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How to learn to play by heart?

Posted By: PJ-K

How to learn to play by heart? - 09/16/03 12:08 PM

I am a 25 y.o dutch amateur pianist. At the moment I am spending a lot of time in learning to play pieces like Ravel's Sonatine or Bach's sixth french suite by heart. It feels so wonderful to play by heart! It is like being completely free to concentrate on the music and on how it should sound. Yet, in one way or another I always get stuck not long after the first two pages of a score (even if I put it away)! Now, I wondered, wheter there was someone in this wonderful piano forum to which I registered not long ago, who could give the necessary advice on the matter (my piano teacher is abroad for a while, that is why I had hoped to find my luck in here!).

Is there a technique to learn to play by heart? In what stage of the learning process of a new piece should one start to learn by heart?

thanks in advance!

Posted By: pianodevo

Re: How to learn to play by heart? - 09/16/03 09:52 PM

Sei mir gegrusst pjk,

I will try to help, but keep in mind that I always memorized easily (and sight-read poorly!).

The most important thing is many repetitions of a piece. The ear hears the current sound and tells the body mechanism what to do next.

When you do the repetitions, your conscious mind is training the subconscious mind -- it is the SUBCONSCIOUS which actually directs the playing of the piece at performance level. So it is important to make most of your repetitions THE SAME (so as not to confuse the subconscious), and to use the same fingering (after some initial experiments of course). Also, most professional pianists really emphasize ***slow*** practicing until the notes are learned well.

Relying totally on the automatic memory of the body is dangerous ... use your eyes and mind too. For example, in places where you seem to have trouble with memorizing, take careful conscious note of things that might help. As an example, I was having trouble with a fast left hand run in a Bach piece, but noticed that at the hard part, my LH thumb played on d and then again on the next lower g. Remembering "thumb on d and on g" has solved the problem.

Lastly, when I have a memory slip in a part of a piece that I've had memorized previously, I will play those few measures at various times over the next few days, until I'm certain THAT particular slip won't occur again.

Don't give up!!
Posted By: starmender

Re: How to learn to play by heart? - 09/16/03 11:38 PM

Different players memorise in different ways.

Listen to the piece on recording, if you can.
Some people who have good visual memory like to write out sticky bits. There is also a technique of "silent playing" away from the piano to develop touch memory.

I like to emphasis analysis and formal structure when I teach memorisation. Have a look at Gieseking and Leimer's Piano Technique .

For you I would would probably suggest a "map" to start with.
This is a simplified version of the music which you write out yourself as a training device, which has the measures drawn on it, but only the most essential information in each measure.
So if you were playing the Bach first prelude, for example, you might only write in the notes of the chords you are forgetting. As you get better, you use white out to make the map tell you less and less. (ma poco a poco)

When your memorising gets better, you may like to just play from a formal structure diagramme.

I too am a fluent memoriser- for me it is impossible not to memorise, but even so, I prefer to have a clear idea of the formal structure of the music, so I know where I am up to in the piece, in order not to be led astray, for instance, by transformations in the bridging.

Some students need more sophisticated techniques, for example, playing simple pieces "upside down" seems to activate the right brain. It also helps work on playing by ear.

The only piece I ever had trouble with was a little thing by Eric Satie, which just would not come. My solution to that was to do a formal analysis, and to play from the analysis a few times. For me that worked like magic.
Posted By: kathyk

Re: How to learn to play by heart? - 09/17/03 12:34 AM

Those are great tips, Star, but they all sound so time consuming. I too have agonized over memorization to the point that it was so difficult, and I was so plagued with memory blocks that I finally hung up any kind of performance track. On the other hand, give me something to sightread, and I'll rip to shreds. There must be something to that dichotemy. My 17 yo son is just the opposite. He quickly memorizes, but struggles through the initial, note-reading learning process.
Posted By: PJ-K

Re: How to learn to play by heart? - 09/17/03 12:27 PM

Thanks so much for your replies and good advices!

Before a piece to come out of the hands naturally by themselves, one has to work hard to 'know' the piece by heart, so much has become clear to me now! By the way, I think that my 'problem' is most of all that it has been quite a long time ago that I have played as much as I do now. Since september I took 4 months to spend as a 'full time amateur pianist', before going to start as a lawyer in a lawfirm (from januari onwards). So I guess the biggest challenge for me is to get 'the feeling' back and to trigger the subconscious and conscious mind to get active again when it comes to music and 'pianistics'!

