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what type of knowledge do you have of performance pieces?
#1856928 03/06/12 02:19 AM
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Hi folks,

After another semi-frustrating recital experience, in which music I thought I knew well got derailed several times, I'm wondering what it means to really "know" a piece solidly. I'm wondering if I'm still relying too much on finger/muscle memory. So I'd love to know, particularly from those of you who participate in recitals and competitions, what type of knowledge you have of a piece before you perform it. Here are some questions to guide the discussion.

1. Roughly what percent of the piece's notes could you name, away from the piano? All, most, some, just the "obvious" ones? Or, similarly, for what percent of the pieces's measures could you describe all the notes in that measure, away from the piano? ("Describe" here means something like: F-Bb-D chord in the LH; RH playing two voices, lower is eighth notes on A-Ab-G... etc.) I'm beginning to think that I can do this *far* too seldom.

2. How often have you specifically noted to yourself changes in the number of voices, or subtle changes in texture? Most of the time? All the time? For instance, if the RH was playing 3-note chords for a few measures, and then switches to a 4-note chord, is that something you would definitely make a conscious note of, or it there a good chance you would just "let" your fingers play the denser chord without really noticing it?

Any other thoughts you have, about ways you have transcended muscle-memory for performances, would be appreciated. A little frustrated here. smile

-Jason


p.s. It's true that I didn't have to play Chopin etudes that I had only been working on for a couple months.

p.p.s. My teacher is wonderful and encouraging. From her email today: "I hope you will take the long view when little discouragements rear their little heads. It has been a long time since you performed actively, and perhaps never in a tough group. This is a big stretch. Be kind enough to yourself to dismiss discouragements when stretching..........I love how the first manned flight made it to the moon: NASA reported that the thing went 5 degrees off, then corrected; then 5 degrees off the other way, then corrected. (It wasn't a straight line to the moon, Jason.)"



Re: what type of knowledge do you have of performance pieces?
beet31425 #1856937 03/06/12 02:36 AM
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I was wondering why you hadn't posted on the other thread about how it went.....I guess you've been 'processing.'

Originally Posted by beet31425
....I'm wondering what it means to really "know" a piece solidly....

Yes -- often said, not so often defined....and different for different people.

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I'm wondering if I'm still relying too much on finger/muscle memory.

That can't be more than just a part of it.

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1. Roughly what percent of the piece's notes could you name, away from the piano? All, most, some, just the "obvious" ones?

It depends. I'm pretty sure it's always at least 95% (although for a lot of the music, I'd have to take some moments thinking about it), and for some passages, it needs to be awfully close to 100% if not absolutely 100. I never let myself not know at least something like 95%, and usually I settle for about that amount (although it's never any 'calculation' or anything like that), but if I ever have the slightest trouble with memory or conception of a passage, even just a little confusion, then I make sure to know all the notes 'cold.'

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2. How often have you specifically noted to yourself changes in the number of voices, or subtle changes in texture?

I think this is something that a lot of people don't do expicitly, or at least hardly do. I've only recently realized that I don't do it enough. The failure to do it didn't cause problems with memory per se, but I'm realizing that it helps me learn passages solidly faster, and enriches my understanding of what's going on.

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....if the RH was playing 3-note chords for a few measures, and then switches to a 4-note chord, is that something you would definitely make a conscious note of, or it there a good chance you would just "let" your fingers play the denser chord without really noticing it?

You're putting this as part of the preceding thing but to me it's different, and it's something I have taken note of much more. But, I don't think I worry about it, not in itself. What I do is, I wonder why it's 3-notes in these places and 4-notes in those places, and usually I can figure something out -- and then that becomes part of my understanding of the piece, so it takes care of itself. But, sometimes I come to think (especially if it's Chopin) that it needn't be done exactly in those specified ways, sometimes buttressed by it appearing different ways in different manuscripts or editions. Sometimes I feel (or imagine!) that Chopin himself did it different ways at different times, depending on what he wanted to do with the piece and depending on the particular piano and the acoustics. I've been told that Zimerman approaches such things this way.

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Any other thoughts you have, about ways you have transcended muscle-memory for performances, would be appreciated.....

Being able to 'visualize' the music away from the piano, in various kinds of ways: 'Seeing' the score, seeing my fingers going across the keys, 'feeling' my fingers play the keys -- and being able to 'hear' the piece in my head, including all the aspects of what's going on. Not all of these different things at the same time -- I don't think I could do that -- but maybe 1 or 2 at a time.

Re: what type of knowledge do you have of performance pieces?
beet31425 #1856941 03/06/12 02:47 AM
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Hey, Jason--

This falls under the category of "knowing it backwards and forwards," kind of...

