Visualisation in memorisation

After my less than auspicious performance a few weeks’ ago, I started thinking about how I could have diagnosed the problem  and prevented the memory lapse before it occurred. Coincidentally, while I was pondering this, the fabulous Cross-Eyed Pianist penned a blog on the value of visualisation in performance, which was exactly what I’d been thinking about.

Visualisation – seeing something in the mind’s eye – is an incredibly useful tool for memorisation, as it provides a memorable pictorial representation of the piece in addition to auditory and analytical ones. There are of course different things one can visualise when trying to create a memorable pictorial representation of a piece:

  • the keys played
  • the look of your hands on the keyboard
  • the score
  • colours or shapes associated with sections of the piece

Phandsonkeysersonally, as a pianist, I find the first two of these particularly useful because if you look at your hands while playing, this is what you will actually see during performance. I try to visualise my fingers and the keys they will play while simultaneously listening to the piece in my head. If you know the piece well, listening mentally is better than listening to a recording as you can easily manipulate the tempo, and slow down to an extreme where it really is possible to hear, see and name every note as it goes past. This requires enormous concentration, but can be done anywhere away from the keyboard – sitting on the train, lying in bed, etc. I also find it useful to do twice, concentrating on each hand separately.

This is incredibly revealing practice. If there is a section where you can hear the notes but cannot see them or name them in your head, then you don’t really know them! When I did this exercise with my ill-fated Haydn sonata, it was immediately apparent where the memory slip occurred – at a small jump where I had simply no idea, away from the keyboard, what notes I should be jumping to! And after that, I was unable to find a mental image to go with the mental sounds for several lines of music. I now know exactly where I need to concentrate my practice of this piece to sort out the memory problem.

I will definitely be incorporating this kind of mental workout into my practice regime before my next performance, no matter how small or apparently insignificant that performance might be.



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Letting things slip…

doh-homer-simpson-dohIt’s been a while since I blogged about music. And a while since I thought actively about memorising. So perhaps it’s no surprise that I suffered an epic memory collapse over the weekend! Time to start blogging again… and what better to place to start than with a bit of post-game analysis…

Thankfully, I was playing at a very friendly and informal gathering. There was no need to be nervous, though of course performing solo classical music in front of people is always a little scary. Importantly, it is categorically different from just playing alone in the comfort of your own home. For starters, the acoustic of the room was different from home, and the piano – a beautiful Steinway D –  was surprisingly quiet from my position at the piano stool with the music stand raised. Plus I managed to sit too low. Such minor things can be quite discombobulating, and pressing on without trying to fix anything predictably meant that my mind kept dwelling on these issues as I played, distracting me from the task at hand.

Despite this, everything was going well, at first. I was playing the first movement of a Haydn Sonata in D major (Hob XVI:24), which is well within my ability and I have been playing from memory since the start of the year. I’ve workshopped it and played it at another informal concert earlier in the year. So it should all have been fine, right? But suddenly, from no where, catastrophe struck! About three-quarters of the way through the exposition section, I had a complete memory blank! I managed (with limited success) to improvise my way through to the development section, only to have the same thing happen again – in exactly the same place – in the recapitulation! Improvising Haydn is obviously rather tricky, though at least I managed to end back in the tonic… But it was a mess.

So what went wrong? Clearly, I did not prepare sufficiently. In fact, I broke the golden rule of how NOT to memorise – just playing through with the score! I find Haydn fairly easy to memorise, and committed the Sonata to memory quickly and easily just through playing. As a result, I didn’t bother to analyse the piece in detail, nor did I ensure that there were plenty of safe starting places throughout (the ultimate safety net for memory slips!). I hadn’t practiced hands separately, or used any of the tricks and tools that the pros suggest. I hadn’t spent time away from the piano mentally rehearsing the piece, I just played it over and over again until motor memory (commonly known as muscle memory) could get me through. The problem with motor memory is that it is notoriously unreliable under stress and, when it fails, there’s nothing your brain can do to help! You need to build other layers of memory – additional musical representations – to rely on, which I have done meticulously in the past, for exams and important concerts, but conspicuously neglected to do in this case.

