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Thoughts on Memorizing
Intermediate-to-Advanced Piano Repertoire
One of my more frustrating moments as a music teacher occurred when a fine student to whom I had given a memorizing assignment said, "I tried my best to memorize this music but it just wouldn't come!" Thinking back to my youthful student days, my teachers always decided when and what they wanted me to memorize, but never told me how. I had to succeed in this determined effort alone. By speaking to many teaching colleagues I found that few, if any, had a working technique for memorizing music above the elementary level where ear, eye, hand coordination plus a smattering of harmony are encouraged. After that introduction, all instruction on memorizing ceased.
And yet every young student is given excellent memorizing skills when he, or she, learns a first little piece that requires a bassline to support a treble melody. The "tune" is first taught to the right hand alone. Then the left hand is taught the supporting bass line. After each hand's assignment is clearly established, the teacher carefully, patiently, slowly guides the student to play both hands together- a triumphant entry into a new world of two-hand piano playing. Perhaps the embryonic elements of a useful memorizing technique can be found in this story.
Pianists over age 18 particularly need to have a memorizing technique to use when they become serious about learning more difficult music. At that age their keen children's ability to absorb knowledge begins to atrophy. Perhaps that is why so many promising child prodigies fail to "mature"; they never learned a working memorizing technique. In this article we hope to present some ideas that work for me. Perhaps some of them will work for you too.
Use only "urtext" editions to insure that what you learn was written by the master composer; you can build most effectively from this source.
Try to obtain the "big picture" of the whole composition you wish to learn. Examine the musical form, identify the themes, and appreciate how the composer has developed them. Learn the general harmonic sub-structure. Many great pianists, Sviatoslav Richter and Claudio Arrau among them, studied J.S. Bach's great 48 Preludes and Fugues to learn how this music was crafted. Sergei Rachmaninoff and Artur Schnabel studied Beethoven's 32 Piano Sonatas to learn about structure. Bach wrote his Two-Part Inventions and Three-Part Sinfonias expressly to teach" serious musicians how to develop small musical ideas." Analyzing how wonderfully these various pieces are put together will help any pianist to think musically; this kind of understanding will help you to memorize.
"Get Your Eyes, Ears, Hands Acquainted"
We begin by hearing, seeing, "learning the feel" of a new piece of music. Listening to someone else performing it is a totally different experience, almost unrelated to making the music yourself, dreaming of how you will phrase this masterwork. As a teenager I remember hearing songs and ballads on the radio and thinking, "that singer is certainly not expressing the true meaning of the lyrics as I could-if only I had a voice!" Some of the following directions will give you the "voice-in-your-hands" to express what you feel in the music you wish to play.
Step 1. Read the new composition ten times slowly, all the way through (if the work is short enough) with the right hand alone. Set a "credit card" type metronome at a slow pace to keep you steady as you perform mistake-free. If there seems to be an awkward passage
Lower the metronome level by five or ten numbers and try again for a mistake-free performance from beginning to end with the right hand alone.
Use a pencil and pad to monitor your progress; give yourself a check for every good performance. False starts don't count, nor do readings with errors. (Too many of these mean that you must lower your metronome level by another five or ten numbers.) You are aiming for ten consecutive mistake-free performances, each one metronome number higher than the last. After successfully climbing this "ladder", you will begin to feel in your right hand, and to "hear" with your inner ear how the new piece will sound.
Step 2. Follow the same procedure with your left hand alone, but lower the metronome level by at least five, perhaps ten numbers. It takes longer to become familiar with left-hand sound.
Often what appears to be a simple accompaniment becomes a valuable addition to the master composer's harmonic plan. When you understand every detail try to achieve a first left-hand mistake-free performance. Monitor your progress as the left hand climbs your ten-performance ladder.
Step 3. Now you are prepared for your first two-handed reading. Psychologists tell us that the left side of the brain guides the right hand, and the right side of the brain guides the left hand.
