Monthly Archives: January 2016

Memorizing Separate Hands Made Easy! (and more detail about sets)

One of the most popular suggestions for memorizing music more effectively is to “memorize the left hand alone”. After all, since the right hand often contains the melody in piano music, the contents of the left hand are much more easily forgotten. I personally think that memorizing pieces separate hands (meaning both left hand alone and right hand alone) is always a great idea if you really want your memory to be solid and/or if you are going to give an important performance soon.

There’s just one problem – it always seems so time-consuming and tedious! I found that even if I loved the music, it was a lot more difficult to keep my attention purely on the task of memorizing separate hands. In addition, if I was attempting to memorize a piece separate hands, I often spent too much time away from playing the piece both hands. And what’s worse, a task like memorizing separate hands is often done once and then never again.

I remember there was one point years ago where I tried to memorize a new piece separate hands before I really tried to play it both hands. At the time, it was extremely time-consuming and it drained all of my energy. I had to abandon my efforts because of time constraints.


For my most recent recitals, I would try to memorize the entire program separate hands (long after I had already learned the pieces). For one recital, I simply could not finish the task in time. For another recital, I did actually complete the entire task, but it took many, many hours and my efforts were all crammed into the last few weeks before the recital…

But I couldn’t argue with the results. If I memorized a piece separate hands (even if it was imperfect!), I really felt a powerful physical and psychological security in what I was doing. I was more aware of every single note and my memory was much more solid. I knew it was worth the effort, but I felt that there had to be an easier way to accomplish the task. My discovery of how to do this is the second of the three reasons that I now learn music much faster than before (the first being the nature of memory, which I discussed in my previous series of posts).

The key lies in practicing in sets (which I discussed in my previous post) and in mixing separate hand sets with both hand sets. To reiterate:

When I do these “sets”, I always include the first note of the following measure. If I break single measures into even smaller chunks (halves, quarters, etc.), I always include the first note of the following beat. By including at least the first note of the next set each time, you are naturally creating “linking notes” so that you do not have to practice transitions between measures nearly as much later.

Please read the previous post in detail for more specific instructions about how to practice in sets!

I also thought I would make even more clear what I described in the previous post:

  • Purpose of practicing in sets (1 measure sets or 2 measure sets, for instance): To make it much easier to link together an entire phrase, which is the true unit of musical expression.
  • Purpose of practicing “all loud”: To make it much easier, both physically and psychologically, to play with full musical expression.

Anyway, basically it is almost always helpful to learn each set separate hands, then both hands! Remember that piano playing (not including pedaling) is essentially:

  1. Solving something you are doing in your right hand
  2. Solving something you are doing in your left hand
  3. Doing both of those things simultaneously

So, when you are first learning a piece, it is not only for memory, but also for physical, technical reasons that it would be very helpful to break apart a set separate hands.

And once the piece is properly learned, more separate hand practicing is, of course essential! It is much easier and much more logical to solve many technical and musical issues separate hands first.

Just like practicing in sets both hands allows you to memorize a piece without really trying, including separate hands in the process allows you to memorize separate hands without really trying! Plus, your attention is maintained because you constantly see how the separate hands fit together. You break the set apart into its components and you piece the components back together over and over again, leading to a more complete understanding of the music.

For instance, let us say that a piece is 12 measures long and is in 4/4 time.

  • I think it is always a good idea to first sight read through the entire piece.
  • You can then write in any necessary fingerings. In other words, if you were to look at the piece away from the piano, you would know what finger is playing every note in the piece. It is not necessary to write in fingerings that are redundant or obvious.
  • Perhaps the first 4 measures of the piece are not that difficult to remember. We can break them into 2 measure sets (beat 1 of the 1st measure to beat 1 of the 3rd measure and beat 1 of the 3rd measure to beat 1 of the 5th measure). We try to read each of the sets both hands first.
  • We find that the first set is easily memorized both hands. So, we play it from memory once or twice.
  • We find that the second set is slightly more difficult to remember, so we break it apart separate hands. The right hand alone is played from memory (from beat 1 of the 3rd measure to beat 1 of the 5th measure) and the left hand alone is played from memory. We might play back and forth once or twice. Then we play both hands from memory at least once – it should now be much easier to remember.
  • Measures 5 through 8 are significantly more complicated, so we split them into 1 measure sets (beat 1 of measure 5 to beat 1 of measure 6, beat 1 of measure 6 to beat 1 of measure 7, etc.).
  • We may even choose to temporarily split certain measures into half measure sets (beat 1 of measure 5 to beat 3 of measure 5, beat 3 of measure 5 to beat 1 of measure 6, etc.) before putting the halves back together into 1 measure sets.
  • We memorize each measure separate hands first, then both hands. Again, we simply have to play from memory at least once. We are making no extra effort to remember the music permanently.