I really like this piano forum and I hope I can contribute and profit from it again in the near future.

all the best to you and thanks again!

met vriendelijke groeten, (= with kind regards)

Posted By: piqué

Re: How to learn to play by heart? - 09/18/03 06:30 PM

to solidly memorize a work, you need to combine muscle memory, aural memory, visual memory, rhythmic sense, and theoretical understanding.

each of us is no doubt stronger in some of these and weaker in others.

muscle memory: practice the hand movements, sometimes without actually depressing the keys (i.e. silently). focus all your attention on the sensation of the hands and fingers moving accurately across the keys. you know that on beat 4 of measure 5 the fourth finger of the left hand slips down and over the fifth finger to a second interval. feel those spacial relationships, of the intervals. feel how those spacial relationships all connect to each other like a daisy chain.

aural memory: know how the piece sounds. if a wrong note were played, and you weren't looking at the music, could you tell? can you play the whole thing in your head from memory?

visual memory: (the hardest for me) be able to see the score in your head. know what your hands should look like on the keyboard during a particular moment of the piece.

rhythm and/or beat: use the beats as place markers in the piece. by knowing what beat you are on, you know what your hand placement should be and what the piece should sound like at that moment.

theoretical understanding: it can be helpful to know which inversion of which chord you are playing, what progression of chords you are playing, whether broken or not. for example, if you are in Dm, you know that likely your left hand is going to play inversions of the Dm chord. this is probably my own weakest area. maybe one of our more experienced pianists can elaborate on this.

if you are rusty, a trying but effective discipline can be to work on the piece backwards, one measure at a time. start on the last measure. play and read, then keep playing and reading less, until you can play without looking at the score at all. take note of all of the above memory markers as you do this. then move on to the measure just previous.
Posted By: Ted

Re: How to learn to play by heart? - 09/18/03 10:49 PM

I think the others have pretty well covered it. Use as many types of memory as possible so if one lets you down the rest will take over.

Also, it does get easier with time. There is a cumulative effect. The memorising of the hundredth piece will somehow feel a lot easier than that of the first few. The unconscious is a wonderful thing.

I'm not quite sure which faculty I use most. My ear's nothing to write home to Mum about, neither is my visual recall of a score, and I certainly don't memorise mechanically. I think I do most of it analytically because I enjoy abstract patterns for their own sake. By this I don't just mean chord progessions but the whole keyboard landscape of a piece. Put it this way, I tend to think of a piece of music spatially rather than sequentially.

When my memory fails it is usually because I mix up two "landscapes" and "take off" into the wrong place. This is excellent for improvising, of course, but a liability in performance. What throws me most is where you have more or less repeated structures with small differences which matter. Much contemporary ragtime is like this and it takes me quite a while to guarantee to do things in the right order without going into loops.
Posted By: piqué

Re: How to learn to play by heart? - 09/19/03 01:41 AM

What throws me most is where you have more or less repeated structures with small differences which matter. Much contemporary ragtime is like this and it takes me quite a while to guarantee to do things in the right order without going into loops.
ted, my teacher taught me a really effective way for memorizing these kinds of pieces.

first, break the score down into sections. the opening theme is section A1. each place in the score where the opening theme is repeated with a small difference is a variation of section A1. so you then have A2, A3, A4.

you might also have a second theme introduced, B1. each slight variation of that theme is B2, B3, etc.

you mark up the score, plainly labeling each section. then you make a map of the sections.

for example, on a chopin waltz i just memorized, which has the same maddening problem you described, the map looks something like this:

A1, A2, A1, A3, B1, B2, A2, A3, C1, C2, C3, C4, A1, A2, A3.

memorize the map, the order in which the sections occur and repeat themselves.

then, of course, you also memorize the sections with their slight variations, one at a time.

you can test yourself so that when a friend calls out "C3!" you can automatically play that section independent of the rest. then, of course, you string them all together in the right order, following the map.

i was amazed at how quickly this eliminated the problem you described. it must just fit the way my mind works.
Posted By: Ted

Re: How to learn to play by heart? - 09/19/03 02:16 AM


Thank you for taking the time to explain this scheme. I'll try to put it into practice with some of David's (Thomas Roberts) rags over the weekend and see how I get on. I don't do it all the time, of course, most of the time I get it right but I guess 100% would be better than 95%.
Posted By: benedict

Re: How to learn to play by heart? - 09/21/03 10:49 AM

I like to emphasis analysis and formal structure when I teach memorisation. Have a look at Gieseking and Leimer's Piano Technique .
Thank you so much for the tip.
I found a copy yesterday and started practicing today.
It is an extraordinary approach. In fact, I have looking for it for years and years.