Use plenty of time to slowly encourage all of these newly educated parts of you to coordinate seamlessly. Set your metronome level at ten numbers below that of your left-hand's first successful reading. You will be" listening with a microscope" that will open your ears to lush harmonies and complex details. You may even feel a tiny "click" as the left and right hands' newly learned efforts come together. This can be a thrilling moment whether you are studying a Bach Prelude, a Chopin Mazurka, or a section of a Prokofiev Sonata.
Continue to monitor your progress as you climb your ten mistake-free performance ladders. Keep raising your tempo level by one number until you reach your goal, ten metronome numbers higher than where you began.
Steps one, two, and three might take you a day, three days, a week to complete, depending on how much practice time you can put in. You will gain skill as you repeat these steps several times. Every few days begin all three 10-time ladders two numbers higher, and end them two numbers higher. Your music will grow within you; your inner ear will" sing" parts of the music while your fingers will" tingle" appropriately. Your perception of the composition will change to" almost comfortable". Soon "musical shapes" will emerge that will set you thinking, "How can I build long musical lines?"
Think about the music. Are you observing all the composer's phrasing and articulation markings? Dynamic signs? Where there are no composer directives you might test a few basic ideas: a crescendo where you think the music asks a question, a decrescendo where you think a phrase ends an idea. Should these repeated motifs be fp, or pf? Should there be a crescendo where there is an ascending progression? A decrescendo where similar motifs descend? Experiment! Breathe life into your music. You can always change an idea you don't like. The important thing is to musically speak!
One day a small mistake occurs during your hands together "ten-times ladder." You examine the area with each hand and with both hands; nothing seems to be wrong. Yet another mistake happens in another area; again nothing seems to be really wrong. Your new accomplishment seems a bit like an eggshell cracking in many places because the baby chick is fighting to be born. Your new music is asking to be memorized.. Wait for this signal. Most people try to memorize too soon, before the piece is sufficiently ready. Because the composition isn't really in your mind yet, results will be marred by inaccurate notes and note values. Articulation and dynamic marks may be overlooked. All of these musical details must be at least partially in place prior to beginning your determined effort to memorize.
"What's all this about learning everything each hand alone? I'm a good sight-reader and have read everything both hands together for years!" Quite commendable -Bravo! "And working with each hand alone seems to be wasteful of time and effort. My teacher wants me to learn quickly; every assignment must be memorized for each lesson." Sadly, there are many non-performing teachers who make this cruel and unnecessarily punishing requirement. "Concentrate!" say parents and teachers in a chorus. "The trouble with you is that you don't concentrate!" Not true; concentration, or lack of it, is not the problem. No one can make his or her mind "concentrate!" on demand.
Good readers are often poor memorizers; they coordinate eye, ear, and kinetic skills without getting their minds involved. Think of an expert typist who looks at the information she is typing but has no idea of its content or meaning. A good music reader has a wonderful skill, extremely helpful to any pianist. But memorizing is a mind-directed art. Be respectful; this art requires a thorough knowledge of every musical detail in the score while the mind supervises every move made by each of two hands simultaneously planning beautiful results - all this on demand!
You need to train your mind for that task. You must be aware of what each hand is doing because:
This kind of thorough learning cannot be done both hands together in a hurry. There is genuine reward for patient effort.
"Divide and Conquer"
Learning a long poem by heart can be daunting, but extracting the true meaning of a single line can be satisfying, pleasurable.
Divide the whole composition into many small segments, each no longer than a four-to-six bar phrase.
Slow your tempolevel; count by eighths instead of quarters. Find the appropriate slow metronome level to properly focus your "aural microscope." Play the first phrase with the right hand alone; you've heard this phrase many times. Now you must listen to it at this slow pace. Musically, what does this phrase say to you? Play it many times in various ways; what is the underlying quality? Hopeful, auspicious, happy? Can you put words to the melody, or imagine a setting? Have you a picture or a story for the whole composition? Many of the composer's tempo markings can help:
Grave = serious
Calmado = calm
Tranquillo = quiet, tranquil
Sostenuto = sustained, hopeful
Andante = moving
Andantino = moving a little
Allegretto = a bit light-hearted
Allegro = happy
Allegro Assai = quite happy
Vivace = with spirit
Use whatever the composer wrote as a starting point for your imagination. Setting a mood does not depend entirely on tempo; use tone quality and color to give the musical message during this learning period. You can certainly "move a little" (Andantino) with slow grace, or sound "Happy with Fire" (Allegro con Fuoco) still playing slowly. Meanwhile, create a glorious shining mental image of how you wish to present this composition so that an audience will "fall in love with it", this beacon will keep you working through the memorizing hours.
