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Committing Music to Memory

If you've been following my practice journals recently, you'll know that I am getting quite well along with at least two pieces that I haven't yet published. For me, the final stages of learning a piece of music is the committing it to memory.


I must, therefore, kick off this blog by first stating that committing music to memory is an optional move. As I stated on a previous blog, there is no judgement for those that prefer to or have to use music each time they perform a piece. However, there are advantages to taking this extra step;


Aside from not having to worry about page turns in extremely rapid passages (because page turns are never anywhere convenient!), you can perform music much more confidently without being distracted by other things...such as the music itself! (I'm not going to spend the whole blog post repeating what I put in the aforementioned link, but little things like watching the keyboard at a time you normally watch the music or vice versa can be distracting!).


So, the question remains - how do you commit to memory?


Read on...



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Chunk it up!



Unless you are trying to memorise a spectacularly short piece, you won't do yourself any favours by just endlessly playing through the piece of music. You need to give yourself a reasonable phrase (or few phrases) to crack on with.


Consider the logicality of what you are performing. If you are trying to remember two bars littered with rapid movement, accidentals, unusual fingering etc., maybe just focus on those two bars. But if you are focusing on ten bars and all (or even most) of them have a logical movement (such as a repeated left hand bass) then it can be more beneficial - not to mention quicker - to focus on the whole passage.


Our memories work best when they are given 'information' that they can process as a result of either familiarity or - not a million miles difference - relating to something else which we are familiar with. Therefore it is essential to pick out bits that don't seem to have any natural movement and consider them as your problem bars, never forgetting to put them into context to ensure the whole piece flows.



Frame of Mind



The play and repeat style is very good, but it won't do much good if you're not in the right mindset in the first place.


What are you playing?

How do your hands feel in this position?

Where do they move to?


If you have ever read a book you'll no doubt be familiar how easy it is to read a paragraph, a page or even more and then be able to tell - literally nothing about what it's about. If the concentration isn't there you can't recall it. You need to focus on what you're doing in the first instance, and if you're not in a position to do so then it's not the right time to consider committing to memory just yet.



You Don't Know What You Don't Know



The importance of not always performing with the music was stressed in that same previous blog post, but regardless it's worth mentioning again that at this time - when we are committing to memory - it is vital to keep playing without.


Don't have the music on the stand in front of you. Put it away and refer to it only when you need to. If you reach a stumbling point, try to recall as best you can, for if you take the initiative and call upon some knowledge that's already there then you are far more likely to remember it than just quickly refreshing the brain by glimpsing in the book.


It can be so tempting to have the music there as a safety net, but in terms of committing to memory it won't do you any favours in the long run. It will exercise the brain's recall more and - besides - you will overlook bits you genuinely don't know because you'll be 'filling the gap' quite nicely by reading it, not memorising it.



Repeat Problem Passages



Naturally this is one of those things that may come into piano practice anyway, however it is worth bearing in mind. Problem passages are those that won't stick, and you need to be able to be fairly confident with them prior to trying to memorise them. If you can't play them with the music fairly fluidly, make sure you get to that stage first.


Then if there are any stumbling blocks, ask yourself why there is a stumbling block. The most likely answer is that you just need to reiterate it a few times to get the fingers working - particularly on their own as now they don't have the reassurance of the music. Once you have that, make sure that you practice it within a couple of bars either side to trap it in a nice, consistent performance, and you're good to continue.


 

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