Tag Archives: memorizing music
Reflections on the 100 Piece Challenge, Part 2
In this post, I am continuing reflections on the 100 Piece Challenge that I started here.
I said in my previous post that pieces should be “ready to revive at any time” – this is what I mean by pieces becoming “a permanent part of my repertoire”. I would like to say some more about this:
- For some of the major pieces that I learned in the distant past, a revival would take a very long time because I didn’t properly preserve the musical thoughts that I had at the time.
- For each of the pieces that I learned during the 100 Piece Challenge, I know the exact fingering, shaping, balance, sound, etc. of each note – this is documented not only by the recording itself but by necessary markings in the score. I will show examples of some of my marked-up scores in the future to show what I mean. This leaves them ready to revive and re-memorize very quickly.
I still would like to have as many pieces as possible “at my fingertips” and “ready to play at any moment” – I want to see how far I can stretch those limits as well. However, it is not a requirement of any Challenge that I undertake. In fact, I should again note that it wasn’t a requirement in the first place, but is merely one interpretation of “permanent part of my repertoire”.
So, looking back at the requirements for the 100 Piece Challenge that I talked about in last year’s post, the three main rules were satisfied and I will continue to hold myself by these rules. Here they are:
- In the original 40 Piece Challenge, pieces are not required to be memorized. However, I must memorize all of my pieces.
- 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.
- 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.
In that post, I mentioned some other points as well. For instance, I wrote, “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.” I would like to elaborate on this comment.
Actually, there had never been any kind of rule set (either in the original 40 Piece Challenge or in my own 100 Piece Challenge) that there was a minimum length for the pieces.
- A piece’s value, after all, is not determined by how long it takes to play it. Several Chopin Preludes, for instance, certainly take under one minute to play.
- If a piece is short, a minimum time limit would probably encourage a slower tempo. And altering a piece’s tempo for the purposes of having it count towards a Challenge makes very little sense.
However, I found that there were at least two situations where the piece I wanted to learn – despite being “legitimate” (i.e. of real musical value, worth sharing with others, worth learning to improve one’s musicianship, etc.) – was both very short and relatively easy to learn, memorize, and record.
- The first was when playing shorter compositions by undisputed masters such as Beethoven, Schubert, or Mozart. Pieces such as German dances, ländler, and minuets are examples.
- The second was when playing pieces originally written by living composers for pedagogical / teaching purposes. For instance, I recorded many of the pieces from the Microjazz series by Christopher Norton. When I decided to increase the tempo of many of the pieces for my own musical and interpretational reasons, many of the pieces ended up even shorter than originally intended by the composer.
Since I found the effort and time to record most of these pieces to be much less than that which was required to record others, I (privately) created a new set of rules during last year’s 100 Piece Challege that explained how I would sometimes count two pieces as one piece. I still believe that counting each piece separately would have completely satisfied the rules of the Challenge, but I wanted to encourage myself to learn even more pieces. I also wanted to at least acknowledge to some extent that the difficulty of learning some of the pieces was less than originally anticipated.
- If the piece is less than one minute long, it will be counted as only half of a piece (for the purposes of the total piece count – this does not mean that it is any less legitimate). A piece less than one minute long will be counted as one piece only if is it of exceptional difficulty to me or was unusually difficult to record (but the extra time and effort would have to be substantial for this exception to be made).
- If the piece is one minute in length or longer, it will typically be counted as one piece, even if it is not particularly challenging to record. This is for two reasons.
- First, it often requires more concentration to create a longer recording (i.e. to play longer without messing up!), even if the piece itself is simpler.
- Second, the listeners will have more music to listen to when a longer piece is shared. In this simple way (even though it does not make the piece more “valid” in any way), a longer piece may be more substantial.
- If the piece is more than one minute long but is unusually easy to learn, it may also be counted as half of a piece.
- If the piece is unusually easy to learn even compared to other pieces counted as “half of a piece”, it may be counted as a third of a piece. Examples may include pieces originally intended for relatively younger children.
Since I still have many more things to say, I have decided to continue these reflections and new rules as another series of posts. Hopefully, these thoughts will be useful for understanding the mindset necessary for undertaking something like the 100 Piece Challenge and for constantly striving to find new ways to improve one’s musicianship, flexibility, and discipline in the process. I believe that the creation of, strict adherence to, and subsequent adjustment of self-imposed rules is crucial to success in endeavors such as this.