How do you play the first note? Fingertip, finger pad, weight touch from above, push toward the fall board, side of little finger, side of hand, two fingers together? Try each possible way many times; identify the sound you want. Does the overall direction of your phrase express a crescendo? Are you making every long and short melody note contribute to the crescendo? My wonderful teacher, a poet at the piano, Alfred Cortot, said, "Never waste a note!" If there is staccato do you prefer clipped finger pizzicato, or wrist directed "quick up," or arm "slower-up"? Which staccato best contributes to the musical line? Listen to the last notes of the phrase; do they end the musical thought softly or does the first phrase lead into the next phrase, or is the first phrase the beginning of a musical paragraph? Do you leave the last note slowly, wrist highest? Or slowly wrist down? Or is the last note accented or staccato? Many musical decisions can be made at this very slow level. Now is when you test ideas that will make your interpretation unique. Make many mind-directed carefully-listened-to musical repetitions. You are memorizing!
When you produce ten consecutive carefully guided memorized performances of the first phrase at ten slow-tempo levels, you must study the next phrase in the same meaningful way. The slow tempo invites mind participation.
After musically mastering four phrases in this way, you might have a memorized sentence. Return to the earliest slow metronome level and try to contain the entire memorized sentence mistake-free. Your thinking and your breathing are changing; your musical line is growing! If an error occurs in one of the already-learned phrases, correct it with a "ladder" and return to the musical sentence. Again master this sentence at ten extremely slow tempi. You've made a strong step forward.
Your left hand needs to memorize the first phrase in the same careful way. Play the lowest bass line. Beethoven called this voice "a second melody". Brahms' father played the double bass, and this composer wrote a marvelous bass melody into all of his piano pieces. After you've memorized the lowest melody, use your left thumb to play all the high notes; memorize this little supporting voice. Next, make chords of the thumb melody and inner notes to hear the harmonic progression. Listen to each little change; name the intervals made by your thumb and index finger; "major third, perfect fourth, minor third, etc." Feel with fingers and know with mind what you are doing. After this preparation, begin your ten mistake-free performances with your left hand guided by your mind. Your left hand must not depend on kinetic reaction, repetition, or clues from your right hand.
When you work with both hands together, lower your metronome tempo level to ten numbers below that of your first successful left-hand alone number; you're counting in eighths. Listen to each finger in each hand contribute to the musical content of your first phrase. This sensation is a bit like watching a sunrise: slow, majestic, and quite marvelous. Does your melody sing? Does the "second melody" in the bass contribute? Is there an inner voice that enhances the music? Continue on your ten-time perfectly memorized performance ladder. You are on your way!
Why all this slow practice? You are building memory circuits in your mind, ears, and hands that must work reliably under pressure from nerves, unusual circumstances, or unmanageable pianos. As a competition jurist I have compassion for the highly gifted candidates whose insufficient preparation cause performance mishaps. Part of every fine artist's workday is invested in building memory circuitry. When an artist performs, the mind anticipates where the hands will go. Performance is often so rapid that if the mind is on the hands, the mind is too slow; there will be a breakdown. Slow steady mind training will encourage comfortable healthful anticipation.. This is your great goal. To over-simplify, most potentially great piano students practice far too quickly and insufficiently thoughtfully too much of their time. Professional artists work much more slowly and build musicality into every note. I've heard them!
Our next memorizing approach works in a different way.
Every composition at the advanced level includes technical passages of consecutive sixteenths or thirty-seconds that cause you to stop, slow down, or otherwise interrupt the flow of the music. Select the most annoying of these passages, work on it with one hand alone slowly, and experiment with various fingerings and hand positions until you've found a workable solution.