  • Perhaps the last four measures start the same as the first four measures, but end slightly differently. We could first memorize the 2 measure set at the end (beat 1 of measure 11 to the end), perhaps temporarily splitting it into 1 measure sets if necessary. We might want to try playing a 4 measure set from beat 1 of measure 9 to the end since we had already memorized and forgotten something similar near the beginning of the piece.
  • Once we reach the end of the piece, we can call it a day or we can go back to the beginning again. If we go through again, perhaps we can do a 4 measure set for measures 1 through 4, 2 measure sets for measures 5 through 8, and a 4 measure set for measures 9 through 12. We may find that we have to constantly split the 4 measure sets into smaller subsets and then piece them back together again.
  • If we start to feel tired, it may be best to take a break and come back to it tomorrow or later in the day when we are more refreshed. But if for some reason we really want to focus on the piece, we can then work to make measures 5 through 8 into a 4 measure set. Once we have three 4 measure sets, it is not very difficult to link the sets together into a fully memorized piece. Throughout the process, we have forgotten different sections of the music many times, so it is much more likely that we will retain this newly memorized piece in our memories.

A few especially important points:

  1. It is almost always helpful to be practicing at least the smaller sets using the “all loud” practicing I described in the previous post. Again, I find it helpful to play through the entire piece “all loud” at least once during the practice session, particularly if it is new or I am preparing for a performance soon. And if the piece is very rhythmic and/or presents any sort of technical difficulty for you, I find it very helpful to be using the metronome at a manageable speed during the entire process. Once the entire piece is learned, obviously you would increase the metronome speed gradually while playing “all loud”. Of course, there are pieces and sections of pieces where the use of a metronome may be entirely unnecessary.
  2. As the sets become larger and you start to link the entire piece together, it is important to constantly be thinking about your ultimate musical ideas. I describe this is in my post on what it means to learn a phrase. It is really important to be playing the piece as you REALLY would – with all of the details I describe in that post – as soon as you can. Like I said, the “all loud” practicing is only to allow you the freedom to execute your musical ideas. Going back and forth between “all loud” and “real” playing is often very helpful. I also really like to play with full musical expression at my current highest metronome speed before I turn off the metronome and continue to practice with my actual musical intentions.
  3. I find that the idea of memorizing separate hands, then both hands is most helpful when first learning a piece and shortly before an important event / performance. We usually don’t have time to go through every piece separate hands every day. But if you really do the sets correctly (both separate hands and both hands), then the separate hands of the entire piece should link together naturally without you consciously trying (as the sets combine into larger and larger sets). Playing a 4 measure set right hand alone becomes playing an 8 measure set right hand alone. Playing an 8 measure set left hand alone becomes playing an entire page left hand alone. And so on! And not only that – you constantly see how the separate hands fit together into both hands. If you work over the course of several days, the separate hands memorize themselves without any extra effort expended.

So far, I have talked about the nature of memory and the importance of separate hands with regard to learning and maintaining music. Next time, I will discuss the third and final component: mental practicing.

The Nature of Memory, Part 3: The Principle of Forgetting, continued

The last time I wrote about the nature of memory was way back in May of 2015. I am very happy to finally be able to continue writing about this topic. Basically, these writings on the nature of memory comprise one of three main reasons why I am able to learn and memorize music much faster than I was able to about a year ago. You can read Part 1: What It Means to Learn A Phrase and Part 2: The Principle of Forgetting if you want to understand what I have talked about so far. So far, I’ve basically said the following:

  • As long as you intend for the music to be memorized, you should memorize the music from the very beginning of the learning process. This is much more efficient than making memorizing a separate process that you only accomplish at a later point.
  • Music should be learned phrase by phrase as musically as possible. (See Part 1 for extensive details.)
  • The more we forget and re-remember something (including phrases), the more that thing will stick in our memories. Thus, distributed practice is a much more useful way to memorize a piece of music quickly. (See Part 2 for my elaboration on these topics.)

Although I am not proud of the long hiatus that plagued this blog, I have to say that I am glad I waited to write this particular post. The methods I have been using have changed and evolved many times over the last six months or so. To be honest, I originally intended for this post (Part 3) to be nothing more than further citations of scholarly writings in order to support the ideas that I proposed in Part 2. Instead, I find that I have developed some ideas of my own.

