Welcome to LivingPianos.com, I’m Robert Estrin. The subject today is about why it is so hard to start in the middle of a piece of music. Have you ever had that situation? Maybe during your practice something fumbles. So, you want to start from where you left off. You try, but it’s too hard, so you just go back to the beginning. Worse yet, you’re in the middle of a performance, and you have a finger slip or a moment of memory insecurity. Then you try to start in the middle, and you just can’t do it. You have to go back to the beginning. It feels so terrible! The audience is fidgeting because they already heard you play that music. This is a real issue. So, first I’ll explain why this happens, then I’m going to offer you some solutions.
It has to do with the way the human mind works.
Learning things sequentially is much easier than random access memory. For example, have you ever seen memory geniuses who can remember thousands of digits? Some of these people are just unbelievable. Or, they can remember countless unrelated items. How do they do it? The secret they use is relating the things they are trying to remember to each other. If you had random objects and you wanted to remember them sequentially, the first visual image that comes into your head can really help. So let’s say you want to remember car, toaster. Imagine a toaster with a car popping out of it. That’s a really weird image that came to my mind. So now I have a car and a toaster. And then you go on. What’s next thing on the list to remember? How about car, toaster, orange. The car is popping out of the toaster and there is an orange on top like the light on a police car. It can be anything. The more outlandish the visual images, the better. You can do a chain of dozens of unrelated things so long as the visual images are so ridiculous that you can’t forget them. The more abstract the better.
There is a sequential nature to memory.
In school growing up, I learned all kinds of music because my father taught me how to memorize. From my first lesson when I was a young child, I had to memorize all my music, and didn’t think anything of it. But in school in social studies, we had to memorize all kinds of dates, wars, generals and battles. I had no idea how to learn that kind of stuff! The sequential nature of learning is so powerful. I wish I had known about this technique back then!
What do you do when you want to start in the middle of a piece?
You get so used to going through a piece all at once, there’s a certain amount of motor or muscle memory. Your fingers themselves remember where to go! Once you get off track, they have no idea where to go anymore. There are a few things you can do to remedy this. Number one: in your practice, whenever there is a problem and you stop to fix it, find your place in the score! I know it can be painstaking to do that sometimes, but by finding the place in the score and making yourself start there, you will gain the ability to start from that place. If you had insecurity one time, you may have insecurity another time. If you know how to start from the point of insecurity, it can be a lifesaver in performance. Anytime you have a problem with something messing up in your practice, that’s an opportunity to learn how to start right at that point. That’s a terrific way of solidifying your music.
There’s more you can do! Practice incessantly with the music even after you’ve memorized something! Look at the score as you play slowly without the pedal. Utilize the metronome where appropriate, and go through to solidify your memory. Let’s say you have a piece you’ve memorized, and it’s pretty secure, but you still have issues with it. What can you do to make it totally solid so you are able to start anywhere?
One of the best techniques is to be able to play a piece without the benefit of playing it on the piano.
First, try just playing it on a tabletop or in your lap. Have the score nearby so when you get to a point of insecurity, you can find your place in the score. Go back a little bit and pass that point until you can play the whole piece away from the piano. Then, the ultimate, is to be able to play without even moving your fingers! Think the piece all the way through. When you can do that, you will gain great security in your playing. That’s why for example, memory problems often happen when you have leaps in music because your fingers have a memory all their own. But when you have to jump from one section of the keyboard to another, you have to be aware of where you’re jumping! Worse yet are pieces that have repeated sections in different keys. When you have a sonata where in one section you modulate from one key to another key, and later the same thing comes back, but it goes to a different key, you have to be very deliberate. Study your score to remember (for example), first time D, second time A, or whatever it may be. Lock it in your brain, and then be present enough in your performance to know, yes, the second time go to A. You have to have that information ready in the back of your brain, looking down on yourself while you’re playing so you’re not all just on automatic pilot! You can’t always trust finger memory. It is a godsend having it. If people didn’t have that to work with, I don’t think pianists could memorize massive amounts of music nearly as easily. But you can’t depend upon it completely.
Conductors have to memorize scores.
Conductors have to know their scores without the benefit of muscle memory. Of course, many conductors are pianists, so they may flesh out a lot of the music on the keyboard first. But for all you pianists out there, take advantage of the music you know by playing mentally. The sound of the music, the feel of the keys as well as the vision of the keyboard. The whole playing experience away from the instrument can be an awesome learning experience. In the meantime, as a first step, make yourself find where you are in the score when you have insecurity in your playing so you can learn to start from there. That’s going to help you if you ever have problems in those particular places during a performance. Thanks so much for joining me. I’m Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Resource.
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