I recently heard a pianist (a seasoned professional) demonstrate solid knowledge of his piece. He showed how he could play LH and RH separately, from memory. Not only that, he showed how he could play LH from memory, stop in the middle of a measure when a volunteer said, "Stop," count off the measures silently, and pick up playing down the line without missing a beat when the volunteer said, "Go." He did it for the RH, too. And, of course, HT. He said he'd be nervous to perform a piece without knowing it that well.

It blew my mind, actually. I've never, ever known a piece that well. I also found it inspiring, and have changed my approach to practicing certain pieces that I want to do more with than just "play" casually.

Last edited by Cinnamonbear; 03/06/12 02:48 AM.

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Re: what type of knowledge do you have of performance pieces?
Cinnamonbear #1856946 03/06/12 02:51 AM
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CB's post reminds me of another thing, very important for me:

Being able to start at a whole bunch of different places in any given piece or movement.

This accomplishes a lot of things. It makes my knowledge of the piece more solid, it gives me a feeling of security that 'if' anything weird were to happen, I'd have a lot of easy escape hatches, which makes me not worry so much about something weird happening -- and all of the above makes it less likely that anything weird will happen. smile

Oh.....one other thing, which maybe doesn't really fit in with what you're asking, but anyway....

Having some ability to "play by ear," and having some confidence about the ability.

Years ago a friend talked about this, it made an impression on me, and I immediately took to it. What he said was that if you can do this, then to a great extent your memory becomes 'playing by ear.' That's an oversimplification, or at least it is for me, but it does have a lot of meaning and it adds greatly to the security that I feel about memory. It doesn't replace all the other modes and devices, but it adds importantly to them. As I go through the stages of learning a piece, eventually I try to get it to where I'm not really thinking primarily of the 'notes,' but, I have in my head a sense of what music I'm trying to produce, and I play what will produce that music -- just as though I were playing it by ear. Of course it originates from "the notes"; that's how I learn which notes will produce this music smile -- so really it's kind of circular. This is another thing that accomplishes multiple things. First of all it probably enables a better, more natural kind of music-making. And secondly, it comes close to eliminating any concern about memory, because you know that even if you 'forget,' all you have to do is keep playing the music: even if you're not playing the notes exactly as written, you're still doing OK -- and then hopefully/presumably you get back on the totally right track pretty soon.

Last edited by Mark_C; 03/06/12 03:04 AM. Reason: various little things
Re: what type of knowledge do you have of performance pieces?
beet31425 #1856947 03/06/12 02:59 AM
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I think all of us have had performance experiences we were disappointed with (I know I sure have). The important thing is to learn from it but don't let it get you down for too long.

There are never any 100% guarantees in a live performance, which is what can make it scary and exciting at the same time. A few things I do to memorize pieces are:

1) Know in your head where the major sections of the piece are and be able to start playing at the beginning of each of those sections. Analyze the chords or at least the major tonal areas (i.e. know what key you're playing in at all times, know what chords you're playing, whether they are block chords or arpeggiated).

2) Memorize each hand separately and be able to play it memorized at A VARIETY OF TEMPOS. This helps to ensure that you know the notes in your head, not just by muscle memory.

3) Play your piece memorized for people other than your teacher. Maybe just one or two at a time. Performing in front of people (no matter how few) is always different than performing for yourself in a practice room. It REALLY helps to expose weak areas without being under the stress of a big recital. Then you can go back and fix those spots.... then rinse and repeat! It always helps me during a performance to know that I've successfully performed the piece several times before even if it was a lower-stress situation.

4) If you can't get people to come listen to you all the time, record yourself! I get even more nervous when I'm recording myself than I do when I play for someone, probably because I'm always my own worst critic. An added benefit is you can go back and listen to your recording and see the exact places you messed up, but also the places that went really well (usually after a performance I tend to remember only the things that didn't go how I wanted).

I hope these ideas are helpful for you! Good luck on your future performances! smile

Edit: I used to rely on my visual memory quite strongly, but interestingly enough, I've found that becoming less and less the case these days. I like to think that means I'm memorizing more with my conscious mind now...

Last edited by bellamusica; 03/06/12 03:05 AM.
Re: what type of knowledge do you have of performance pieces?
bellamusica #1856948 03/06/12 03:06 AM
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Originally Posted by bellamusica
3) Play your piece memorized for people other than your teacher. Maybe just one or two at a time. Performing in front of people (no matter how few) is always different than performing for yourself in a practice room. It REALLY helps to expose weak areas without being under the stress of a big recital. Then you can go back and fix those spots.... then rinse and repeat! It always helps me during a performance to know that I've successfully performed the piece several times before even if it was a lower-stress situation.....