Some of these ideas may appear at first to contradict the thoughts I expressed in Part 1 (learning music phrase by phrase). I hope you will bear with me as I attempt to explain why these new ideas, far from being contradictory, in fact perfectly complement the old.

Once you separate the piece of music you are learning into phrases and attempt to learn / memorize each one as musically as possible, the most efficient way to memorize the piece is to forget and re-remember each phrase as many times as possible. The more we retrieve the musical, meaningful phrase from our long-term memories, the more we become likely to permanently remember the phrase. This is essentially what I described in Part 2.

But how about the memorizing of the phrase itself? Just like playing through the entire piece over and over is certainly not the most efficient (or at least reliable) way to memorize the piece, simply trying your best to memorize the phrase over and over again for five minutes is not the most intelligent solution. So, I combined the idea of the principle of forgetting with one of my strongest and oldest practicing methods:

  • Break the music into 4 measure, 2 measure, or even 1 measure sets.
  • Play “all loud”, often with metronome.

Let me first elaborate on the first point. If a phrase is 4 measures or 8 measures long and it is difficult to remember, logically it would make sense to separate it into even smaller chunks. Indeed, if the piece is very slow and a single measure is very complicated, you can even break single measures into half measure or quarter measure sets.

When I do these “sets”, I always include the first note of the following measure. If I break single measures into even smaller chunks (halves, quarters, etc.), I always include the first note of the following beat. By including at least the first note of the next set each time, you are naturally creating “linking notes” so that you do not have to practice transitions between measures nearly as much later.

Remember: you are memorizing each set of measures and then moving on from them. You have to choose a goal that can be easily accomplished with very minimal effort. Again, the decision will vary depending on your skill level and the difficulty of the piece. If 2 measure sets seem like a reasonable choice, memorize the entire piece in sets of 2 measures (always including the first note of the following measure) or memorize up to the point that you wish to work on for the day. It may seem very odd, but do not try to remember each set of 2 that you memorize! Just having each set in your memory for a moment is already enough – each little “memory task” should take something like 30 seconds or a minute to accomplish. In fact, you should acknowledge that you will probably immediately forget the set of 2 that you just saw. I realize it is very counter-intuitive for some (including me) to just immediately move on. But it works! When you go through the piece again (even if you only do it fifteen minutes from now), you are already solidifying your memory because you had time to forget the music.

Other points to keep in mind:

  • You can adjust! Some sections may require 2 measure sets, while a difficult section may need you to choose 1 measure sets. An easier section or a repetitive section may cause you to choose 4 measure sets for the first time that you go through the piece.
  • You can break down sets into smaller subsets as you go along. If a 2 measure set is not being memorized instantaneously, you can reduce it to 1 measure or half measure sets, always paying attention to which part is giving you more trouble and dedicating your time accordingly.

The second point – “all loud” (often with metronome) is something that may be controversial. I have read articles and heard from quite a few different musicians that claim the metronome is harmful and/or that it should never (or at least rarely) be used. Essentially, I believe that the metronome is merely a tool – nothing more and nothing less. If you find this tool harmful, then of course do not use it. But if you find that it consistently improves your playing, as I do, then by all means, use it! I do not find that it has “robbed me of my natural sense of rhythm” as some would claim. I have used the metronome to help me solve an enormous variety of technical and musical issues. So, this is what I mean by “all loud” practicing:

  • Play almost everything at a good, healthy mezzo forte or forte. Temporarily do not concern yourself with dynamics or shaping.
  • Play with your entire body relaxed (including shoulders, arms, wrists, fingers, etc.) as you play loudly. You should feel very grounded and confident in the keys without pressing on the bottoms of the keys or using excessive force.
  • Still voice chords! But the difference in volume between the note(s) you are showing and the other notes does not need to be as obvious as usual.
  • Still close the ends of phrases to some extent. They do not have to be pianissimo or especially quiet at this time. The ends of phrases merely have to be somewhat softer than the rest of the phrase.
  • Play with the metronome if desired / needed. I find it helpful with just about any piece of music at some point. Choose a speed that is slow enough to comfortably manage.

