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Memorization at the piano: How to improve your skills

Memorization should be a natural outflow of consistent, thoughtful practicing. Thoughtful is underscored because it’s the most important ingredient in the process of playing a studied piece without music. It means having mental assists that relate to mapping out a particular composition without chance reliance on intuition or instinct. So if you suddenly find yourself lost in a piece without having your music propped up on the rack, your mapped sense of it, should re-orient you.

What do you map during practice sessions?

1) Start by knowing what key the piece is in. (this presupposes an understanding of how scales move on the Circle of Fifths, acquiring Sharps in Clock-wise motion, and Flats in Counter-clockwise motion)

But even if your knowledge of the Circle is scant, you can still “know” that your Sonatina, Prelude, or popular music are in individual keys with so many sharps or flats. (You would have to differentiate Major from minor, by “listening” to the piece, and noticing where it comes to rest in the last measure: final cadence) Having a deeper knowledge base related to Major and minor scales; various forms of the minor, and how they are constructed are even better organizers, but whatever level of key awareness you can muster, is better than none.

Go over the scale of the Major or minor key the piece is in. Play one octave up and down, feeling the physical terrain, with designated sharps and flats.

Do you notice that the piece changes key at any point(s) in the music? You might observe a NEW inserted key signature along the way. MAKE note of it, and play out the scale of the NEW key. Write the KEY name into your music.

If there are any scale passages in the music, make a written reference, and see if you can chunk or group the notes, through which the thumb passes or shifts. (Cluster the finger “tunnels” and move the thumb deftly through them) This should imprint how the passage “feels” along with your having a cognitive awareness of its name.

2) Map Phrases

Are there any that repeat exactly as they first appeared in the music?

If, yes, make a mental and written note of it. You might CIRCLE phrases that repeat.

What about those that are nearly the same but deviate in some way?

Tab these mentally, and circle the part of the phrase or phrases that are different. You should play the two phrases, side- by-side, to experience the change.

What about the interval content of a phrase or phrases? Do you see a pattern of skips or steps going up or down? Fourths, fifths, sixths?

Are there any broken chord figures in the melody? Arpeggios? Note and PLAY through these passages.

Do you observe melodic sequences, where a particular phrase sounds the same on a repeat except that it’s played higher or lower on a different key level? If so, insert the word SEQUENCE into your music and physically experience the change over and again with this simultaneous cognitive awareness. (Label the key transition)

3) Map out Fingerings. Use a practical fingering in your practicing. Hopefully, the editor will have provided a good one throughout the score.

For some players, their memory box assists are only based on retrieval of fingerings, so when push comes to shove, having a smooth, facile fingering may keep a piece from falling apart with or without music.

Sometimes fingerings that are designated in the music provide an occasional bonus for the player. Where 2’s might meet in both hands on the way to a cadence, it’s like a painting by numbers giveaway that holds the piece together where it would otherwise not make it to the final cadence. Look for these finger symmetries including instances of MIRROR or reciprocal fingerings between the hands, and practice pertinent phrases and passages.

4) Map Form
After you’ve read through your piece for the first or second time, getting a sense of its melodic landscape before delving into the vertical dimension, make note of its over-all form. Is there a big A section, followed by a different sounding Middle Section (B) followed by a return to the A? Is there anything else going on, like an added ending or Coda? Be sure to write in these section (Letter) designations within your music as these are important music organizers that aid learning and memory.

In addition, notice where the piece PEAKS or comes to a climax. Was there a KEY CHANGE? (How about a shift in dynamics?) Take note and insert in your score.

If your piece is in Rondo Form, it may follow the scheme: A B A C A D A etc.
Knowing what rondo form is, and applying it to your music, if pertinent, is another important organizer that aids memorization.

When it comes to Inventions, Fugues, etc. knowledge of form is critical to learning and memorization. Knowing subjects, counter-subjects, episodes, etc. requires an understanding of the musical period and compositional practices, etc. This is a level of memorization that belongs to the advanced realm of piano study.

Part of form is noting the movement of voices between treble and bass. Do these move in Parallel motion in parts pf the piece, or in Contrary motion?(opposite directions) Notate what you observe and play through these sections.

5) Map Harmonies
Here we get to a more sophisticated analysis of a piece of music that aids learning and memory. If you’re playing a pop piece, you might see guitar based identities of chords like C7, G, G min, A dim. etc above the treble staff, or there might be inserted Roman numerals.

These assists are only as valuable as your understanding of chord building, or better yet, the relationships between chords as they originate from Scales in all Keys. Otherwise, you might fall into a formula-based track, which is all well and good if you can learn how to grab these chords with a degree of fluency.

In the Classical repertoire, you won’t see these harmonic tabs, but you would do well to analyze the harmonic flow of your piece with the help of your teacher or a Theory workbook. (I recommend Keith Snell’s series)

The depth of your learning process will relate to the time and effort you spend studying theory/harmony alongside your daily practicing. It will enrich your learning, provide more valuable LANDMARKS, and give you a better map of what you are playing.

Under Map harmonies, you will note the MODULATIONS where the composition moves into different tonal centers or KEYS. Or you can become aware of Harmonic SEQUENCES with the same harmonic outline or progression on a different KEY Level.

This journey into various tonal realms should be notated in the music, and mentally absorbed. PLAYING and KNOWING what is transpiring on a tonal level, will firmly lay the foundation you need to learn on a deep level and to naturally memorize as the outcome of your thoughtful practicing.

Part and parcel of tracking harmonies, is observing the bass pattern, whether broken chords in sections, or ostinato ( a repeated bass pattern)

Ostinati, are great organizers because they repeat over and again throughout a composition. (You will find an Ostinato in Pachelbel’s Canon)

6) Map Dynamics. While dynamics may not help with note retrieval during a memory lapse, or give harmonic context to your piece, it will certainly be an ingredient in polishing your fully memorized performance. Circle any ECHO phrases–from Forte to piano, where they occur in your music, and make note of where the CLIMAX of the piece occurs. It may have an elevated dynamic. (Climax designation is also part of Mapping FORM)

The Climax may also have a poignant KEY CHANGE, so indicate it in your score.

In summary, any learning aids related to phrasing, fingering, form and harmonic analysis are valuable when it comes to memorizing your pieces.

But underlying this whole process, is a non-judgmental, self-accepting attitude. Getting tensed up, not breathing natural, relaxed deep breaths– grabbing notes like there’s no tomorrow will not advance learning or memorization. So reserve a part of the day for your practicing that is free from interruption. Enjoy the time spent with your music and savor its beauty.


Of special importance: Knowledge of Solfege and its application to learning, and subsequent memorization:

I will be posting videos that flesh out these aids to memorization.

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