This was definitely a learning experience for me, and a wake-up call not to get complacent. It also highlights the value of low risk practice performances – as it turns out, life goes on even after a memory lapse, and now I know not to let things slip again…

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By Heart (book review)

ByHeartEarlier this year, I received a copy of “By Heart: the Art of Memorising Music” by harpsichordist and blogger Paul Cienniwa. Published in 2014, this little gem is exactly the kind of book I had been searching for when I started this blog back at the start of 2013!

The book provides some clear guidance as to how to approach the daunting task of memorising a piece, from nothing to performance. Cienniwa’s personal perspective on this topic is fascinating – he  stopped memorising in college, when he switched from piano to harpsichord, and actively decided to start again nearly 20 years later. This experience has resulted some very clear and sensible recommendations for memorisation:

  • Mental practice away from the instrument is hugely valuable, and should account for perhaps as much as half of a musician’s practice time.
  • Create musical landmarks in a piece that can act as personal rehearsal marks. Memorising and practicing starting from any of these ‘chunks’ is crucial for accurate and efficient memorising that is robust to little slips in performance.
  • Use a practice log and timer to plan your work and make most efficient use of time. This includes time spent on different pieces, specific slow practice or memorising goals, as well as time spent at or away from the instrument.
  • Be patient! Memorising a piece securely takes time, and is a fruitless activity if rushed.

The book is very short and can be read in under an hour, which is great for those wishing to get straight into memorising, though I would have like to have read more about the scientific side of memorisation (surprise, surprise!). But that’s not really what the book’s about. Cienniwa touches on different types of memory – tactile, visual and aural – and although he mentions the value of understanding the form and harmonic structure of a piece, cognitive memory is not specifically included on the list. For me, this type of fact-based, logical memory (harmonic progressions, for example) is important for having a mental framework upon which to hang the other types of memory, and for dealing with memory slips. But ultimately it is the layering of different types of memory that is probably most important.

Like me, Cienniwa believes that “if a piece is not memorised, it is not learned.” He takes a hard-line approach to memorisation, stating that “I should be able to write out every memorised piece away from the instrument”. This is really a very high bar to set! I have tried this approach before, but I doubt many memorisers could make this claim for most of the pieces they play from memory. But the idea is laudable, and highlights the point that true memorisation is not just about getting a piece “in the fingers”, but about really knowing every note, every phrase, every dynamic and every section of a piece inside out. Only when this goal is realised can we be confident that a piece is secure enough to perform from memory.

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Respecting the music

Off-limitsAn interesting article over on the Cross-Eyed Pianist blog (sparked by a heated debate amongst some fellow pianists on Facebook!) has got me thinking about whether certain repertoire should be off-limits to amateurs? Are there pieces that are simply too challenging for non-professionals to even attempt?

There are those who believe that, yes, there are indeed pieces that amateurs should leave well alone. Hugely technically challenging pieces – of which there are many in the piano repertoire –  should be respected by those who cannot hope to do them justice. We should all be aware of our limits, and leave the tough stuff to those who can handle it!

I think most musicians probably disagree with this position. Personally I don’t think any repertoire should be off-limits, to anyone. We all need to be aware of our level and personal limitations, but that’s true of professionals and amateurs alike. Many individuals have physical limitations that mean they will never be able to play certain pieces, but that has no effect on their ability to play other repertoire – for example, having small hands is a curse for pianists who wish to play Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Ravel, but may actually bean asset in Bach, Scarlatti and Mozart. Finding and expressing the beauty of a piece of music can be both a challenge and a joy for anyone, irrespective of it’s technical demands.

I cannot think of a better way of respecting the music of great composers than by dedicating many hours to playing and memorising it. Listening to recordings and live concerts given by great performers is wonderful too, of course, but undoubtedly a more passive way to experience music than playing it and internalising it yourself. Learning the music, to such a level that you can see the score in the mind’s eye and listen along without the need for external sound, is surely a greater mark of respect than playing it note-perfect in every performance?

