Playing the piano will surely help you improve your memory immensely as this part of your brain will be activated as often as you play.
You will be developing four sorts of memory at the same time: visual memory, digital memory, aural memory and mental memory. I do not believe that many activities offer such an opportunity!
I have always given great importance to this part of piano playing as I have constantly been worried about forgetting the notes when being on stage. I think that there is nothing more embarrassing!
Playing a technical passage not accurately is terrible, not putting any expression in your performance is appalling, but forgetting the notes that you have to play is totally ridiculous, in my opinion.
Fortunately for all of us, there are many different learning techniques and tasting methods that can be used to prevent a total disaster on stage!
I have actually been obsessed with this potential disaster after two difficult moments that I experienced in my youth.
The first time I literally felt terrified was before a student concert during a summer music academy. I was about 9 years old. I went to the rehearsal in the afternoon with my father to try the piano I would play on in the evening. I started to play without any issue until this awful moment: I simply could not remember a part of the piece! Imagine this moment of terror!
I finally remembered, but I spent the rest afternoon worrying, wanting to cancel the performance. I was extremely upset as I had no way to get out of it!
I actually played well at the concert, but what a horrid experience!
The second horrible experience took place a few years later. This time, I was 13 years old.
I was performing at a class concert, at my music college in Paris. The concert hall was huge and extremely impressive. The stage was built in the lowest part of the concert hall, so we had to go down the stairs for about 30 seconds before reaching the stage.
I went down feeling surprisingly relaxed, walked to the piano without any concern, but as I was adjusting the piano stool, I suddenly thought: “How does the piece start?” A complete blank! Imagine this feeling! You are meant to perform but you cannot remember how it all starts!
I recollected myself quite quickly and continued to adjust the stool (a bit longer than necessary) to gain time and try to remember the first notes.
Fortunately, it all came back to me as I looked at the keyboard, but what a nightmare!
I am sure that you now understand why developing a solid mental memory is crucial in piano playing.
I have had other interesting experiences later on, but I saved the situation thanks to the huge amount of work I put into memorising the pieces I had to perform.
It happened twice: The first time was during the performance of Liszt’s 2nd concerto where I completely lost myself in the middle section. The second event took place during an international competition. I was performing “Nocturnes” by Ravel, but I got so much into the music that I could not remember where I was!
1. Visual memory
I have myself developed my visual memory immensely as I always felt more confident if I could ‘read the score’ in my mind as I was performing by memory.
It is a fantastic skill to have, as if learned meticulously, a piece can actually be played without touching the keyboard.
The way to do it is extremely straight forward. Once you have learned a piece by memory, close the score, get away from the piano and ask yourself: “ What are the notes written in the first bar?”
If you focus enough, you will be able to answer this question, then continue with the rest of the piece.
It is a tiring exercise for the brain, but I promise you that it worths doing it for two reasons: Firstly, you feel more confident, as you can read the score like you read a book while performing. Secondly, you can practise the piece in your mind, while travelling and unable to use a piano.
Just before getting on stage, I also use to read the score in my mind, in order to get into the right mood for the piece I was due to perform.
We have learnt that having a strong visual memory is a wonderful tool, but be careful. Do not only rely on this type of memory as it can be dangerous.
An anecdote on this issue:
The brilliant concert pianist Alfred Cortot once lost his place during a performance. Somebody who was sitting on the first row was reading the score as Mr Cortot was playing. Unfortunately, he was not using the same edition, and when the gentleman turned a page as a different time as Alfred Cortot used to, Mr Cortot totally lost his concentration!
2. Digital memory
The improvement of your digital memory comes quite naturally when you practise a piece of music as your fingers will progressively remember where they must go next, as you repeat a section over and over again.
It is actually fascinating, while you are focusing on interpretation to realise that your fingers move to the right keys without you thinking about it.
I do not know if you have ever watched elderly people playing the piano after not touching the instrument for numerous years. As they play, their fingers move naturally on the keyboard, and the more they play, the more their fingers remember. They are surprised themselves and often exclaim: “Oh! I thought that I forgot everything but my fingers remember. How amazing after 30 years!”
Even if your fingers seem to remember the right path on the keyboard, it is advised to double-check their knowledge, to avoid any unpleasant surprise on stage.
I have always used the following methods, and I can assure you that there are extremely helpful, even if they could sound weird at first:
1. Play the piece on a digital piano without switching it on. You will then play by memory without hearing any sound. This exercise will oblige you to rely on your digital memory, as you will not be able to use your aural or visual memories.
2. Place a book on the stand, and read a book aloud as you play. It literally takes your mind away, and you have no choice but to rely on your digital memory if you wish to be able to play.
3. Body memory
I would like to add body memory to digital memory.
Digital memory often refers to the fingers only, but we should not forget the memory of the other parts of your body put in motion while playing the piano.
Playing the piano is a performing art, meaning that you must recreate what you have done in the past, every time you play.
If you want your practice to be fruitful, you must take the time to analyse what you have done right to overcome a technical difficulty, or finally obtain the singing tone you were looking for.
