Everyone learns in different ways and whilst for those lucky few with photographic memories learning piano music by heart may come easily, some of us may need to work a little harder at it.
If you are looking to move away from having to carry around your sheet music scores and would love to just be able to sit down at any piano and play your favourite songs or repertoire from memory, then these tips may just help you in your journey!
Of course these tips may not apply for everyone and perhaps you might not even need to use them at all, or you might have your own unique way of learning that works for you, however if you are struggling finding the right ways to help unlock your own musical memory, we hope they offer a little guidance or inspiration to help expand your playing horizons.
1. Listen…And Listen Some More!
What’s the best way to begin playing a piece? Understanding what it should sound like!
Staring at a piece of sheet music without knowing what it is supposed to sound like can be intimidating, especially for beginners or those who struggle to read with efficiency. The first piece of advice we’d recommend is setting your expectation and understanding what the piece should sound like.
Straight away this will not only help offer insight into not only what the piece should sound like, but if you feel it might be a little out of your playing ability (although it is always worth giving it a try either way!). Familiarising yourself with the sound will also help you as you begin to learn as you’ll be able to pick out your own mistakes and embellishments.
When beginning to learn the piece, knowing what it should sound like allows you to ask questions like “Why doesn’t mine sound like that?” or “Am I playing too hard/softly?” or “Is my flow between the different sections the same?” Even though the notes you are playing may be the same as what is written down in front of you, not understanding the dynamics or subtleties within in a piece can lead to a very different sound. Learn more about this in our guide to adding more expression into your playing here.
Listening to a piece again and again is also a fantastic way to memorise a piece as even when not at your piano, using a desk as your keyboard may help you memorise the muscle memories even further (more on this later).
2. Take It One Hand At A Time
All too often we see pianists jump straight into a piece, trying to learn complex movements on both hands at once. Not only can this be incredibly frustrating and an overall slower approach to memorising a piece, but it is far easier to gloss over mistakes as your brain is trying to focus on two things at once.
Instead, a far more sustainable and balanced approach may be to tackle things one hand at a time, beginning with either the left or right is fine, however we’d recommend starting with the hand you feel most comfortable with. Once you’ve mastered this side, then start back at the beginning with the other hand, learning this on its own first, then slowly reintroducing the first hand. This process is used as a more focused effort usually leads to more consistent results.
Once you have built up the memory in each hand, then it’s time to begin smoothing the two together and creating seamless transitions between bars.
3. Break It Down Into Bite Size Chunks
Following on from the above point, there is no use in trying to memorise an entire symphony, or even an entire page in one sitting. Take things bar by bar, line by line and even note by note.
A good place to begin learning may be just 2 to 4 measures at a time, this will not only allow you to focus your efforts but because the segments are so small, it is far easier to see and learn any notations that the piece may have.
How do you know when you’re ready to move on? A good exercise may be to see if you can play the passage at least 5 times in a row without making any mistakes. Playing a piece once or twice may not be enough as it’s easy to let those mistakes slip in one the third or fourth try and soon those slips will form habits.
If you are struggling to learn a certain section, it can sometime be easier to notice patterns within music such as chord shapes, key notes or repetitions and using these as grounding points to come back to.
Likewise, whilst muscle memory is fantastic, remember, it is not bulletproof! Many pianists may know a piece by heart on their own instrument, but when trying to play it in front of others, nerves can make you freeze up and because every piano feels different, you may not connect straight away with the new piano. Luckily we have guides on Overcoming The Fear Of Playing In Front Of Others and also How To Adjust To Another Piano's Action.
4. Play In The Dark!
Here’s a fun one and a really great party trick if you get it right! One of the best ways to ensure you know a piece inside and out is to try playing it with your eyes closed or in a dark room (just be careful not to bump into anything!)
Playing with a score in front of you is one thing but removing your vision altogether is another and trust us…it’s a lot harder than it looks!
That being said though, playing with your eyes closed is a great way or truly connecting with music on another level, it helps enhance the senses to notice even the most subtle of expressions within your playing. Repetition is your friend here and utilising those muscle memories already built to be able to play with your eyes closed is a great skill to develop and will help build your confidence in ensuring that you know a piece of music by heart.
5.Revisit What You Have Already Learned
Have you ever had that feeling when you learn something new and then the next time you come back to the piano the next day, you feel as though you have completely forgotten it?
That is an incredibly common feeling for pianists and whilst it can be frustrating at first, when it comes to learning a piece by memory, it’s actually a great opportunity to develop your skills as it will show you that you still haven’t fully built up that muscle memory to the point of ease yet.
A good exercise here is to memorise your first passage, then walk away for 25-30 minutes and come back to the piano, see what you can remember. If you’re still making mostly mistakes, then it might be worth revisiting steps 1-4 again and ensuring that you’ve got the movement down. This is also a great exercise in gradually improving tempo and being able to play a piece more efficiently.
The same can be said for rest here. We’ve seen many pianists in the past who have tried to cram as much information into their playing the night before an exam or performance, only to forget it all as soon as they begin playing. Rest is crucial for memory retention so after a long practice session, sometimes the best advice may be to take a quick power nap!
This is perhaps best visualised by those who over practice (which we have an article on here), if you are finding that you are making more and more mistakes as you are playing and even pieces you thought you knew inside out are becoming full of errors, it might be time to stop for the day.
Finally, why not try playing your piece from the middle section instead of the beginning, we often see many players master the beginning of a piece but then towards the middle or end, become less confident. Instead of always starting from the top, change things up a bit, this will help solidify the sections in your memory.
6. Record Your Playing
Almost any concert pianist will tell you the importance of recording your playing, in the same way that a race car driver or athlete will re-watch their sport over and over to see any mistakes or analyse how they can improve their performance, the same can be said for music.
Is it the same places where you make mistakes? Or are there parts where your fingering looks a little clumsy? Those are the areas to focus on first! Sometimes when we memorise things, we might still be making mistakes and not realise it, recording your playing will help you see these mistakes and begin to fix them.
7. Practice Makes Perfect!
If you are struggling to find enough time to practice, then read our guide to making more time for yourself here. Likewise, if you are finding that your practice has become dull and boring, then it may be time to shake things up! Read our guide to better structured piano practice here.
Finally if none of the above are working for you, contact a piano teacher! Learning with a professional is the best, most surefire way to improve your piano technique, sight reading and musical memory. Likewise, if you are finding that it may actually be your instrument that is holding back your learning, then it may be time for an upgrade.
Our experts have travelled the world in search of the best pianos to suit any requirement and are able to offer expert advice on finding the right piano to be able to keep up with your standard of playing. Contact us today or book a demonstration to visit our showroom to find your dream piano.