You are ready to use "Shifting Accents", a versatile practice tool that promotes evenness and fleetness by accenting every note in turn. "Shifting Accents" are effective on an entire Chopin Etude, or an octave passage in a Tchaikovsky Concerto, or to produce a limpid or crisp Scarlatti Sonata, or to improve a small ornament or long trill. Following is a sketch of how to use "Shifting Accents":
or if the passage is written in triplets:
Mme. Isabelle Vengerova, the legendary Russian pedagogue who produced many fine pianists at Curtis Institute, taught a similar practice technique that featured "shifting rhythms"..
We prefer "Shifting Accents" because there is no LONG that can tempt the hand and mind to rest. This would be counter to building the steady pace we need. Ten times with each "shifting accent" will, over a period of time, give your passage clarity and assurance. Meanwhile, the kinetic exercise will reinforce your mind-directed memorizing and bring the tempo up to performance level, perhaps a little beyond!
Conquer all the right hand's difficult passages in the composition with "shifting accents". Then start at the beginning of the piece and as you reach each passage use the "first accent" on it and continue in this way until the end; repeat many times. Then do the same with the "second accent", repeat many times. Continue until you work through the entire composition with all eight "shifting accents" many memorized mistake-free times.
Go through the left hand work in the same way. An Alberti bass will improve after using "shifting accents".. Is the bottom note of the Alberti bass a sixteenth, or a quarter that must be held? Use your knowledge of basic harmony: "C Major Tonic four times, dominant twice, Sub-Dominant twice, etc." Know the key where you are, the key where you're going, the progression the composer is using to go from one key to the next. Can you consolidate the Alberti bass into chords? Can you play the lowest notes alone? The highest notes alone? Can you play the thumb and index fingers together and name all the intervals?
With your left hand start at the beginning of the composition; as you reach each short or long sixteenth-note passage use "first accent" on it until you reach the end of the piece. Repeat many times. Proceed in the same way with "second accent", repeat many times. And so on until you've conquered the entire memorized composition with all "eight accents". You need to be more meticulous with your left hand than with your right because most "derailments" originate with a faulty left hand. Continue to monitor your progress.
When you put both hands together there will be places where only the right hand will "shift accents", other places where only the left hand will "shift accents" and still other places where both hands will "shift accents" together. Work on each of these passages with all "eight accents" before negotiating the whole composition as you did with each hand alone. One "accent" may take a few extra times to master than another. Stick with the work; you will master it; you are constantly learning and succeeding.
1. Listen carefully. Young Clara Schumann was inspired by the "pearls on black velvet" quality of Franz Liszt's scale work. How do you obtain this "sheen"? It is not speed! Create a musical line that will crescendo as you descend; use wrist or arm and elbow to direct your downward motion and help you to avoid a "notey" sound. Think of a coloratura soprano. At a comfortable-to-fast level use a twenty-performance ladder many times. You will recognize the special sound of "liquid silver" as your tempo advances.
2. Always keep the score open in front of you and refer to it whenever you have the slightest question. You might not be looking at it any longer but the score contains all the answers.. You never outgrow the need to refresh your memory. Take the score with you on walks, review the music in your mind. When you "hit a snag" open the score to find the right answer. Take the score to bed at night; mentally review the music; open the score for the correct answer. When we both lived on the Rue Faraday in Paris during the 30"s, Shura Cherkassky went "wild" about the great International Exposition that was held in that city. He visited there almost every day, always with a score in his pocket of some music he practiced at night. In airplanes between concerts, backstage from Bombay to Buenos Aires I would refer to the score. Many times during a performance I would follow an inspiration to make a crescendo or a ritardando and look at the score during intermission to learn if it was "legal" (either written by the composer or left blank),On some occasions my inspirations were "illegal"(counter to the composer's written indication); in every case, the score was my teacher.