Reflections on the 40 Piece Challenge and the 100 Piece Challenge
A new year means that I had to decide whether to redo the 100 Piece Challenge or to issue myself a new Challenge. It also gives me a good excuse to talk about what I learned last year and to revive this blog yet again. For details about the 40 Piece Challenge I issued my students and the 100 Piece Challenge I gave myself, please see this post from exactly one year ago.
The 40 Piece Challenge was a big success with my students last year! Even though there were also a lot of students who didn’t pass, I can safely that for all of my students:
- Sight-reading skills noticeably improved.
- Ability to solve problems (both musical and technical) independently improved greatly.
- There was a definite increased motivation to both bring current pieces to a high level and to continue to learn new pieces.
- They became mentally stronger and better able to manage time.
- Since they were exposed to more rhythms, coordinations, and different musical situations in general, they developed greater stylistic awareness and learned faster overall.
I have decided to continue issuing the 40 Piece Challenge to my students every year. Each student does the Challenge on their own time – in other words, their start and end dates vary a lot and they can restart the Challenge at any time.
With both the 40 Piece Challenge and the 100 Piece Challenge, I used many of the new practicing methods that I have been developing over the past two years. In the case of the students, of course, I taught them these methods in order to help them achieve their maximum potential. I hope to continue revising and strengthening these strategies and to finally write more about them this year. I also have confidence that many more students will pass the 40 Piece Challenge this year since they (and I) have much more experience now.
In terms of uploading the 100th video, I publicly competed the 100 Piece Challenge on October 20th, the 100th Piece being Chopin Prelude Op. 28 No. 15, the “Raindrop” Prelude. I uploaded piece #133 yesterday night (December 31st, 2016) as the final piece of the year. I don’t have a custom YouTube URL, but if you search “david chang 100 piece challenge” on YouTube, you will find all of the videos.
I have a lot of scattered thoughts and reflections about how the Challenge went. Some of these thoughts will directly address the requirements that I set myself in my post from one year ago. Some of them will ponder over what I learned from the Challenge – both the expected and the unexpected. And still other reflections will be on mental and emotional obstacles, what the purpose of the Challenge actually was, and how issuing a new Challenge is at all useful or relevant in the context of larger goals. Here they are in no particular order:
Regarding my saying in my original post that “I am able to learn music five to ten times faster” than before:
- This is certainly no exaggeration at all in terms of the number of pieces I ended up learning, but it’s true that the length and difficulty of the pieces in a solo piano recital program are significantly greater.
- I should also note, though, that in the past it would be months before I felt I could learn and memorize even a simple piece of music. It would take incredibly long to work out the technical difficulties, to make all of the musical decisions (such as shaping and touch), to feel like the memory is solid, and then eventually to get up the nerve to record and listen to myself. And then I certainly wouldn’t share or perform the piece once I had finished learning it. In this sense, the fact that I ended up able to share newly learned pieces so often truly supports my claim of “five to ten times faster” than before.
- As a result, I feel much more confident now that my methodologies really do work.
In my previous post, I said regarding the 100 Piece Challenge, “I must keep all of the pieces in my memory. This means they become a permanent part of my repertoire.”
- At the time, I meant that all of the pieces would be ready to play at any time, and indeed, for most of the year, I attempted to have every single piece from the Challenge (and others from before the Challenge) at my fingertips at all times.
- If I had to have the first 100 pieces simultaneously ready to immediately perform in order to pass the 100 Piece Challenge, then I was in fact not successful last year (though I was close).
- It is also difficult to give a strict definition of “ready to play”. To me, “ready to play” did not mean that a piece would be played flawlessly, but rather that the piece could be performed musically and convincingly without too many errors. But “without too many errors” can also mean many different things when you compare, for instance, an audience of laypeople with an audience of pianists.
- As the Challenge went on, I found that I could maintain more and more music in a performable condition (over five hours at some points… for laypeople at least), but it became increasingly difficult to maintain ALL of the pieces while continuing to learn new ones.
