Learning and memorizing efficiently

This post is for piano students who are interested in how to learn and memorize pieces more efficiently and effectively. Over the years I’ve spent teaching it’s become clearer and clearer to me that how to practice and learn is not obvious or intuitive. I think too many teachers tell their students simply to practice hard but never go on to explain exactly what a practice session should entail. As a result, piano students can spend years practicing ineffectively and never reaching their full potential. I try hard not to let my students fall into that trap, but it takes a lot of discipline to practice well. Here, I’d like to give a basic idea of the practicing and memorizing techniques I advocate no matter what your level is.

First of all, let’s talk about memorization and its importance in piano-playing. Most of you have seen pianists playing live and have undoubtedly noticed that in general they do not use the music. They play from memory. I’m not sure at what point in the history of music this became a common practice, but I think I know why. When a pianist is performing, the audience wants the pianist to basically become the music he or she is playing. It’s just like going to the theater or a movie. If actors were all reading off of scripts, we could never believe in their characters, right? When a soloist plays a piece, it’s exactly the same. We expect them to know the notes of the piece like second nature and to inhabit that piece the way an actor inhabits his or her character. Obviously, this illusion would be shattered if the musician was reading the notes off a page. Indeed, if you learn a piece thoroughly, you should be able to play it with no music in front of you. If you can’t, you don’t really know it, and that’s that. That being said, I don’t expect my beginning students to play without the music. When you are still trying to assimilate the many concepts that go into learning to play the piano, it really helps to have the music in front of you as a safety net. However, once you have been taking lessons for a year or two, you really should be able to get to the point with each of your pieces where you can put the music away and still play it perfectly.

So, how do you reach this level as quickly and efficiently as possible with each piece? In one word: chunking. Chunking is the practice of dividing a large undertaking into small bits to make it easier to process. It has been proven to be the most efficient way to learn something. For piano students, the first key to practicing this way is to identify the proper chunk size for you. I find that for beginners, one measure is usually the most appropriate chunk size. For more advanced pianists, it is best to work in terms of musical phrases (often 4 measures long or more).

I will attempt to describe what ideal practice sessions should go like. For the sake of this post, let’s assume you are working on a 16-measure piece such as the Minuet in C by Mozart on page 81 of Fundamental Keys. The first thing you have to do when approaching a new piece is resist the temptation to just play the whole thing through over and over. That is the epitome of inefficient practice. If you start out that way, you are likely to make lots of mistakes and miss lots of details. Eventually, you may get somewhat proficient at getting through the piece, but the chances are that some mistakes and missed details will never get fixed. It will be very difficult to backtrack and fix everything. Okay, so step by step, here is what I recommend.

  1. Identify the chunk size. If you are at a level where this Minuet is challenging for you, I think your chunk size should be 1 measure.
  2. Play the right hand part of the first measure, counting out loud, not going too fast. Make sure you play forte and legato as indicated. Include the first note of the next measure. Stop immediately after playing the C sharp.
  3. Play it as many times as you need to in order to be able to play it three times in a row without looking at the music.
  4. Perform steps 2 and 3 but for the left hand part. Play forte and honor the phrasing.
  5. Perform steps 2 and 3 but hands together. Again, make sure you play with correct dynamics and phrasing. Play several times counting out loud looking at the music, then counting out loud not looking at the music, and finally counting silently in your head while not looking at the music.
  6. Perform steps 2 through 5 for the next chunk. That is, from the first note of measure 2 until the first note of measure 3.
  7. Now play the first two chunks smoothly in succession. First play several times while looking at the music, and then several times not looking at the music. When you can do it comfortably and without hesitation, it is time to add the next chunk.
  8. Continue with measures 3 and 4. After learning each measure with the chunking method, add it to the prior measures. Always make sure you are considering notes, rhythm, phrasing, and dynamics at each step of the way.
  9. When you are ready to move on to the second line, treat it almost as a new piece. In other words, tackle measure 5, then measure 6, then put together 5 and 6. Continue until you can play 5 through 8. Then, work on putting 1 through 8 all together. Master that much before going on to line 3.
  10. Always stop practicing if you start to get mentally fatigued and it gets harder to learn than it was when you started.
  11. At the next session, first go over the parts of the piece you have already learned. Play the part you already learned several times looking at the music and then several times not looking at the music. Always look at the music for some of your run-throughs even if you think the music is memorized already. Make sure you aren’t missing any details like dynamics and phrasing.
  12. Start adding the new chunks one by one.
  13. Here is a good way to practice something you’ve already gone through the above process of learning: Start playing at the beginning. The moment you make a mistake or are forced to hesitate because of a memory lapse, STOP! Identify the chunk in which the mistake happened. Play only that chunk several times (maybe 5?) with the music and then several times without the music. Then go back to the beginning and try again. Continue this process for your whole practice session. If you don’t get to the end of the piece in one session, that’s ok. Just pick up where you left off the next day.

As you develop as a pianist, you will find that you can digest larger and larger chunks and get through more and more material in each sitting. However, be warned that any shortcuts you take will likely come back to haunt you. For example, if you try to do hands together before hands separately, or if you try to play too fast, or if you take on chunks that are too long, or if you learn too many chunks without making sure you can play the previous chunks together first, you may get away with it initially. Taking shortcuts you might be able to get through your pieces without mistakes alone during your practicing, but I guarantee that if you do not work slowly, carefully, methodically, your memory will be tenuous and you are likely to have lapses under the pressure of a lesson or performance (even if it’s just for friends or family). I don’t mean to say that my practice method is the only one, but it is a good example of how to practice well. Any effective practice technique would include just as much repetition and cautious progress.

Don’t get me wrong, I know I’m asking for a lot here. It takes tremendous discipline to practice this way day in and day out. While you’re doing it, it might feel like an endless process. However, I know from experience that it’s actually much much faster than doing things the old-fashioned way of just playing things over and over no matter how shabbily they come out. Like I said at the beginning, that way leads to missed details, mistakes, and memory lapses galore, and takes more hours of practice too. Try to practice the way I outlined above, and I’m sure you will feel much more confident about your playing. Also, you will get to the fun part of achieving mastery of a piece you can truly enjoy playing and performing much sooner.

Let me know if you’ve found this post useful. Happy practicing!

in Tips and Tricks

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