3. Know your intervals. There are times when one hand or the other lifts off the keyboard (at the end of a phrase or musical section). Recognize the harmonic interval formed by the note you left, and the note where you return your hand to the keyboard to play. Often the interval is simply an octave higher or lower, or a perfect fifth -- whatever it is, you must know it. Sometimes the lift is in the right hand, sometimes in the left, sometimes in both hands. In every case, know your intervals.. One year I opened my programs with the great Frank Martin Prelude No. l. During performances my ear would tell me one thing, but my trained mind knew the intervals, kept me safe from disaster! Classic composers often change keys in their sonata "recaps". You must know your intervals in the expositions as well as in your recapitulations. Know in what key you're playing at all times. Derailments happen unexpectedly. Trying to remember harmony in a split second is too slow. But "planting" an interval in your conscious mind is nimble, reliable.
4. Classic and Romantic composers often repeat motifs, each with a small difference. Beethoven particularly liked to write groups of three "almost repetitions", each with its own small variation and color. Many middle movements in Mozart and Haydn Sonatas are themes with small variations. Chopin's Nocturnes sometimes will include as many as six repetitions of the same small musical idea, each with its own special ornament or bass harmony. Give each repetition a number: "One", "Two", "Three", "Four", "Five", Six". Work many times on each one. Then call out loud at random, "Four", play it, "Six", play it, "Two", play it, etc. The great Spanish pianist, Alicia de Larrocha works in this way, exasperatingly calling out the number in Spanish. This is a useful "numbers" game!
5. Always count to yourself as you play. Often there will bean important small change, an interesting chord, or an ornament on a second, third, or fourth beat; note these situations as "landmarks" to look forward to.
6. Contrary Dynamics—All master composers present pianists with melodic material that calls for a simultaneous crescendo in the right hand and a decrescendo in the left hand. To master Contrary Dynamics:
R.H.: CDEFGABC CBAGFEDC
L.H.: CBAGFEDC CDEFGABC
C D E
Slowly count: 1 and 2 and 3 and, etc
C B A
as you "Listen with two ears." Keep the two dynamic lines smooth, gradual, and accent-free. Lengthen the scale to two octaves and make your two dynamic lines longer. When you feel, hear, and comprehend this special skill, transfer to slowly creating this special sound to the context of the music where it is needed.
Revolving Learning Techniques
"Mind-control memorizing" and "Shifting Accents" each have certain advantages. In recent years, when I've had too little practice time due to a multitude of other obligations, I've combined the two techniques with good results:
1st practice session: Right hand mind-control
2nd practice session: Left hand mind-control
3rd practice session: Both hands mind-control
4th practice session: Right hand sifting accents
5th practice session: Left hand shifting accents
6th practice session: Both hands shifting accents
Revolving in this way you enjoy a change of pace, different sound, a fresh and useful approach at each practice session! When I practice every day I receive an "insight"--like a precious small gift--every ten days or so. These six-way practice sessions can revolve as long as you need them.
When re-learning, this revolving technique is especially effective. For this purpose the first three mind-control sessions need to be almost as slow as they were at first learning. After three six-way revolving cycles you can move the beginning and ending numbers of your ladders up four numbers each time you revolve. Re-learning will be a happy experience; you'll reach greater heights musically and technically. Your musical lines will be much longer, elevating your understanding of the work!
Pedaling is an ear-controlled art. Its purpose is to enhance what your hands, inner ear, imagination want the music to convey.
I lack the writing skill to tell about pedaling. Such diverse pianists as Julius Katchen, Jorge Bolet, and Dinu Lipatti pedaled the same composition differently every time they performed. One piano will sound better with a lot of pedal; the next will sound better with very little pedal. In a living-room a little pedal will go a long way; in a "dry" hall you'll need a lot of pedal. When you play a composition slowly, you can enhance it by pedaling every melody note. When you play that same composition quickly your pedal can enhance the harmonic structure with long strokes while your good fingers take care of the melody. Most recording studios ask a pianist to use as little pedal as possible. I never practice with pedal because it feels good to get into the keys and make every sound and color "myself", then add enhancement when and if my ear requests it.
I use "una corda" pedal sparingly because pressing it down changes the quality of sound on most pianos. When a composition begins very softly, put the "una corda" pedal down before you play and lift it on an accent or a strong beat where the change won't be heard. Cultivate a good pianissimo without "una corda". Vladimir Horowitz practiced on his fully opened concert grand in his normal sized "piano room" until he was happy with his sound without "una corda". But know that it is there just in case you need it!