- I now feel that while keeping all pieces “at the fingertips” is possible, it is simply too time-consuming and takes too much energy away from learning new pieces and from achieving other goals.
I am therefore revising “permanent part of my repertoire” to mean “ready to revive at any time” rather than “ready to play at this very moment”.
- “Ready to revive” could mean anything from 20-30 minutes of review for a simple piece to several days to a week for a major piece.
- To make sure that the piece is ready for performance, it’s important to forget and re-remember it in sets several times (or many times) as described in my earlier posts, so it’s best to allocate a day or two to be safe if it’s an important performance.
- I know that a lot of high-level pianists have a similar conception of how to maintain their repertoire.
- Many learned their pieces well enough that they can revive them in a very short amount of time.
- Having previously learned (and revived / re-learned) music so slowly, I always assumed that they had some sort of superhuman ability.
- The way I learned pieces for the 100 Piece Challenge is so thorough, however, that I now feel confident in my short-term revival ability.
- However, obviously technical difficulties can still arise if I didn’t solve all technical issues in the piece at the time of the learning / recording.
In my next post, I will continue my reflections on the 100 Piece Challenge.
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:
- Solving something you are doing in your right hand
- Solving something you are doing in your left hand
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 Nature of Memory, Part 2: The Principle of Forgetting
In my last post, I talked about learning new music phrase by phrase with great care. In short, the more musically you play and the deeper your emotional connection to the music, the more likely you are to remember it. After all, we tend to remember that which is very important to us.
But despite knowing this, there was a long period of time where I wondered why I still seemed to learn and memorize new music slower than some of my pianist friends and peers. I wasn’t sure if I learned particularly slow… I only knew that I didn’t learn particularly fast. Even though I was not conscious of all of the points I discussed in the previous post until very recently, I was still trying to learn music phrase by phrase to the best of my ability. When I finished learning new pieces, my memory appeared to be quite solid compared to others who had also recently finished learning new pieces. I felt that this was possibly because of the amount of thought and feeling that went into my learning of each phrase. However, the idea of learning more than a few pieces a year seemed impossible.
The other aspect of memory that had utterly eluded me until around two and a half months ago was what I like to call THE PRINCIPLE OF FORGETTING: When you forget something and have to remember it again, your memory of it will become more solid, particularly with repeated retrievals from your memory. At the same time, learning something new only once (whether it be a musical phrase or something else) will make it much more difficult to recall that phrase or fact reliably from your memory.
Previously, I would learn a musical phrase and try my best to solve all the technical, musical, and memory issues simultaneously. Let’s say that I learned four phrases within a practice session and that the music was quite difficult. Perhaps I spent 20 minutes on each phrase to make sure that each one was memorized solidly and that it was up to my musical standard. The next day, I would play through the music to see whether I had retained the sections that I had memorized the day before. Of course, I would always find that the memory was not solid because I had only practiced it for one day. Maybe I would then spend at least 15 minutes on each phrase (slightly faster than yesterday) in an effort to really get those phrases solidly into my long-term memory. After that, I would move on to learn new phrases.
Sometimes I would become frustrated that the memory work I had done the previous day always seemed to disappear so quickly. And even though I spent time each day carefully reviewing each phrase, results seemed to come slowly or at least inconsistently. I now realize that I should have used the “principle of forgetting” to my advantage.
Spending 20 minutes on each phrase is an example of massed practice, which essentially means little or no rest between trials. This is what I was doing when I would try to achieve “perfect memory” of each phrase before moving on to the next one. Even when I would review already-learned phrases in subsequent days, I would also engage in massed practice, working on each phrase until it seemed solidly memorized and then moving on to the next one. It felt like I was accomplishing something significant, but the work was slow and I didn’t seem to learn very quickly.
An example of distributed practice – resting for longer between trials – would be more like the following:
- Learn / memorize the first phrase for 5 minutes, trying hard to make the memory solid but realizing that it is not necessary for the memory to be “perfect” before moving on.
- Spend 5 minutes each memorizing the second phrase, the third phrase, and then the fourth phrase.
- Go back to the beginning and again spend 5 minutes on each phrase. You can also begin to link the phrases together as you go through the process multiple times.
