How many of you have avoided playing for others because you can’t remember your piece, or because you are afriad you will look stupid because you might make a mistake, not play “perfectly”?
Memorization is an integral part of playing the piano, but it can be elusive and inconsistent. As children, many of us simply remembered our pieces after we played them long enough, and indeed exposure and familiarity are important aspects of memorization.
Artists as well-regarded as Martha Argerich and Pitor Andreszewski acknowledge they can never represent 100% of what they can do in private, Andreszewski said he is lucky to ever play at 60%. Performance anxiety comprises many things, fear of failure, perfectionism, being exposed and vulnerable, and perhaps at the base of it, memory. If we knew we would have no trouble remembering our piece, we would likely feel more comfortable on stage. I always feel more secure with pieces I have known longer and performed before, since I was successful before I likely can be successful again.
So how do we teach or practice memorization so performers or the casual piano player feels better about playing in front of others? Nelita True, esteemed piano pedagogue for decades at the University of Maryland and the Eastman School, thought more advanced students should have 10 places in each piece that they could jump to if something happened while they were playing, so they could always move through the piece. Then she had them practice starting at these spots backwards, from the back of the piece to the front.
I was taught and try to teach the memorization is a multi-faceted skill. It encompasses muscle memory, playing by ear or at least knowing how the piece should sound, and on more advanced levels understanding harmony, chords, form and structure. A sonata, for example, has an Exposition where the melodic, rhythmic, harmonic, and motivic ideas are introduced, the Development takes these elements through various keys before the Recapitulation revisits the materials in the original key of the piece. In order to memorize a larger structure like a sonata one must understand the underlying structure.
Likewise in simpler pieces there are themes, chords, rhythmic patterns, hand position, and intervals that can be recognized and mentioned. Through exposure and awareness of the materials the student will learn the piece but also internalize it so it becomes memorized.
I want to explore this in more depth next week, if you have any questions please ask them below or contact me at tony at adamsmusichouse dot org.
Better yet, why don’t you contact me and have a piano lesson, I would be happy to show you how this all works!