Practicing with all different kinds of dynamics and articulations is helpful, but I find that the “all loud” method I just described reliably works not only for me, but for all of my students (regardless of talent, how much they practice, etc.). The purpose is to greatly strengthen your muscle memory, preparing you both physically and psychologically to conquer the technical, musical, and memory-related challenges in the piece. Remember that you are doing this “all-loud” practicing while practicing in the sets I described in the first section of this discussion (2 measure sets, 1 measure sets, etc.).


If you go through the piece or the section of the piece you are working on today with these points in mind – memorizing in 2 measure sets (for example) “all loud”, you can go through the piece again in 2 measure sets (since you had time to forget them) or you can increase the size of the sets to 4 measures. After increasing to 8 measure sets “all loud”, it is very likely that the entire piece can be linked together “all loud”. It often helps to break up this task over several days, since sleep greatly helps retention.

So where does “learning phrase by phrase” come in? Basically, at any point during this entire process, you can look at the sheet music (or play from memory if you’ve memorized the markings) and try your best to do all of the points described in Part 1. This “all loud” practicing should make it much easier to accomplish those musical goals because your weight will be much more in the keys and your body will understand the coordination much better. Similarly, the memorizing in sets should make it much easier to remember each musical phrase (since you’ve forgotten each chunk of music multiple times).

At some point, you should try to simply play from the beginning of the piece (using all of the points described in Part 1), trying your very hardest to be musical and to give each phrase meaning. If you have memory problems, try to practice in sets. You can try the sets both “all loud” and with full musical expression. Even though you might temporarily break each phrase into smaller sets, ultimately the phrases will still be the main unit of your musical expression. The only purpose of the methodology described above is to make that task much easier to accomplish. You could say that the method has been amended to something like “learn set by set, but internalize and express phrase by phrase”.

I should also mention: even if you want to memorize a piece “all loud” in order to make things easier, you must always remember to play musically when you actually do a real reading of the piece. It is not acceptable to play “all loud” for a performance, for a lesson, or even for a “real performance” for yourself.

Soon, I will write about the two other main components of this method – separate hands practicing and mental practicing.

The 40 Piece Challenge and the 100 Piece Challenge (2016)

The idea for my personal 100 Piece Challenge came from the 40 Piece Challenge, which was started by the amazing Elissa Milne. You can read more from Elissa Milne here. I am also very grateful to my friend Walter Aparicio, fellow pianist, for telling me about the challenge in the first place. Basically, the idea behind it stems from a problem that many piano students and teachers face. When a student begins taking piano exams, there seems to be no time to learn additional pieces, and the student ends up focusing on only three to six pieces the entire year. Elissa had the fantastic idea of using a repertoire-rich approach in which students must learn 40 pieces in one year. Here, I quote the results from her blog:

Students were sight-reading ridiculously well. Their initiative to source new pieces to learn had gone through the roof. The volume of pieces wasn’t slowing down their capacity to progress onto more difficult work. And when they did progress onto more difficult work they had this growing stylistic awareness that is the fruit of much experience. It was amazing!

The Cross-Eyed Pianist, another important blogger, had this to add: “Known learning outcomes from the exercise include improved sight-reading skills, greater independence in learning, and enhanced musicianship and music appreciation.” Indeed, the 40 Piece Challenge exploded in popularity and has been used successfully by many teachers worldwide.

I already am very careful that each of my students develops the skills they need to teach themselves music and play at a high level as soon as possible. And for about nine months now, I have been developing techniques – both mental practicing and other ideas as well – for learning and maintaining music as fast as possible while not sacrificing quality. By teaching the kids all of these techniques, I found that my students actually helped me to fine-tune said techniques and improve upon them week by week. (Sorry, I really do hope to blog more about those topics soon!) But I digress.

The point is: a lot of my students, especially those who have been studying with me for some time, are already quite independent of me. And the idea of having them learn many more pieces actually is perfectly in line with all of the techniques I have been teaching them over the last year. I am confident that they will reap all the benefits described above and also be much happier now that they won’t have to focus on only a few pieces. So, I did, in fact, issue them all the 40 Piece Challenge, and gave them all a sheet last weekend that I found online:


Reactions ranged wildly, but for the most part students were either indifferent or enthusiastic. I honestly was pleasantly surprised. The trick, of course, lies in continuing to give them those “challenge” pieces, but in also finding a lot of repertoire that is at or below their current skill level. In other words: learn a few big pieces while learning many small pieces.

The other part of the story is that teachers began giving themselves the 40 Piece Challenge. “After all, if my students can do it, shouldn’t I be able to as well?”

