Some time ago I purchased Fundamentals of Piano Practice by Chuan C. Chang. Taking my usual relentless as a bulldozer approach, I decided to read it straight through. But about 20% into the book, I folded. I found it quite tough sledding. When I hit sections with technical advice that I completely disagree with,  I gave up. I found the effort of sifting through his suggestions to find valuable nuggets of information just too difficult.

But as I was crafting my new practice regimen to prepare for my Carnegie Hall recital, I remembered that Chang had written a detailed chapter on how to memorize. Realizing that a lot of my past performance anxiety had been fear of memory slips, I decided to reread his advice.

I have read a many sources on how to memorize, but I found that Professor Chang had a lot of ways of working that I had not thought of before that made sense to me. So I tried his approach. The results have been even better than I had hoped.  Here is my version of what he had to say.

I memorize one measure at a time.  Seems obvious,  rather like putting one’s pants on one leg at a time, but I hadn’t really been this organized about it before.

First I study the score and memorize the left hand for one measure.  Then I look at the keyboard (or close my eyes) and play the left hand’s music for just that one measure. Then I look at the score and silently hear the left hand’s part in my inner ear.  Then I play the music again on the keyboard,  only with one hand.  I repeat this process until the left hand’s music.Next I repeat the process for the right hand.

When both hands feel solidly memorized, then I try to play that one measure from memory hands together.  in the Rachmaninoff-Kreisler Liebesleid, memorization would often be progressing smoothly and then the process would breakdown completely when I tried to play the hands together.  In this piece, one hand will often be playing a triad or a fifth,  and the other hand will be playing a triad or fourth/fifth that seems unrelated. When I would put the hands together, I would have to refine my listening so I could remember the new harmonic color created by the combined sonorities.

The texture of the Manna-Zucca Valse Brilliante is much thinner and with a slower rate of harmonic change (aka ‘harmonic rhythm)  so it went into my memory much more quickly.

What has been revolutionary for me about this process is that I am much more able to hear the left hand clearly when I play hands together.  Also,  the alternation of physically playing the music with strengthening one’s inner recording of the music has helped to create a tremendous sense of security, of really KNOWING the piece.  I have done a lot of mental playing of music in the past, so my skills in this area are already fairly well developed.  But I had never melded the mental play with memorizing the hands separately, and it has been incredibly helpful with the dense harmonies and counterpoint of the Liebesleid. 

What works for you when memorizing a piece? Do you perform from memory? Why or why not?

photo credit: Indiana Public Media via photopin cc