This might be more important than all the fine specifics that we're mentioning. It might be the only extra thing that most people need.

Re: what type of knowledge do you have of performance pieces?
beet31425 #1856949 03/06/12 03:07 AM
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This is all great advice so far-- thanks! Some of this I did a lot (#1 and #3 from bellamusica's list), some not so much. I used to memorize hands separately... maybe I should go back to that.

Another thing we have to learn to do it to get un-derailed "in real time". Currently, a lot of times I make mistakes, I have to stop and start again. I usually have a "starting point" pretty close by, but it would be much better to be able to self-correct without loosing the pulse.

In addition to these great suggestions, I'm still interested in what percent (roughly) of notes folks thing they know, away from the piano. Mark thought about 95%. I'm probably at like 15-20%. If other people have high numbers, that would be very interesting to me.

-J

Re: what type of knowledge do you have of performance pieces?
Mark_C #1856952 03/06/12 03:10 AM
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Originally Posted by Mark_C
Originally Posted by bellamusica
3) Play your piece memorized for people other than your teacher. Maybe just one or two at a time. Performing in front of people (no matter how few) is always different than performing for yourself in a practice room. It REALLY helps to expose weak areas without being under the stress of a big recital. Then you can go back and fix those spots.... then rinse and repeat! It always helps me during a performance to know that I've successfully performed the piece several times before even if it was a lower-stress situation.....

This might be more important than all the fine specifics that we're mentioning. It might be the only extra thing that most people need.


But this one I did a ton. All my etudes for musically appreciative friends, four different friends, four different days. Plus I actually played in two teacher recital/classes, one last Wednesday, one Sunday. The dress-rehearsals, on my familiar piano, went pretty well; the recital/classes, on foreign pianos in front of other musicians, were continuous out-of-body experiences, resulting in repeated derailments. smile

-J

Re: what type of knowledge do you have of performance pieces?
beet31425 #1856954 03/06/12 03:16 AM
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Originally Posted by beet31425
This is all great advice so far-- thanks! Some of this I did a lot (#1 and #3 from bellamusica's list), some not so much. I used to memorize hands separately... maybe I should go back to that.

Another thing we have to learn to do it to get un-derailed "in real time". Currently, a lot of times I make mistakes, I have to stop and start again. I usually have a "starting point" pretty close by, but it would be much better to be able to self-correct without loosing the pulse.

In addition to these great suggestions, I'm still interested in what percent (roughly) of notes folks thing they know, away from the piano. Mark thought about 95%. I'm probably at like 15-20%. If other people have high numbers, that would be very interesting to me.

-J


I think #2 on my list is the one that really helps me to know the vast majority of my notes. Right now I'm working on the Schumann Fantasie. I just memorized the first movement last weekend and if I take virtually any section of it, I can visualize what all (as in about 90-95%, yes) the notes are in my head (either on the page or my hands playing them). There are still a couple of extra-chromatic/dense parts that I might be slightly hazy on but those will become more and more clear as I continue polishing the piece.

I guess for me, #2 on my list is really the big 'learning every single note' step, while #1 is knowing the larger structure of the piece as opposed to all the little details. #3 and #4 are my ways to test and strengthen what I've learned in the first two steps.

Last edited by bellamusica; 03/06/12 03:17 AM.
Re: what type of knowledge do you have of performance pieces?
beet31425 #1856955 03/06/12 03:16 AM
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Originally Posted by beet31425
Another thing we have to learn to do it to get un-derailed "in real time". Currently, a lot of times I make mistakes, I have to stop and start again.....

Not sure this is related to what you're saying, but....I think it's important, in the latter stages of working on a piece, to make sure that a lot of your playing of the piece is 'non-stop, keep going through the whole piece no matter what.' I have no idea how much people do this, but my impression/guess is that most amateurs don't make a point of it; they don't hesitate to keep stopping to fix stuff or to practice a difficult measure or whatever. It's fine to do that too -- but what I'm saying is that we should also make sure to have a large portion of the practice be run-throughs that we identify to ourselves as such -- i.e. when we start the piece, we've told ourselves that we're going to keep going through the whole thing no matter what happens. If we don't do that....this might seem to be stating the obvious but my impression is that people don't necessarily realize it, and my own awareness of it comes from what we might call "learning theory," not from musical training: we're not practicing playing through the piece, we're practicing getting stuck.

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.....Mark thought about 95%....

I meant more like at least 95%. smile

Re: what type of knowledge do you have of performance pieces?
beet31425 #1856956 03/06/12 03:19 AM
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Originally Posted by beet31425
....on foreign pianos....