Keep in mind that at many music schools, the idea of preparing an hour-long recital of big pieces each year and then immediately forgetting all of the repertoire to learn new music for the next year is extremely common. The idea of learning music in addition to your recital repertoire sounds very nice, but often seems impossible. At least, it seemed that way to me. At this point, I don’t even agree with the idea of “completely forgetting pieces to make room for new ones” anymore, but that is a discussion for another time.

So it is not surprising, given their experiences as music students, that many teachers would ironically find themselves caught in the same trap that their students are caught in. From what I have seen, those teachers who managed to complete the challenge reaped many benefits of their own.

As excited as I am to give my students the 40 Piece Challenge, I have to say that I am just as excited to give myself the 100 Piece Challenge, in which I must learn 100 pieces in one year. As far as I know, this has never been attempted. I have a lot more time than most people since I teach mainly on the weekend and I purposely do not teach many private students during the week. In addition, since I feel that I am able to learn music five to ten times faster than one year ago, this is also a chance to prove that to myself. In a way, I have been preparing for this challenge ever since I started developing new practice techniques back in March. There are a few important rules that I am setting for myself, however:

  1. In the original 40 Piece Challenge, pieces are not required to be memorized. However, I must memorize all of my pieces.
  2. In the original challenge, one could move on from the pieces once they have been learned. However, I must keep all of the pieces in my memory. This means they become a permanent part of my repertoire.
  3. I saw that quite a few teachers chose to record themselves. I will give myself the same requirement and post all recordings on both YouTube and Facebook.

There are other things I would like to say as well:

  • I will allow myself to revive old pieces for this challenge (I saw that other teachers had also allowed themselves the same thing). In fact, as long as I do not have a recording of the complete piece on my YouTube channel, I can record the piece for this challenge. However, since I have posted quite a few recordings, quite a bit of my repertoire (and almost all of my recent repertoire) is ineligible.
  • I am not limited to classical repertoire. However, I must uphold the same high standards if I learn pieces of other genres.
  • Pieces can be very short as long as they are legitimate pieces of music. Many of the recordings I saw teachers posting were only one or two minutes long. There were also quite a few under one minute long.
  • For me, a “piece” means that it must typically be considered one complete piece. Many teachers that did this challenge would post separate movements of sonatas as “pieces”. Obviously, this makes sense because of the length of the sonata and I do not fault them for it. However, you would normally say that a sonata is only one piece of music. Thus, a Beethoven sonata that lasts half an hour is to me only a single piece. However, the 24 Chopin Preludes are 24 separate pieces despite their brevity (because we would refer to them as such).
  • I think that this entire process will make me much more comfortable with the idea of recording and sharing. I had avoided sharing more music before because it is too troublesome for me to sync audio from an external device to video and because I only have an upright piano at home in Westchester. But since this is not for an audition or any sort of formal purpose, I am content with just balancing my iPhone on a music stand and recording my slightly out-of-tune upright. 🙂 I have removed the pressure of a perfect setup, and it feels great.
  • I do not have the time to obsess over perfect recordings. I will try my best to produce quality recordings, but I won’t let my pride stop me from sharing. Because music is meant to be shared!
  • I basically have to record around two pieces each week.
    • The idea is not to start each week thinking: “What should I learn this week?” I am always learning many pieces simultaneously – some very challenging and/or longer and many that are easier and/or shorter. Some may take just one week to learn, while others can take six months, a year, or even longer. There will simply come a week at some point where I think, “OK, this is ready to record / perform now.” In other words: I have been working on many pieces to prepare for this challenge already. This is how attempting to learn 100 pieces is possible. I expect that many pieces that are not ready to record this year will also spill into next year.
    • I believe the key to success in this challenge is to constantly learn new pieces, constantly record myself, and constantly record as many pieces in advance as possible. I should be at least two videos ahead at all times… hopefully more!
  • I will not let this challenge interfere with the maintenance of all my other pieces, my musical standards, my constant volunteer-performing that I am doing with the wonderful organization Sing for Hope, my other musical goals, or any of my other goals. This challenge should be a logical complement for everything that I am already doing. If I approach it correctly, really shouldn’t feel any extra pressure. Rather, it should help me learn pieces even faster and feel even better about my playing.
  • I probably will not have enough time in 2017 to attempt a challenge like this since I am planning to apply for piano doctoral programs this fall. So this is the time to do it!

I hope to continue my long-forgotten posts about mental practicing soon. I will post updates about the 40 Piece Challenge I have given my students and the 100 Piece Challenge I have given myself every few months or so. Looking forward to a fantastic year of music!!