Practicing piano doesn’t always mean sitting down and playing the piano.
I never bothered to practice very much — I now practice almost not at all — but even in those days I never really did. I tended to learn the score away from the piano, in the sense that I would learn it completely by memory first and then go to the piano with it afterwards… – Glenn Gould, Rolling Stone, 15 Aug. 1974
Do you find it rather peculiar that Mr. Gould, one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, did most of his practicing away from the keyboard? While it’s fair to say that Glenn Gould possessed uncanny memory and talent which allowed him to fast track the learning process, most musicians I’ve met throughout my career use visualization of some kind as a method of learning and performing.
It’s normal when playing a piece from memory for it to feel like the muscles magically remember passages, even when the mind gets lost. Though muscle memory can function like a safety net, we can’t always be 100% certain that it will catch us if we stumble when performing.
If you really want to develop a reliable mental picture of the score, conscious mental practicing is the way to go. Just as music is studied at the keyboard, it’s equally important that it be studied away from it so it can be imprinted onto the circuits of your mind.
If you’re a beginner or working towards a Grade 10 Royal Conservatory Exam, go grab your score, a pencil and find a comfy chair!
Sometimes we get so enraptured by playing that we often overlook strategies that will actually make it easier and faster to learn the music. I challenge you to take a step back and see what you notice.
While looking over your score, ask yourself: What’s the same? What’s different? This may sound pretty basic but it’s the basis of pattern recognition. It’s often the parts that don’t quite fit that can be hard to recall. These sections are connective tissue between more easily remembered passages.
I always tell my students that transitions are the hardest parts in music (and in life). They are the weakest links in the chain because they are unique, rarely repeated, and so get played less frequently. Find these areas and zone in on them.
What exactly do I mean?
Sing Happy Birthday. It’s made up of four phrases. The 3rd phrase, where it goes “Happy birthday, dear Mozart,” is the part most unlike the others. The rhythm has an extra quarter note, the melody goes much higher jumping a whole octave (eight notes), and it ends with a pause. It reminds me of Sesame Street’s “One of these things is not like the others…“, for those old enough to remember.
The same thing happens everywhere in music, just at higher levels of complexity.
For example, say you’ve got the Exposition (first part of three) and Recapitulation (third part) of a Beethoven sonata down pat, but are struggling with the Development (crazy middle part with lots of flux and key changes). The Development is harder to learn and remember because it’s less ordered and predictable. The first movement of The Moonlight Sonata is a great example. Listen to how different the middle section sounds from the outer parts.
With score in hand, ask yourself, How is it different than the other, more whistleable parts? Are any elements similar to other material that I may have already seen? If so, how are they similar? By studying the score this way you will hopefully realize that most things that at first seem out of place are cousins of something familiar. The second section is built on material from the first, just altered a bit. Even if our pair of cousins don’t share the same eyes and hair colour, their laughs are the same!
On the flip side, life can get be made a whole lot easier when you identify elements that are the same. I like to call these “freebies” because all I have to do is learn the passage once and then I’ve got it covered whenever it reappears. For example, in Chopin’s Waltz in Ab from opus 69, the same somewhat haunting theme keeps reappearing. Once you’ve learned it you’ve got a good chunk of the piece already covered! Add that to the sections that repeat and a three-page piece boils down to a page and a half of material. So sit with your score and look for the freebies!
Really Read the Score, I Mean Really
What does the music say? Faster or slower? Louder or softer? Shorter or longer?
When in the thick of playing something – between notes, finger numbers, tempo – it’s easy to overlook many of the other details. As you become familiar with the meat and potatoes then it’s time to start looking at your score with a higher level of magnification; finding the stuff that really enriches the music. It’s useful to do this away from the keyboard.
Perhaps you discover you were playing a whole section loud (forte) and on closer inspection realized the composer wrote mp and dolce (moderately quiet and sweetly).
What do the terms cantabile, maestoso, agitato, or mäßig bewegt mean? These words inform the artistic and emotional intent of the music – they’re the composer’s way of telling you what he wanted it to sound like. Grab your musical dictionary and go look them up!
I often love the parts where the composer leaves it up to the interpreter to decide what makes the most sense. Classical music may seem like it leaves very little leg room for creativity but that is far from the truth. Listen to two recordings of the same piece by two different players. They will respect the composer’s markings and still come up with very different interpretations. You are the conductor of your instrument! Make executive decisions before you tell the orchestra what you want.
In the sports world it’s not uncommon to hear athletes talking about visualizing an activity before doing it. Watch the look of concentration on a high diver’s face before he makes that incredibly complex dive.
Musicians also practice visualization. If you watch a concert pianist at the very beginning of a recital she will often take some time, eyes closed, visualizing the music she is about to play. She hears the notes and the tone quality, feels the character and the tempo, or maybe even imagines an image that puts her in the right zone – a bit like the “play the sunset” scene from the film, Mr. Holland’s Opus.
In the practice room, visualization is practicing! It’s a great tool for memorization. With score in hand, see if you can create a virtual keyboard in your mind and begin playing one hand of a piece you’re learning. Feel the keys, listen to the sound, and be aware of the finger numbers you are using. I often notice that when I can’t clearly see a part in my mind’s eye then that part is unstable on the keyboard too. By doing this you will become more aware of whole new layers of the music; things you could have missed while playing. It’s also quite meditative.
Visualizing the score gives the body a break and it can also be done anywhere. Maybe that person standing next to you on the subway is playing through a Beethoven Concerto in her head!
There is actually more to a pianist than a pair of hands and a floating head. You have a body! How about that!
When practicing and performing, it’s easy to isolate your awareness to your head and hands. You can miss things like breathing (kind of important) and relaxing, which get put on the back burner. To play effectively your whole body needs to be engaged and free.
I find sitting with the score and visualizing different passages will show me how my body is actually responding at certain places. I may tense up or stop breathing at the very sight of a difficult passage. These moments are easier to pinpoint away from the piano because I’m much less distracted. When I can release tension in those difficult passages the music becomes easier to play!
So sit down with the score, a pencil, and a warm mug of hot chocolate. Make it intimate like a conversation between two old friends. Visualize playing it on your virtual piano. Challenge yourself to see how much detail you can remember. Notice the patterns. You’ll give your body a much-appreciated break, accelerate the learning process, stabilize your memorization, and make your practice sessions at the keyboard a lot more productive!
Oh and your neighbours might appreciate it too!