pattern the composer is using is. Is it a harmonic progression? Are the same intervals used repeatedly? Understanding these parts will enable you to commit the section to memory very quickly.
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