Guest Article by Sofie Kay
Have you ever suddenly forgotten your PIN? It happened to me once. I was standing in line with a friend who said something to me just as I was about to enter my number, and it suddenly went out of my head. I couldn’t remember those 4 digits until about a year later! It was a bizarre experience.
The same thing happened with a piano piece I loved, too. I was 16, attending a residential piano school and in a group lesson where we were being critiqued by an expert in the field. I played Debussy’s Arabesque no. 1, was told by the professor to play something at the beginning a bit differently, and suddenly found I couldn’t play any of the first page any more. I needed to sight-read the page to work out what I needed to do!
The commonality between these two situations is that while I was preparing to do something I expected to be second nature to me, something out of the ordinary happened, and in essence it caused a glitch. In the case of the PIN, a friend saying something was enough to throw me off.
In the case of the summer school lesson:
- I was performing,
- I was intimidated by how wise and experienced the professor was, and
- The professor had asked me to change the way I was playing the piece, and had pointed out I was playing a wrong left hand note near the beginning (after months of playing it this way…)
All situations that can throw a nervous teenager off!
I did my research and found out that this phenomenon can happen with anything we’ve learned, but there are ways to combat it.
Short- and Long-Term Memory Creation
In your brain, new pieces of information start out as short-term memories, and the process of turning those short-term memories into long-term memories is called consolidation, which is a time-dependent process.
Whether a short-term memory becomes a long-term memory depends on a few factors, but for practising music, the most relevant factor is repetition. However, repeating something over and over again in the same way is likely to build weak neural structures.
So, we need to make sure the neural pathways are strong by learning information in as many ways as possible.
N.B. Discovering that made total sense to me, because I had unwisely learnt the Arabesque just by sight-reading from start to finish over and over again until my fingers knew what they were doing. (“Ask the young. They know everything.” – Joseph Joubert)
Here are 10 different ways to use repetition for the same piece or passage of music, based on research into effective short- and long-term memory creation.
Learn in chunks of small passages
In psychology, this is called ‘chunking‘. The short term memory typically lasts between 15-30 seconds and can hold 7±2 items. Take the number 1456905. It can be thought of as 7 separate items (1-4-5-6-9-0-5), or the information can be split into chunks: 14-56-905. Once “chunked”, as far as your brain is concerned, this 7 digit number is now 3 items. Chunking is an amazing memory hack, especially for remembering lists of information.
When it comes to piano practice, your whole piece could be comprised of hundreds of individual notes, and therefore hundreds of individual items. This theory explains why it is more effective to work on small sections at a time, to let your brain “chunk” that information into one item, and only then add another section. (What defines a small section is dependent on your stage of learning: perhaps half a bar, perhaps 8 bars.)
Think actively about the fingering, and apply it every time
Working out a sensible fingering pattern and jotting it down on the music is always one of the first tasks on my list as I sit down to a new piece. A fascinating and empowering bit of research is that whenever you do anything for the first time, new neural pathways are formed, and these pathways become stronger the more they are used.
So, being conscious of the fingers you’re using to play a passage and using them every single time you practice is a great way to streamline your learning process and reach a state of confidence and security with your playing quickly.
Give the melody some words and sing along
This is one of the most famous ways to help your brain remember a new piece, and for good reason! One of the characteristics of short-term memory is that the way it encodes information is primarily acoustic. Singing, then, is one of the most congruent and harmonious ways to work together with short-term memory to help it process information efficiently. This is also the reason that songs you learnt years ago can be remembered with relative ease, compared to information without melody that is no longer relevant to your life, like advanced calculus, or types of rocks… perhaps a good case for schools to teach information in song format?!
Change the rhythm, dynamics or articulation of a section
When it comes to scales, I tend to ask a lot from my students. We change the articulation, dynamics and rhythm frequently to make sure they really know what the correct fingering is. A lot of the time, changing the rhythm is enough to throw them off, and they need to think about the fingering in a slightly different way in order to get back on track.
This is the idea that rebuilding from the ground up (and being forced to pay conscious, careful attention) is often a quicker way to become proficient at a skill than repeating it over and over again in the same way (and being a passive bystander).
Say the note names or count out loud as you play
Very similarly to the last point, anything which forces you to pay close attention for an extended period of time can only be a good thing. Counting out loud or saying the note names of one hand’s part is a great way to achieve this.
Step away from the piano and study the score by itself
There are a few different models of learning styles, and one of the most popular is the VARK model (visual, auditory, reading/writing, kinesthetic). It argues that everyone can learn using any of these styles, but everyone has a dominant or preferred way/ways. For visual learners, studying the music away from the piano can allow the information to go deeper and be retained more quickly by the short term memory. Even for a kinesthetic or auditory learner, visually assessing the music can help to solidify uncertain areas.
Practice (or envisage yourself playing the piece) just before you go to sleep
The relationship between sleep and learning is not yet fully understood, but researchers are starting to discover that certain stages of sleep may help in the consolidation of long-term memories. Practicing just before bedtime is an amazing way to help the process of learning along, or, if late night practice isn’t possible, envisaging yourself performing, reading the score or listening to the piece and actively paying attention are all good substitutes.
You may find that you can play that really tricky part by the morning!
Write out the music on manuscript paper
This supports the reading/writing learning style, and is great for bringing awareness to tiny details. Copying the music out with the score in front of you, or for a big challenge, without the score, will help you build connections both harmonically and melodically (vertically and horizontally).
Photocopy the piece, cut it up and glue it back together in the right order
An easier option to number 8! I love to do this with my students who are reluctant to look at the sheet music as they play. This really tests and solidifies their knowledge of the piece and all its nuances.
Play the piece super fast and super slow
If you can do both, you can be fairly sure you’re safe! Doubling the speed is always a useful way to see if there are any kinks which need to be worked out, and there are endless benefits to ultra-slow practice, which have been explored especially well in a blog post by Graham Fitch.
So there we have it. Each of these sections could be explored in an entire blog post of their own, but I hope that this quick introduction to how memory works in relation to piano playing has been helpful!
Also, since visualising my PIN as a series of numbers and a pattern on the keypad, I haven’t forgotten it again!
Sofie Kay is a private piano teacher in Brighton and the founder of Enjoy Piano, a weekly blog and shop that aim to support other piano teachers with creative teaching materials.
She currently studies under highly acclaimed teacher and pianist Nicola Grunberg.