- Even if you go through this process only four times (resulting in 20 minutes spent on each phrase, the same amount of time as in massed practice), the music should be much better memorized than it would have been through the use of massed practice.
Dr. Sean Kang of Dartmouth College says:
In the research literature, the learning advantage of distributed over massed practice is known as the spacing effect. In general, the research evidence is clear that spaced or distributed practice is superior to massed practice for long-term learning and retention. Even when the total time spent on studying or practice is equated, if the review(s) is/are spaced apart rather than massed, long-term learning is enhanced.
When you move on from the first phrase to the second phrase, you will almost immediately forget the first phrase you memorized. This is desirable!! The more times that you have to retrieve something from your memory, the better it will be retained. This is referred to as the “study-phase retrieval theory”.
Distributed practice does not try to fight the fact that you will forget things when you first learn them. By initially spending only 5 minutes on memorizing each phrase and acknowledging that you will forget the phrases, you will save yourself a lot of time and frustration. When you re-memorize the phrases for the second, third, and fourth times, you should find that the memorization process goes much faster because the phrases are like old friends. Also, again, each subsequent retrieval will make the memory more solid and dependable. Conversely, massed practice does not allow adequate time for you to forget material, meaning less opportunities to practice retrieval and more wasted time.
I will continue my discussion on this concept in my next post!
The Nature of Memory, Part 1: What It Means to Learn a Phrase
The huge change that recently took place in my practicing is comprised primarily of three main ideas. These ideas are very often used together or to support one another, and all of them have made an enormous difference both in how quickly I learn music and in how I am able to maintain the repertoire I can already play. The first of these Big Ideas has to do with the nature of memory. Some questions I have asked myself (and occasionally others) about memory over the years:
- How can you memorize music effectively in the most efficient way possible?
- How can you keep the music that you’ve memorized so far in your memory while continuing to learn new music?
- How can you keep the music that you’ve learned not only memorized, but always performance-ready or at least near performance-ready (in other words, it takes time to maintain physical technique as well)?
- How can you significantly reduce the possibility of memory slips?
Here are some answers I have heard from others:
- I learn the piece with the music first. I take the time to memorize the piece at some later point.
- I don’t make any sort of extra effort to memorize music. I play the piece with the music, and eventually it will simply be memorized.
- I consciously make the effort to memorize the music as I learn it.
- I memorize separate hands (or left hand alone) for certain sections or pieces in order to reduce the possibility of memory problems.
- I purposely create “emergency memory spots” in my music that I can jump to in case of a memory problem. For instance, say that a short piece has eight distinct sections. I practice so that I can instantly start from the beginning of each of those eight sections if needed.
I will talk about my personal solution to keeping a good number of pieces at least near performance-ready at a later point. The ideas of memorizing separate hands and creating “emergency memory spots” will be addressed within the next few posts. In any case, I came to the conclusion that memorizing the music while learning it for the first time is the most efficient solution. Learning / memorizing should be one process. If you wait until a performance is close to memorize a piece of music, it is very likely that the memory will be unreliable. By memorizing a piece first, all subsequent practicing without the score will reinforce the memory. In addition, the piece will obviously spend a much greater amount of time in your memory before you perform, which will also make it more solid and dependable. When I memorize, I do so phrase by phrase, trying to create larger phrases whenever possible. For non-musicians, this means that I separate the music into logical, musically sensible sections that each express a coherent thought. There are many exceptions, of course, but phrases can often be four bars or eight bars in length. I also do not believe in the idea of “play the notes first, add the music later”. In other words, from the beginning, when I am learning the first phrase, I am trying to do the following:
- Follow all written markings, including notes, rhythm, articulation, dynamics, tempo indications, performance directions, etc. (anything that is printed on the score)
- Decide what I am trying to show the audience in this phrase and adjust my balance accordingly. Play that line or voice somewhat louder while playing everything of lesser importance somewhat quieter (or a lot quieter).
- Voice all chords. Decide which note is most important and make that note somewhat louder, while playing the other notes somewhat quieter (or a lot quieter).
- Shape everything. The melody or most important line can have larger shapes (crescendos and decrescendos that may not be indicated in the score), while the accompaniment or all less important lines can have smaller shapes.
