I’ve been learning two new piano pieces so far this year – Chopin’s epic first ballade in G minor Op23 (which I’ve already written about) and Rachmaninoff’s beautiful Prelude in D major Op23 No4. Although both pieces are on the Trinity College London piano licentiate diploma syllabus – and so are ostensibly the same standard – they are very different beasts to tame. The former is a mammoth tour de force, comprising 15 pages and lasting around 10 minutes; it has multiple themes, several modulations, and an excessive number of notes that have to be played at a terrifying speed. The latter, in comparison, is a slow melancholic piece comprising just 4 pages and lasting around 5 minutes; it has essentially just a single main theme, contains no substantial modulations and actually has relatively few notes (well, for Rachmaninoff anyhow). So why did the Chopin take me less than a month to memorise, but memorising the Rachmaninoff is still a struggle after nearly 3 months?
Let me be clear: neither piece is easy! But memorising the Chopin actually turned out to the be ‘easier’ bit of the job. Sadly, actually playing it well is going to be a long uphill struggle, due to the overwhelming technical demands of the piece (exacerbated by my small hands, which can only span an octave :-(). In contrast, although I hesitate to say it, the Rachmaninoff is a technically much easier piece, and for me the memorising has been the hard bit. So I’m left wondering why. Is this an intrinsic difference between the pieces, the composers’ style, or the way I’ve practised the pieces? On reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that the key factor in this case is an intrinsic structural difference between the two pieces, which led me to approach them quite differently.
The long Chopin ballade comes in ready-made bite-sized chunks, so right from the start I chopped it into short sections and learnt them independently. Both the length and the musical narrative of the piece itself lends itself inherently to this chunking approach. Moreover, because there are plenty of repeated motifs and a clear separation between melodic line and harmonic accompaniment, chunking is an exceptionally efficient method for memorising multiple sections.
In contrast, although the short Rachmaninoff does have clear sections (with an overall structure of AA’BA’’), the flow between sections is very fluid and lyrical so it feels natural to think of it all as a single musical concept, rather than independent chunks. The melody is repeated, but often buried in a highly contrapuntal texture, so there is very little true repetition of motifs, and making the melodic line really sing out is challenging. As a result, I was much lazier and simply played the piece over and over again from the start – the musical equivalent of eating your cake before it’s baked! In addition, there are lots of large intervals and slightly awkward jumps where one hand crosses the other, which I find inhibits the formation of strong motor memory.
There’s plenty of evidence that chunking is the key to improving storage, encoding and retrieval of information from long term memory, so I should have chopped the Rachmaninoff up into artificial chunks and learnt them independently just like the Chopin. This is a classic mistake, which ultimately just wastes time! But sometimes I like to indulge myself and play through pieces simply because it’s enjoyable. Being an amateur pianist means I play for the love of playing and don’t have the pressure of concert or recording deadlines that require professionals to be more efficient. Nonetheless, I suspect I would actually have got more pleasure from being able to play the piece from memory at an earlier stage.
You can listen to the Chopin on my previous post about that piece, and I recommend you treat yourself and listen to Sviatoslav Richter’s masterful interpretation of the Rachmaninnoff (my own renditions aren’t quite ready for public consumption yet!):