That could be a lot of it!!

You talked about maybe relying too much on "muscle memory." If that's a huge part of what you rely on, then a different piano can make a very big difference. It can throw you off big-time.

Remedy: In addition to all of these other things, make sure to spend some time playing your pieces on as many different pianos as is feasible, or at least several anyway -- and to make sure you can at least cope on all the different ones. Unless you'll never be playing except on your own piano and your teacher's. smile

BTW, I think what people will tend to find from doing this is that indeed they can't rely that much on just muscle memory.

Re: what type of knowledge do you have of performance pieces?
beet31425 #1856957 03/06/12 03:20 AM
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Before I perform a piece, I usually know about 95-100% of the notes. I practice a lot of piano in my head or on tabletops these days to enhance my auditory imagery. I also do things like playing the right hand alone and visualizing the left hand and vs. versa. I personally think that if you have a very strong auditory image of how you think the piece should go in your head and then believe in it, the music will come out.

Re: what type of knowledge do you have of performance pieces?
bellamusica #1856962 03/06/12 03:25 AM
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Originally Posted by bellamusica
I just memorized the first movement last weekend and if I take virtually any section of it, I can visualize what all (as in about 90-95%, yes) the notes are in my head (either on the page or my hands playing them).

So what's this "visualizing the score" that you and Mark talk about? Do you actually see the printed notes on the page? (I only have the haziest dream-fog like visual memory of the notes on the page, and I don't see that changing.)

And did your 90-95% number also refer to being able to name the notes away from the piano? Is note-naming something you can do for those parts of the score you can visualize? (Sorry to keep harping back to that particular type of knowledge, I just sense it might be important.)

-J

Re: what type of knowledge do you have of performance pieces?
beet31425 #1856965 03/06/12 03:27 AM
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I think many times, if you take your piece and play it at a very slow tempo (so virtually no muscle memory kicks in) this will suddenly expose a lot of places where you realize you don't quite know exactly what's supposed to come next. Then you can go check your score and see exactly what's going on. For me, once I have to go check something specifically I rarely ever forget it again.

Re: what type of knowledge do you have of performance pieces?
beet31425 #1856967 03/06/12 03:29 AM
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Originally Posted by beet31425
So what's this "visualizing the score" that you and Mark talk about? Do you actually see the printed notes on the page?

For me, yeah -- much more than the 'names' of the notes.

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And did your 90-95% number also refer to being able to name the notes away from the piano?....

I put very little emphasis on that, except in places where I've had particular trouble. More just visualizing the score, visualizing the keys, visualizing the fingers on the keys. But I think most people do consider it pretty important.

Re: what type of knowledge do you have of performance pieces?
beet31425 #1856970 03/06/12 03:36 AM
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Originally Posted by beet31425
Originally Posted by bellamusica
I just memorized the first movement last weekend and if I take virtually any section of it, I can visualize what all (as in about 90-95%, yes) the notes are in my head (either on the page or my hands playing them).

So what's this "visualizing the score" that you and Mark talk about? Do you actually see the printed notes on the page? (I only have the haziest dream-fog like visual memory of the notes on the page, and I don't see that changing.)

And did your 90-95% number also refer to being able to name the notes away from the piano? Is note-naming something you can do for those parts of the score you can visualize? (Sorry to keep harping back to that particular type of knowledge, I just sense it might be important.)

-J


I can visualize the notes on the page to some extent, but in a way, my 'visualizing' is more conceptual than image-oriented. It's kind of a combination of visualizing the notes on the page, my hands on the piano, "audiolizing" (haha) the notes in my ears, and thinking certain things such as "Here's the legato melody in octaves with the staccato accompaniment, here's the A-flat major scale-motion, here's where the theme comes back except the ornament is in a different place this time". Stuff like that. So I guess it's sort of a 4-pronged visualization. And yes, I can do this even right now as I'm sitting and typing at my computer (all those examples I was just giving are literal examples from the piece).

Re: what type of knowledge do you have of performance pieces?
bellamusica #1856974 03/06/12 03:39 AM
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Originally Posted by bellamusica
I think many times, if you take your piece and play it at a very slow tempo (so virtually no muscle memory kicks in) this will suddenly expose a lot of places where you realize you don't quite know exactly what's supposed to come next.

This might be extremely important for me. I just tried it. I found that when I got to the passage which broke down during the recital-- unexpectedly, because it has always been fine during practice-- I was unable to play it super-slowly. Even for the other parts that I could play super-slowly, I could tell that my brain was learning stuff that it hadn't been picking up on at speed. Very interesting.

