Mental practice and a holiday from playing

Many musicians worry about how to keep repertoire fresh and accurate when practising simply isn’t possible. I haven ‘t touched the piano for a week, and although my recent holiday in the mountains was undoubtedly restorative for the mind and soul, it was not so good for the fingers. Even the great pianist and composer Paderewski famously once said: “If I do not practice for a day, I know it. If I do not practice for two days, my wife knows it. If I do not practice for three days, my audience knows it.” In my experience, the best option is to replace regular physical practice sessions with mental ones. Rehearsing a piece inside your head requires deep concentration but is extremely rewarding and can cement memorisation.

Despite the obvious absence of a piano on a hiking holiday, I managed to squeeze in some mental practice of my favourite new piece, Scarlatti’s wonderful G major sonata K.427. This short, life-affirming piece sparkles with syncopated rhythms and driving semi-quavers. The real challenge is to stop my fingers running away from me (egged on by the daring ‘presto quanto sia possibile’ marking at the top)! Here’s Walter Gieseking playing the Scarlatti sonata faster than seems humanly possible…

I found this piece extremely easy and quick to memorise, perhaps because the musical building blocks are very familiar to someone trained in classical Western music. Like all of Scarlatti’s astonishing 555 keyboard sonatas, the piece is a single short movement divided into two approximately equal (repeated) halves. Written around the mid-1750’s, the structure of piece is an early form of the more developed sonata style of the classical era. Motifs are presented, developed, repeated and modulated using what has now become standard functional tonality.

Because the piece is well memorised, I can sit and ‘play’ it through in my head without the aid of a score or recording. I find I’m able to change the tempo at will, alter the dynamics or articulations and rerun sections, and even practise hands separately. Interestingly, I discovered that my memory for the top (right-hand) part is almost entirely aural – I hear it in my head; in contrast, my memory for the bottom (left-hand) part is almost entirely visual – I see either the keyboard or the score in my head, and have to really focus to ‘hear’ the notes clearly. In this case, I think I have even managed to make artistic decisions about how to shape different phrases in my head – something that can get forgotten in the mad dash of attempting to execute all the right notes in the right order at a real keyboard.

Hopefully, once my well-rested fingers are warmed up, I’ll be able to replicate the music I hear in my head at the keyboard.

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About Caroline Wright

pianist, composer, scientist
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7 Responses to Mental practice and a holiday from playing

  1. I enjoyed this post a lot because I’ve been using similar strategies myself recently. I tend to take some sheet music on holiday with me to keep my learning going – I’ve tried with pieces that I’ve already practised, those that I haven’t but have heard, and also those that I’ve never played or heard. I’ve found the effect of the first two situations to be similar and fairly successful, but if I haven’t played or heard a piece before it’s much more difficult. I’d be interested to hear your experiences in this matter.

    I actually wrote a blog post myself recently based around the idea of using this mental memorising to improve sight reading. If you have the time, perhaps you could look it over and give me your thoughts? It would be much appreciated. 🙂

  2. John Uscian says:

    Hi, thanks for the great post. I agree with the perspective you assert. Please kindly note, however, that the quote you made is from Paderewski, not Horowitz. Indeed, with regard to the latter pianist, there was reportedly a time when Horowitz had not practiced for a year (this was from the time he retired for 11 years from 1953 through 1965). Of course, most of us are not quite up to Horowitz’s playing abilities and cannot get away with this as easily as he reportedly did! Thanks again for the great post.

    • Thanks for the correction – that quote seems to have been attributed to quite a few people actually! But Paderewski is perhaps the most plausible, so I’ve altered it in the blog post.

      • John Uscian says:

        Thanks for your reply (and for not being offended). I know this is splitting hairs (and your point well made even if it was attributed ton Horowitz; that was a very good choice to make the point!), but the way I understand Paderewski stated it is as follows: “If I don’t practice for one day, I know it. If I don’t practice for two days the critics know it. And if I don’t practice for three days the public knows it.” OK, I am being too persnickety. But there you have it. Whatever, your point was well made the first time and I just wanted to get some of the details a little better aligned.

  3. Pingback: Analysis of Scarlatti Sonata in C | Memorising Music

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