- Using a combination of prior knowledge and research (e.g. listening to a few recordings), have some awareness of the style and period of the piece and specifically the compositional style of the composer. If you have never even heard the piece before or you don’t know it really well, listening to a few recordings will give you some idea of how quickly or slowly the piece is normally played, what sort of rubato (taking of time for expressive purposes) may be appropriate, how to better interpret the articulation and dynamic markings, subtle characteristic elements of the music that are difficult to notate, etc. etc.
- Try to decide on appropriate pedalings. Past experience, listening to recordings, and just listening to yourself carefully can help a lot here.
- Contemplate what the character of the piece may be. Is it carefree, majestic, desolate, furious, mysterious, anxious, jubilant, nostalgic, transcendental…?
- Maintain a steady tempo (unless, of course, tempo changes are indicated and/or the piece does not call for you to maintain a steady tempo) and have an idea of what my performance tempo will be. Play at the performance tempo if possible. If it is not possible, have some idea of how to reach the performance tempo in the future.
- Have an awareness of the meter. A piece in three feels very different from a piece in four, for instance. To have a sensitivity of the hierarchy of the beats (e.g. the first beat being the most important) is also important. This awareness may somehow influence the way the phrase is shaped, the way certain timings are taken, and many other subtleties.
- Play with a beautiful sound. One of the greatest misconceptions laypeople have about the piano is that it is like typing – you press the key and the sound comes out. This would be more true of the organ, which invariably sounds beautiful (assuming it is a good instrument) no matter how you depress the key. On the piano, the slightest change in the speed of the attack, the use of the pedals, the use of balance and voicing, the portion of the finger utilized, the tiniest tension in any part of the body, the way one LEAVES the keys, and many other factors will all subtly affect the beauty of the sound. This is because the way the playing mechanism of the piano – hammers striking strings – is highly sensitive to the smallest changes. I am sure I will talk about this more at some point in the future as well. I try very hard to play this new phrase with a beautiful sound (unless there is something about the music that requires me to play with an ugly or jarring sound). If I cannot, I at least have some idea of what a beautiful sound is so I know how far away I am from my goal. Again, listening to recordings of great pianists helps a lot.
- Play with a very good technique (physically relaxed, smooth, efficient movements). This often affects your ability to accomplish everything else that I listed.
- The most important thing: Establish an emotional connection with the music that transcends the intellectual. Attempt to communicate an emotion / intention / message to the imaginary audience.
I often hear the complaint that there simply is not enough time to do all of this. I think the point is that you are making your best effort to do all of the above (and whatever else you feel is necessary). If it is totally overwhelming, at least try to focus on one or two elements at a time as you learn new phrases, and over time, try to incorporate more and more. Eventually all of the aforementioned elements will become an intrinsic part of the learning process (just like, for instance, simply playing the notated rhythms correctly). I definitely am not successful in all of the points I listed when I first learn a phrase, but the point is, I’m trying. For example, it was very difficult for me to balance and voice things correctly when I first started studying piano seriously. I would often put it off until later, or worse, completely forget to do it at all! But because I got into the habit of trying to sight-read pieces with good balance and voicing, I can now incorporate those elements when learning new music without a second thought. You tend to remember the things you care deeply about. The more details you know about a person, for instance, the more likely you are to remember him / her. By attempting to learn the phrase with this much detail, you give each note deep meaning and direction, and it becomes much more likely that you will remember the phrase as a single, very meaningful unit. It is much easier for the mind to remember the phrase as a large, meaningful chunk rather than as single notes or small groups of notes. Both muscle memory and your mental picture of the phrase will be extremely clearly defined, making it very difficult to forget. In addition, I always tell my students this:
If you play extremely musically, it is much easier to feel emotionally connected to the music. If you are emotionally connected to the music, you will demand of yourself extremely musical playing.
In other words, high musical standards and powerful emotional connections to your music-making can feed off of one another and make each other stronger. Feeling great emotion while playing of course makes it much easier to communicate a message to the audience, and again also makes memory slips much more unlikely. And besides, that emotion is the whole reason why we are making music in the first place! This post turned out much longer than I originally intended, but congratulations if you got to the end! I would say it was only during the course of preparations for my recent recital that I began to feel like I have a better control over all of these elements when I am learning new music. However, I did not yet talk about any of the huge changes that I made recently. Next time I will explain the first reason why, despite all of this, my learning of new repertoire was still too slow!