Off for the night. Thanks for the tips, and lets keep the conversation going on this topic-- it doesn't all have to be about me. smile

-J

Re: what type of knowledge do you have of performance pieces?
beet31425 #1856982 03/06/12 04:15 AM
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Hi Jason,

When I give recitals the only factor upon which I can rely in preparation is work away from the piano. The piece is in my fingers, I can play the hands separately, I know what I want to do with it, but none of this makes me feel remotely at ease before a live audience. As the date approaches, I always find myself absorbing the music inwardly more and more. It's no conscious effort. On the contrary, I seem to simply gravitate toward this practice by force of nature. As the pressure mounts, I deviate more from my fingers and the tactile aspect and almost romance the music into my bones. I take walks and sing it through, I conduct it, I imagine it in colors and landscapes. Single chords take on characters as vivid as Ibsen's Nora. Textural changes are felt physically, structural components take on a living complexion, I admire them with the same kind of dispassion that I admire the elegant physics of the arch.

The piece becomes a living organism with which I have achieved an effective symbiosis. On stage, at this moment, it needs me as much as I need it, we inform and greet each other, and it is an act of consummation.

I realize this ideal each time in different degrees, but it's long been my practice and I trust it.

Re: what type of knowledge do you have of performance pieces?
Ian_G #1856983 03/06/12 04:19 AM
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Originally Posted by Ian_G
Hi Jason,

When I give recitals the only factor upon which I can rely in preparation is work away from the piano. The piece is in my fingers, I can play the hands separately, I know what I want to do with it, but none of this makes me feel remotely at ease before a live audience. As the date approaches, I always find myself absorbing the music inwardly more and more. It's no conscious effort. On the contrary, I seem to simply gravitate toward this practice by force of nature. As the pressure mounts, I deviate more from my fingers and the tactile aspect and almost romance the music into my bones. I take walks and sing it through, I conduct it, I imagine it in colors and landscapes. Single chords take on characters as vivid as Ibsen's Nora. Textural changes are felt physically, structural components take on a living complexion, I admire them with the same kind of dispassion that I admire the elegant physics of the arch.

The piece becomes a living organism with which I have achieved an effective symbiosis. On stage, at this moment, it needs me as much as I need it, we inform and greet each other, and it is an act of consummation.

I realize this ideal each time in different degrees, but it's long been my practice and I trust it.


What a pleasure to read this post!

Re: what type of knowledge do you have of performance pieces?
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Here's something about what I remember from years ago, when I still did perform by memory in front of people. The longest piece I performed that way was the Ravel G major concerto, and I didn't consciously do much of the stuff like being able to spell out the notes, memorizing hands separately, visualizing the music, etc. But I did play it in front of various people and groups (including John Ogden!) before the "real" performance I gave.

Instead of specific conscious efforts, absorbing it was a much more organic thing, like what Ian G talks about - I was just living the music. Sure, there were any number of details that were going through my mind that no doubt helped to fixate the music in memory, but it was never like I decided that I had to do any particular memorization thing. In a way, it was like a mosaic of all that stuff - one moment my attention would be on a harmonic shift, another on a certain technical detail, another on how much fun it was to play a certain pattern with a certain inflection. The only rhyme or reason to it was supplied by my love of the music.

There were a couple of things that happened during the real performance that proved to me that I knew the music well enough to prevent derailment. The first was that I was hit by severe stage-fright when I walked out on stage. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before - my legs were literally shaking so hard I couldn't work the pedals. My mind was racing, trying to figure out what was going on and what to do about it. But I still nodded to the conductor, and we were off, and I found that I could still play, even with trembling hands and a conscious mind that felt like it was anywhere but in that wretched malfunctioning body. That fright wore off pretty quickly (although it seemed like an eternity), my nervous system calmed down, my mind realigned with my body, and things went smoothly for a long stretch. Until a point in the second movement when the cor anglais completely went off the rails and played a long solo double-time. It was a total melt-down, and it was right during a part of the piece that is notoriously hard to memorize for the pianist. Somehow, I not only kept going, but even managed to improvise a bit of extra filler melodic notes to try to cover the blank musical hole which was left by the cor anglais finishing the solo in half the allotted time. Thank goodness, the conductor kept a cool head and managed to keep the rest of the orchestra in line.

The point of all this is that my memory was solid as a rock in spite of some pretty major discombobulating things during the performance. I think that was because the piece was simply part of me by that point. It felt like I totally identified with it, mind, heart, and soul; it was as if I had written it myself. The thing is, how do you get to that point? It's probably some kind of particular "deep" internal commitment one makes to the music, and I imagine that how it works differs with each person. But I think if you can find it, you are all set.

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