These research would include the analysis of the amount of weight you have released from your fingers, hands, forearms or arms, the way you have moved your wrists or the speed at which you have left certain keys.
Your mental memory will largely be involved in this exercise, but you would be surprised at how much your body parts remember their actions too!
4. Aural memory
I have personally never really relied on aural memory, as I find it dangerous. It is a very personal opinion, as I know that it works extremely well for others.
I have always preferred learning a score in great details, by memorising each bar, hands separately.
By learning so meticulously, I am then able to play any bar of the score at any given time, without playing the previous section. I can find my way again, even if my aural or digital memories fail me.
5. The importance of playing by memory
I am giving great importance to playing by memory, as I believe that it is the only way to perform truly well.
Playing by memory could also be called ‘playing by heart’. I prefer the latter as I think that it represents it better.
I have always performed better by memory, and it is certainly the case for all the other pianists.
It comes from the fact that reading the score is actually a distraction that keeps you ‘on earth’, and somehow does not allow you to immerse yourself into the music entirely.
It is well-known that not being able to use one of your senses enhances the use of the others.
As you probably know, blind people are more attentive to sounds, and that explains why not reading the score would help you listen more carefully, and therefore be more vigilant about tone production and interpretation.
6. Words from the world’s greatest pianists about memory in piano playing
Some of the world’s greatest pianists have also discussed this fascinating topic, so I greatly invite you to read the below:
“I do my memorising away from the piano, and in several ways. Perhaps the most effective way is the mental photograph I make of the printed page. I can really see the notes before me. I can also recite them, thinking or speaking the two staves together, vertically, not one and then the other, singly. I think one should thoroughly know the piece in various ways, otherwise one may meet disaster when playing in public.”
Edward MacDowell (1861-1908)
“To commit to memory is a very simple matter with me unless the composition happens to be very difficult. A great deal can be accomplished by reading the music through away from the piano. As I read it the eye takes in the characters on the printed page while the ear hears them mentally. After a few times reading through, I often know the piece, can go to the piano and play it from memory. Take this Concerto of Mozart – picking up a small 12mo score from the table. This is simple, so far as notes go, and can be learned in the way I speak of. But the Hindemith Concerto, here, which I played with the New York Symphony Orchestra, is much more difficult. I read this through also, but in small sections – line by line. Afterward, I must play it often, too, to fix it in memory. As you see, showing me the music, it has many uneven and irregular rhythms. We had four rehearsals with the orchestra, before the concert, as it was the first performance in America.”
Walter Gieseking (1895 – 1956)
“ You ask how I memorize. First I go over the work several times to get a general idea of the whole. Then I analyse it, for I feel it absolutely necessary to know keys, chords, and construction. A work should be so well understood along these lines that it can be played in another key as well as in the one in which it is written. For the actual memorizing of the piece I generally do it phrase by phrase, not always each hand alone, though occasionally I do this also. I remember learning the Bach A minor Prelude and Fugue in this way. If I were now asked to play any measure or passage in any part of it I could do so; it is mine forever, never to be forgotten.”
Katharine Goodson (1872 – 1958)
“On the subject of memorising who can lay down rules for this inexplicable mental process, which will hold good for everyone? For myself, I hear the notes mentally and know their position on the keyboard. In actual performance, much must be left to finger memory, but one must actually have the notes in his mind as well as in his fingers. Before a concert, I go over all my program mentally and find this an excellent method of practise when travelling from one city to another. To those who study with me, I say, you must try various methods of memorising; there is no universal way; each must find out by experiment which is most suited to his individual case.
With some pianists visual memory of the printed page plays the principal role in memorising; with others visual memory of the notes on the keyboard; with still others ear-memory, or memory of the harmonic progressions.
I believe in making the pupil familiar with all these different ways, so that he may find out which one is most helpful to him.”
Edwin Hughes (1884 – 1965)
“How do I memorize? The artist smiled, as though the subject were either too large or too inconsequent to mention. Then he said:
One must know the piece, its construction and harmony, through careful study. There are four sources of memory: the eye, to see the notes on the page or keys – that would be visual memory; the fingers, to find the keys easily on the keyboard – digital memory ; the ear, to hear the tones – auricular memory; and lastly, though we might say it should be first, the mind to think these tones and keys – or mental memory.”
Ignaz Friedman (1882 – 1948)
“In regard to memorizing, I have no special rule or method. Committing to memory seems to come of its own accord. Some pieces are comparatively easy to learn by heart; others, like a Bach fugue, require hard work and close analysis. The surest way to learn a difficult composition is to write it ours from memory. There is a great deal of benefits in that. If you want to remember the name of a person or a place, you write it down. When the eyes see it, the mind retains a much more vivid impression. This is visual memory. When I play with an orchestra, I, of course, know every note the orchestra has to play as well as my own part. It is a much greater task to write out a score from memory than a piano solo, yet it is the surest way to fix the composition in mind.”
Ossip Gabrilowitsch (1878 – 1936)
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