The Beginning of a Journey and Introduction to Mental Practicing
On matters such as piano, music, teaching, and many other topics related to my life, I have realized that I almost invariably have a lot to say. Actually, probably anyone who has held a serious conversation with me for more than five minutes has realized this. So it’s a wonder that I didn’t start writing this earlier!
The purpose of these writings is going to be quite up in the air. A lot of these posts will surely be most relevant to professional musicians, especially pianists. But a lot of the ideas I will talk about will hopefully help musicians of all levels, including those of other instruments. Posts about teaching may possibly be useful to teachers of all different subjects, not just music. And perhaps anything that I share about my life or music philosophy may resonate with someone, somewhere, for any reason. Even if nobody reads this, I feel that to keep a journal of some kind will be very satisfying and grounding in some way, especially one that is public. I am certainly not a world-class pianist, but I have worked hard enough that I think I can share some of what I have learned.
There have been several instances in my relationship with music and the piano where I experienced some sort of huge, fundamental shift in my practicing philosophy. The most recent one began approximately one month ago and was one of the main inspirations for starting this blog (along with reading the blog of a very good friend of mine). It truly has changed my entire approach to practicing… with very dramatic and favorable results! I partially arrived at my answer through a lot of reading, research, and experimenting in my practicing in the one or two weeks following my most recent recital at the end of February, but many of the questions I answered had been dancing around in my mind for years. Needless to say, this is a very exciting time for me right now and I am enjoying the learning of new repertoire MUCH more than before. So, one of the main methods I will use to communicate my ideas will be chronicling the effectiveness of this new methodology on pieces I am learning right now!
Here are some questions I’ll probably explore at some point relatively soon, in no particular order:
- What exactly is mental practicing and why is it so incredibly important and useful?
- Why is practicing and memorizing separate hands so incredibly important and useful?
- How do I learn / memorize music quickly, yet thoroughly?
- How do I keep up a lot of old repertoire while learning new repertoire?
- Is the metronome good or evil?
- How many hours a day is actually useful and when should I practice?
- How can I possibly find the time to fix something fundamental about my technique?
- How can I use these ideas to help my students?
And so on. You are also welcome to leave comments / questions / suggestions on topics and I would be very happy to answer to the best of my ability.
Mental practicing, since it is at the core of my new practicing approach, will be explored at length in my posts over the next few weeks. I will also write a lot about the importance of practicing separate hands. These are NOT my original ideas, but perhaps I can present them in a unique, easy-to-understand format. Also, since a lot of the posts I read online during my research were directed more at beginners, the pieces cited as examples in those posts were generally much simpler than those in the standard piano repertoire. I hope that as I document how I use this method to go about learning new (generally much more advanced) pieces, it will prove useful in some way to my pianist friends (and to any other pianists reading) in particular. Of course, I will also share all the things that don’t work as I learn new repertoire!
Even beginners at the piano can probably picture the piano keyboard to some extent (and if you can’t, you can “cheat” by first looking at the piano keyboard or at an image of one). Let us say, for instance, that you play “C, D, E” on the piano. If you close your eyes or look away from the keyboard and imagine that you play those same notes, ask yourself: “Do I SEE myself playing those notes, HEAR the notes in my mind, and FEEL the sensation in my fingertips?” This is mental practicing! But really, how much use could this neat little trick actually have, and why should it be used? After all, when you first try to mentally practice pieces that are currently difficult for you, it is often very hard to see and feel them clearly in your mind’s eye. It also doesn’t help that, when done directly, mental practicing can be exhausting! If practice time is so limited, why use it at all? Some of the most obvious reasons include:
- You can practice ANYWHERE, at ANY TIME (within reason)! This means getting some work done while lying in bed, making good use of time spent waiting for mass transit and practice rooms, actually enjoying sunny days, and many other perks besides. It also means being able to greatly increase your practice time even when you are short on time!
- The possibility for injury is greatly reduced.
- It is one way to greatly speed up the rate at which you learn new music.
- It is one of the best ways to maintain repertoire in the memory.
- The possibility for memory slips is greatly reduced.
More to come soon!