In reality, the boundary between amateurs and professional musicians is blurred. Many amateurs are highly skilled, qualified musicians, and many professionals rarely perform in public. At the end of the day, any musician (particularly soloists!) must decide what repertoire they are happy to play in concert in front of strangers, versus that which they prefer to play for their own enjoyment, in the safety of their own home. And here, I believe, is where the most stark difference occurs between amateurs – literally ‘lovers’ of music – and professional performers who must make a living from music. Those of us who have the (dubious!) ‘luxury’ of earning a living outside of performing can afford never to play to a fee-paying public, if we so desire. We may play to friends and family, students and colleagues, or simply to ourselves, without having to conquer performance anxiety and the very real possibility of making fools of ourselves on stage. This choice should certainly not act as a barrier to playing particular repertoire. Professional performers, on the other hand, must make a living from performing and accept that anything less than a polished performance is unlikely to help their career progression or recording sales.

As an amateur pianist, there is no doubt that there are many pieces that I will never be able to play well enough even for my own satisfaction (and wouldn’t dare inflict on anyone else!), and others that I believe I play well enough both for myself and others to enjoy. There’s a balance that I find hard to strike between painstakingly learning more challenging repertoire and playing technically easier repertoire to a higher musical level. The guidance of a teacher to steer any unwary students towards repertoire that will they will find challenging yet satisfying is crucial. But no music should be off-limits and, regardless of one’s ability, it is a privilege to be able to study some of the greatest works that have ever been created by the human mind.

Read Fran Wilson‘s excellent blog on this topic here.

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No one can take it away

The “Lady in Number 6” is a short but truly inspirational film about 109-year old Alice Hertz-Sommer, a concert pianist and the oldest holocaust survivor until her death earlier this year. After a remarkable and long life, this irrepressible lady played piano every day until the end, recalling many of the pieces that literally saved her life. Sommer played over 100 concerts whilst imprisoned in a concentration camp, including all of Chopin’s 24 etudes from memory.

I can’t hope to do justice to such an incredible story in this blog. But the film gives simply the best reason ever for memorising music: “Put as much as you can into your head, because no one can take that away from you.” Can’t argue with that.

Watch this short clip but be prepared to be amazed, inspired and humbled:

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Fabulous Folk

I have just spent a merry few days at the fabulous Cambridge Folk Festival. Although I don’t personally play any folk music, or traditional folk instruments, I love the melodies, wonderful rhythms and a good dance! There was some amazing musical talent on display at the festival, and a veritable panoply of live instruments – fiddle, flute, guitar, pipes, harp, drums, etc – played staggeringly well (as evidenced by the awesome Irish band Lúnasa, pictured below).


Perhaps unsurprisingly, I didn’t see a single sheet of notated music at the festival. Every performer in all of the sets I watched played from memory. Indeed, playing folk music from memory is largely expected, and while various ‘fake’ books of folk tunes exist, folk musicians often learn music by ear rather than using a score. Although some of the melodies and rhythms are undoubtedly highly repetitive, there is enormous skill in having (seemingly) hundreds of tunes ‘in the fingers’ as well as the skill to decorate and combine them in exciting new ways.

Learning music by ear removes one of the key memory aids, namely a visual memory of the score. Although singers will usually have the words written down somewhere, and the chords may be notated on a ‘cheat sheet’, the same is not necessarily true of the melody. Musicians must therefore rely more heavily on other types of memory, including motor memory (through repetitious practice) and auditory memory (through listening to the music). Learning to recognise musical intervals and translate them onto the instrument is particularly important when relying heavily on auditory memory. Even if there is no formal score to analyse, it is important to have a good mental map of each piece, such as the structure and harmonic patterns, otherwise it is easy to get lost. As with classical chamber music, visual communication between folk musicians in a band is also important for key and tempo changes.

While I’m hugely impressed by the musical memory of folk musician, both amateur and professional, I remain somewhat baffled as to why it has become so different in the classical world. Although many classical pieces are extremely complex and no doubt harder to memorise than folk tunes, which have often withstood the test of time largely as a result of being memorable, I think part of the reason for the difference is simply expectation. Folk music is usually played without a score, so folk musicians are expected to learn how to memorise from an early stage and have to rely on it. Unlike classical musicians, who are often required to read music and use the score, folk musicians are generally encouraged to join in and play by ear. Regardless of the musical genre, that must be a skill worth learning.