Here are a few primary colors with which to experiment:
to amplify high-register long trills
to enhance cadence chords
There are so many different kinds of pedaling that a pianist can use at the necessary time and place:
Walter Gieseking's early master classes on Debussy ignored sostenuto pedaling until his first U.S.A. tour in the thirties when he discovered the sostenuto pedal on the American Steinways! (European instruments didn't include this pedal, Gieseking experimented with it, liked it, later advocated its use.)
When in doubt, pedal lessrather then more. Make your legato, and fingering , and strong hands take the music as far as they can. Your ear and experience will guide you. Experiment! Vladimir Horowitz tried to imitate the sound and phrasing of a "bel canto" tenor with hands only!
Pedaling is best learned after memorizing. Create long musical lines, give motion to your musical shapes first. Enhance with pedal.
This is especially helpful to the budding professional who must adjust to any instrument. Use a medium tempo ten-speed-metronome-ladder:
Perform your composition these three ways at each of ten tempo levels. Playing in these ways can be challenging at first but after you master your hands you will become fearless of bass-heavy or shrill upper-register instruments. Your sound will be in your hands!
It is normal and natural to be apprehensive of a "first performance". Seasoned professionals deal with this by playing "interesting encores" in smaller towns! All good teachers should have "recital classes" where young pianists can grow inexperience, stretch their imagination, encourage their peers. Here are some ways to alleviate the "painful edge."
1. During one week go through the new piece from beginning to end three times after every practice session. Make note of all the "mishaps". You'll learn where to do special remedial work.
2. Begin your practice session with as many performances as you need to obtain a mistake-free conservative performance with attractive musical lines. Listen and look for ways to make these lines longer. On some days you may need ten tries; on other days perhaps you'll succeed with three. Give this practice at least a week during which the way you perceive the composition musically should change.
3. Open the piano and give the new composition your "Carnegie Hall up-to-tempo-best!" You may find that it sounds and feels "different" in many ways that you'll want to think about while consulting the score. You will become musically flexible, discover colors, and experiment with new "insights". Do this several times daily for at least a week. Keep up your routine practice, especially on "new pit-falls" which you might notice.
4. Turn on a talk radio or TV show, sit uncomfortably high or low as you go through your composition many times with distractions. Violinist Sir Yehudi Menuhin practiced standing on one foot with the other straight out in front of him!
5. Every few days make an "unbreakable date" with a tape recorder for a "one-performance-only." Listen to these tapes as you follow the score. Examine the playing critically as if you were a "rival pianist in the next room" (Moritz Rosenthal quoting Liszt.) Can you "hear" longer lines? Are your musical lines persuasive according to your story or setting for the composition? Does your music flow to a climax? Have you discovered a "shape" for the whole composition?
6. Explore the local schools and churches for uprights on which to play your new piece whether there are people around or not.
7. Visit your local music store and play on every piano there. By now you should be crossing a fine line from "trying to get through this piece as well as I can," to "Isn't this composition elegant with its long lines and magnificent climax!" The music store people will love you and invite you back!
8. There is often a piano at a health rehabilitation center for elderly people who will love a small performance at which you can feature your new composition. It probably feels "almost seasoned" and you may be planning your next new acquisition for your repertoire!
Arthur Rubinstein said that he never walked on stage without "taking chances." As a compliment he would ask me, "Did you take a chance in the finale of your fourth ballade last night?" and wink approvingly.
Conductor Leonard Slatkin always says before walking onstage, "Enjoy yourself!"
Vladimir Horowitz's idea of a compliment: " I heard many beautiful moments."
At every lesson with Sergei Rachmaninoff he would say "Small musician, small musical line. Big musician, big musical line!"
Advice to fill a musical lifetime! But my favorite is Rodgers and Hammerstein; "A song is not a song until you sing it." Sing your heart into the music. You loved this composition a lot to give it life; now it is yours to love always, to enjoy, to share....