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I'm really frustrated.

I've played piano for 40 years. I've learned hundreds of songs in many genres. I want to be able to sit down and play my repertoire by memory, anywhere, any time.

But my memory fails me.

Memorization is not the problem. I've memorized dozens of songs.

The problem is maintaining memory. I am shocked at how quickly I'll forget bits of a song that, just two weeks ago, I had finally worked up to performance level.

And, of course, when you're performing, forgetting even one bit of a song can take a performance from a 10 to a 6 in the blink of an eye.

I've tried "maintenance practice," in which I cycle through recent repertoire every couple weeks to keep it fresh in my mind. But time is always the limitation: If I had more time to practice, then sure I could keep everything fresh; but I don't have that much time. I'm not a professional. I have a job and a family. Piano is not my life, it's just an important part of it. Some weeks I don't touch the keyboard. Some days I only have time to do that one current piece once through.

I've tried choosing a small set of pieces to keep fresh... but they grow stale. They get boring. I become sick of them. "That one... again? I have nothing new to do with that one. If I practice it more, I'll just risk developing bad habits." My wife and neighbors must be sick of these pieces!

Besides, letting a piece rest for a few months can help me bring a fresh interpretation to it.

It feels like, having played for this many years, I should have a more intimate, embodied relationship to my repertoire, but I don't.

Do you have suggestions?

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Perhaps have a larger repertoire of easier material that you can essentially sight read or at least play without needing much assistance from memory. Then you can have your current 1/2/3/however_many_you_can_manage of current harder material?

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I cycle through a short list of rep pieces daily during the technical part of my practice. I do different ones each day, it doesn’t take me over 15 min. This results in me working each rep pieces about 3 times a week, which seems sufficient for me. Pick a bunch you love, then replace some with other pieces you love. You’ll find they get easier and easier to pick up over time as you cycle back on them.


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There is no way for most people to maintain a large number of pieces in memory. OTOH I don't see any need to do this. Why do you feel it's necessary?

You might be able to somewhat increase the number of pieces you can keep in memory by examining how you memorize pieces. If it's mostly by muscle memory, adding other memory methods might help you retain them in memory longer.

Last edited by pianoloverus; 04/11/21 03:10 PM.
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I am not sure whether your problem is that you are not playing from the score and your memory is not reliable, or you are playing from the score and it is your muscle memory that is unreliable?

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noamb Offline OP
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I am playing from memory, not from the score.

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In all my years of piano playing I have never learned to play anything from memory - I am entirely reliant on the score. This makes it easier for me to play pieces I studied some time ago. It is still not straightforward though, if I don't try to maintain the pieces my muscle memory slowly leaks away. Just today I have been trying to play a Haydn sonata which I was studying for a year, but have hardly played for three months or so. And I found several passages where the fingers had "forgotten what to do". I can get this back, but it will need a little concentrated effort.

I cannot really comment on your situation of playing without a score - but it does not surprise me that you would find it difficult to maintain a repertoire.

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Originally Posted by David-G
In all my years of piano playing I have never learned to play anything from memory - I am entirely reliant on the score.

Maybe I shouldn't feel so bad then! laugh

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Originally Posted by David-G
In all my years of piano playing I have never learned to play anything from memory - I am entirely reliant on the score.

Me too-- I'm horrible at memorizing, so I just don't even bother trying since I stopped doing exams and competitions (where memorization is required) after high school. It's honestly a little embarrassing to have played piano for over 30 years and not be able to play a single piece by memory when people ask me to wink


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Originally Posted by twocats
It's honestly a little embarrassing to have played piano for over 30 years and not be able to play a single piece by memory when people ask me to wink

This.

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Originally Posted by noamb
Originally Posted by twocats
It's honestly a little embarrassing to have played piano for over 30 years and not be able to play a single piece by memory when people ask me to wink

This.

I just laugh and say I can't play without sheet music. I wish I had a few pieces at my fingertips but it is what it is! Maybe just bring some music with you everywhere?


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noamb Offline OP
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So, out of curiosity, how much music do professional pianists keep memorized?

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Originally Posted by noamb
So, out of curiosity, how much music do professional pianists keep memorized?
It's very individual.

Unfortunately, unless you are a prodigy, there is no other way of keeping repertoire pieces fresh than to play them 1-2 times a week. But the longer a piece stays in your repertoire the faster it can then be recovered if you dismiss it from the repertoire for some reason.

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Originally Posted by twocats
Originally Posted by noamb
Originally Posted by twocats
It's honestly a little embarrassing to have played piano for over 30 years and not be able to play a single piece by memory when people ask me to wink

This.