I used it for all the pieces and songs I was memorizing. It is so great ! I don't have to repeat thousand times to memorize anymore. I just have to UNDERSTAND the patterns.

I always thought the most important was the pitch names. That was wrong.
The most important is the pattern.
Intervals or even better melodic movement : go ut to keys, go down one.
Scalar movement.

The principle is that the brain directs the hands. It is amazing how fast one learns.

Of course, Leimer's and Giesekings's book is for teachers and advanced pianists.
What is missing is a book that would teach this approach from the beginning, starting with simples pieces and songs and simple patterns till one's skill at pattern recognition would have evolved with the technique.

I learned to the first 11 exercizes of Hanon with this approach. It is amazing how the brain learns and can play fast once it has memorized (unconsciouly) the pattern.

Thank you Starmender. You deserve your name.

Posted By: starmender

Re: How to learn to play by heart? - 09/21/03 10:42 PM

Thank you Benedict. Pique's post is also very helpful. I teach students to study the music that way as a quick learning method.

I agree that the Gieseking approach is amazing. I first used it when I wanted to learn the Prokofiev Toccata. I got the music the very day I went away on holiday to Vanuatu, and I put it in my hand luggage to study on the plane. Not only could I play from memory those parts I'd managed to study, but they stayed with me for years afterwards, long after I had stopped practising the piece.
Posted By: benedict

Re: How to learn to play by heart? - 09/22/03 07:51 AM

This is my second day with the Leimer-Gieseking method and I am even more amazed.

It is a wholistic approach, it is not only about memorizing a piece, it is about feeding your "pattern memory" so that your playing becomes completely spontaneous.

Since decades, I always thought that the main thing was the pitches.

I was completely wrong.

The main thing is the intervals.
Concentrating on pitches is concentrating on statics. Intervals give you dynamics, movement. And it seems that movement feeds itself. It is like a chain reaction.

I came to hate the process of memorizing through repetition. I found it really boring and even painful.

Now, I know that if I understand the patterns (intervals, scalar movement, arpeggios, inversions, harmonic marches etc.), then my hands just do it.
It is amazing.

And of course, what I thought was impossible : writing the score becomes easy.

Another benefit of Leimer-Gieseking approach : the pattern, the sound and the movement are one. Once the pattern is understood, everything happens at the same time without any conscious effort.

I hope this incredible experience is going to stay. It is so liberating.

Another point : this method does not concentrate on "visual memory". Visual memory seems to be a consequence of "pattern analysis". It is not so much based on memory as on "intelligence".

And the magical effect of intelligence is that once a thing is understood (grasped), there is no need to think about it. It becomes natural.

In French, "to know" is "connaitre" : co-naitre.
to be born with. Come to life with.

Posted By: Stanza

Re: How to learn to play by heart? - 09/22/03 02:22 PM

To add to the excellent above advice. First, again don't fall into the trap of "running the tape" memorization. In other words, always starting a the begining and going until failure. Section work is better, but I would suggest naming sections rather than A1,A2...etc. I have actually cut up photocopies of my music and named the sections by interpretation (i.e. the first theme, ending, quiet part, the waterfall, black keys etc. These really help. Pick them out of a hat randomly and put them aside when learned will also keep you from waisting time going over things already learned. Secondly Benedict is right on about intervals. This is how good pianists transpose so easily. Finally the visual cortex of the brain is large. Use it effectively by not trying to memorize the score, but rather the keyboard notes. Removes the extra layer of information the brain must process and that is what you look at anyway once a piece is memorised. good luck
Posted By: Dave_2003_G

Re: How to learn to play by heart? - 09/22/03 05:26 PM

I always memorize very naturally - I do 'play' through the piece quite alot in my mind which could help

Posted By: PJ-K

Re: How to learn to play by heart? - 09/22/03 05:47 PM

I was away for a while and see what happens! Such good advices from all of you. I really appreciate your posts. I have understood by now quite clearly that there is nothing wrong with me as a pianist, when the music do not enter my head 'naturally'.. or better: does not come out of my fingers by itself! I ordered Gieseking's book on amazon right after the first advice of you, Starmender. I look forward to the delivery! In the mean time I work as good as I can, following commentents you guys posted in the past few days.

Posted By: kathyk

Re: How to learn to play by heart? - 09/22/03 07:00 PM

Ditto. What an incredibly useful thread. I've already started improving my memory technique (just wish I had more time to practice, now) and I too have ordered the book.
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