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How to memorise music, in theory and practice

sunflowerThe question of whether anyone can memorise music was a hot topic of conversation at the magical Lot piano course for advanced amateur pianists, which I had the privilege to attend last week. Our insightful teacher Susan Tomes gave two wonderful concerts from memory, and was clear about the importance and usefulness of memorising. Despite some marvelous playing (and epic multi-part sight-reading!), most participants did not play from memory and were clearly nervous about trying; I did play from memory (obviously…) and was very pleased not to have any memory lapses throughout the five pieces I played (though I still made plenty of errors)! I don’t think I would have managed that a few years ago, and the course got me thinking about how to pull together everything I’ve learnt over the last 18 months of this blog.

So, how do we memorise music and what practice strategies help? I’ve settled on just two key points about memorising that I think are really useful, both of which suggest various practice strategies for memorising:

(1) Chunking and chaining

chainlinksflippedWe can only memorise things in small chunks, which then have to be joined together like links in a chain to form a sequence. The size of each chunk depends on the prior knowledge of the individual, so that although some skilled performers might be able to memorise large sections of a piece, others should focus on a phrase or even a bar at a time. The fact that we memorise in chunks suggests various specific practice strategies:

  • Identify patterns (scales, chords, harmonic progressions, repeated motifs, etc.) that can form appropriately sized musical chunks for learning. If you have to memorise each note individually it will take much longer as the chunks will be small and plentiful!
  • Learn musical ‘chunks’ (bars, phrases, sections, etc.) and repeat each individual chunk until it is memorised. Try varying a few things – such as articulation, tempo, voicing, rhythm and even key – to improve detailed memory. Remembering new things is hard work, so take regular breaks, then come back and check your memory.
  • Work on the links between chunks, again looking for musical patterns or familiar signposts to help make the transition from one chunk to the next. Eventually small memorised chunks become long sequences, but beware of the links in the chain. Memory slips often occur at the boundaries between chunks (particularly if they coincide with pages of the score), so practice starting within chunks rather than only from boundaries.

(2) Multiple representations (visual, auditory, motor, cognitive)

LayersMusic can be stored in our memory through various different representations, and if our memory for one representation fails, the others can act as a back-up. Even if your fingers can’t find the notes, your mind should know what they are, and vice versa. Since music is much more than the sum of its parts, these complementary representations also provide a framework for integrating all the tiny details with the bigger picture. Again, the fact that we can form multiple representations suggests several specific practice strategies:

  • Analyse the music, in order to build up a holistic view of the piece from a purely conceptual perspective. Although this sounds daunting to many people, it is actually not that difficult and can be very interesting and informative. Formal analysis is not required, but a basic knowledge of the themes and harmonic progressions that occur through a piece is stunningly useful for memorising and interpreting the music.
  • Study the music away from the instrument, which can include looking at the score (to build up visual memory for the score or to analyse the music), listening to performances (either recorded or inside your head), ‘playing the notes’ on a table, or writing out the score from memory (to find our where your memory is fuzzy). Neuroimaging studies have indicated that thinking about doing something, such as playing or listening to music, activates the same regions of the brain as actually doing it, so the value of mental practice should not be underestimated.
  • Keep practising! Ultimately we need to be able to produce the notes without too much conscious thought, and the best way to build muscle memory is through repetition, repetition, repetition. But make sure to play accurately (don’t practice mistakes!) and always with musicality.


I am a firm believer that anyone can memorise music, although there is no doubt that it will always be more of an uphill struggle for some than others. But even if memorising is difficult, even if it is a burden, there are still good reasons to try. In addition to the mental benefits that come from memorising, it is wonderfully fulfilling to be able to sit down at one’s instrument and simply play without needing the score. More importantly from a performance perspective, some sections of difficult works are essentially unplayable if the performer has to manage the dual challenge of looking at the score as well as the fingers, and of course memorising provides a great solution to unwieldy page turns!

I’m convinced not only that memorising is worth the extra effort, but also that musical memory can be improved through practice, and that the fear of a memory lapse in performance will gradually lessen. Although musical memory may not come naturally to everyone or work reliably without some effort, it will develop and can be practiced. The ideas listed above have helped me understand and improve my musical memory enormously, so perhaps they will help you too. As Gerald Klickstein (author of The Musician’s Way) recently remarked in The Strad, “With intelligent practice… all of us can acquire the knack to step on stage, free of the printed score, and share music from our souls.”

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