I just laugh and say I can't play without sheet music. I wish I had a few pieces at my fingertips but it is what it is! Maybe just bring some music with you everywhere?
But, can you play 'something', anything? It's a musical instrument, and not being able to play something, without a sheet would seem a travesty to me. I am learning to improvise, that is a partial solution, but not to your starting question. So back to your point, you must be able to retain let's say one piece? Then maybe two, then..., somewhere is your breaking/losing point from time, practice, memory, etc.

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WOW - reading this and thought I was the only one who has retained nothing from memory.
Thanks Everyone, for making me feel better.

I'm 65 and have been playing since I was 7yo and only a few bits and pieces are retained to memory.

But put a piece in front of me, let me hear it played correctly once or twice and I can sight-read thru almost
intermediate-advantaged.

Last edited by brdwyguy; 04/12/21 04:22 AM.

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I'm jumping on the "I can't play without a score" bandwagon... I have maybe 3 or 4 songs committed to memory that I studied a decade or two ago, and those are it. Everything else I rely on scores... or I play pop songs by ear. I do believe that muscle memory really helps when you have the score in front of you, even if you haven't played the song in years. For example, I just got a piano after not having played for 5-7 years. I started with trying to learn a new song, it was hard. So I went back and played songs that I used to be able to play very, very well, and I quickly got them back up to scratch. Some I could hardly believe that I could play without making many mistakes, even though I hadn't looked at the scores nor played the songs in 7 years! I think it's a combination of the familiarity with the score and muscle memory.

I don't think it's possible to have a massive repertoire of pieces in your head that you can pull out and play perfectly every single time - unless of course, you are some sort of prodigy. I also don't find it super important to be able to; at least if your memory isn't 100% perfect and you're referring to a score while playing, you can be sure that you're playing it correctly, with all the nuances that the composer intended. That, IMO is better than playing from memory, but inaccurately.

Last edited by sharra; 04/12/21 04:21 AM.
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Originally Posted by spanishbuddha
But, can you play 'something', anything? It's a musical instrument, and not being able to play something, without a sheet would seem a travesty to me. I am learning to improvise, that is a partial solution, but not to your starting question. So back to your point, you must be able to retain let's say one piece? Then maybe two, then..., somewhere is your breaking/losing point from time, practice, memory, etc.

I can sometimes get through June by Tchaikovsky without the music but that's only because my dad convinced my teacher to make me learn it way before I was ready, and it took two years to play it well. It really stuck!

I'm just not interested in putting in the time and effort to memorize. Sometimes it naturally happens in parts where it's too difficult not
to look down (like if there's big jumps, especially in both hands). But it already takes me way longer than I'd prefer to learn new repertoire and play it well, so that's where I focus my energy. I joke that it's why I love to play chamber music. Sheet music is expected wink

Last edited by twocats; 04/12/21 04:46 AM.

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Originally Posted by twocats
Originally Posted by David-G
In all my years of piano playing I have never learned to play anything from memory - I am entirely reliant on the score.

Me too-- I'm horrible at memorizing, so I just don't even bother trying since I stopped doing exams and competitions (where memorization is required) after high school. It's honestly a little embarrassing to have played piano for over 30 years and not be able to play a single piece by memory when people ask me to wink

I also play entirely from the score and make no attempt at memorising anything. My wife however is the opposite and after running through a section from the score a couple of times she then continues learning it 'from memory' and won't go back to the score until starting a new section. In her exams she plays every piece from memory because the score is essentially redundant for her.

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Originally Posted by spanishbuddha
Originally Posted by twocats
Originally Posted by noamb
Originally Posted by twocats
It's honestly a little embarrassing to have played piano for over 30 years and not be able to play a single piece by memory when people ask me to wink

This.

I just laugh and say I can't play without sheet music. I wish I had a few pieces at my fingertips but it is what it is! Maybe just bring some music with you everywhere?
But, can you play 'something', anything? It's a musical instrument, and not being able to play something, without a sheet would seem a travesty to me. I am learning to improvise, that is a partial solution, but not to your starting question. So back to your point, you must be able to retain let's say one piece? Then maybe two, then..., somewhere is your breaking/losing point from time, practice, memory, etc.

I don't think there is any "must" about it! When I sit down at the piano I cannot play a thing without a score. Or course, I would love to be able to do so - but I feel, and I have always felt, that time invested in memorising would be better spent in improving my playing.

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Originally Posted by twocats
I'm just not interested in putting in the time and effort to memorize. Sometimes it naturally happens in parts where it's too difficult not to look down (like if there's big jumps, especially in both hands). But it already takes me way longer than I'd prefer to learn new repertoire and play it well, so that's where I focus my energy. I joke that it's why I love to play chamber music. Sheet music is expected wink

You could have been speaking for me! My thoughts precisely.

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