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#2110520 - 06/30/13 08:47 AM Bach and the Art of Memorizing
TwoSnowflakes Online   blank
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 02/15/12
Posts: 1030
Ok, so about a month ago, I started a thread asking for help on starting Bach, with specific regard to the English Suites. Very helpful suggestions there, and I remain quite appreciative!

I'm taking the very sage advice about going slooooowly, and am definitely going to need to memorize in order to concentrate on what I need to concentrate on. I think part of my difficulty with Bach the first time (and really, with a lot of things I was playing) was constantly needing to read along, which takes too much executive focus away from the actual playing. Fine when the pieces are not complicated, and becomes increasingly unsuitable as the pieces get more advanced.

I'm on my own for another four weeks, and my teacher and I did not manage to start the English Suites before I left. She picked out the second one, and wanted to start with the prelude. So, my initial idea was to get the prelude memorized this month because I'm without her. But it's pretty long and complicated just in terms of sheer number of notes, and while I am used to assimilating and memorizing large amounts of information (thanks, practice of law!) I left piano before I was able to apply it specifically to piano.

I guess the reason is that I read music very quickly and also did so as a child, so I just never learned detach myself from the music, with the consequence that I treat it as a crutch. Looking at my hands actually makes me freeze sometimes as I internally panic that I've lost my place.

And Bach is exactly the sort of music to provoke that reaction, so I wonder if I might be better off starting with something shorter from WTC first, get it memorized and up to speed.

So here are my questions, if any of you are inclined to answer them:

1) Start with Prelude of Suite II, or pick something from WTC that would be adequately preparatory? If so, any suggestions from WTC?

2) How do YOU go about memorizing a new piece? I certainly know enough music theory to break a piece down, or at least understand someone explaining how it breaks down to me. I also know how important it is to come up with some kind of algorithm within the broad framework of a piece to structure its memorization, rather than just going note by note, (i.e. next four measures identical as last four, with X cluster of notes up a fifth in left hand second time 'round, or this figure now repeats 8 times, moving down a X interval/inverting/transposing each time).

So my guess is that I'm not without my own resources here, but I think I'm just interested to hear how more experienced people tend to approach about the task and how they get it mapped out and imprinted as they master a new piece.

For example, what about hands separate vs hands together? Hands separate until each hand is fluid and memorized at speed? Hands together from the start even if the speed must be unnaturally slow, and bring up tempo? It's hard play something very slowly when your brain has it mapped out at a faster speed because you almost perceive them as different pieces, but at the same time, it's almost a third task entirely to coordinate two things that were memorized separately. How do YOU balance and mitigate the drawbacks as you work through a new piece? For something like Chopin, where the left hand often follows a predictable pattern, I've got a pretty good idea of what works best for me, but Bach? It's not so clear to me how to go best go about memorizing and assimilating a piece where there's just so much going on and moving between hands.

Just to be clear, I'm sure there's no perfect right answer, and everybody has different ways that work best for them, so I'm not under any delusion that there's some "secret" I'm asking for. That being said, while there's no "secret", the truth is that often those who are very accomplished at a certain complicated tasks (i.e. you folks who are accomplished pianists) do tend to overlap on broad trends or approaches, even if they arrived at those approaches semi-independently through their own trial and error. And while I'm far behind most (probably all) of you in terms of overall technical skill, I am thankfully not having first to struggle to understand music or build a map for it in my brain. The wiring is there, I guess. I just have to learn how to use it.
_________________________
Currently:
Bach, French Suites, No. 3 BWV 814
Brahms, Op. 118 No. 2 Intermezzo A major
Chopin, Mazurka Op. 67 No.4
With the pedal I love to meddle; When Paderewski comes this way... -Irving Berlin

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#2110546 - 06/30/13 10:14 AM Re: Bach and the Art of Memorizing [Re: TwoSnowflakes]
bennevis Online   content
4000 Post Club Member

Registered: 10/14/10
Posts: 4818
I think you're over-analyzing and over-complicating things unnecessarily.

I'm a simple man and don't tend to think too deeply about things (well, only as deeply as required grin). I remember what one of the pianists (Beatrice Rana, I think) in the Van Cliburn Competition said when replying to a question of how she memorized her repertoire. She said that if you play a piece of music often enough, you'll start to remember it (or words to that effect).

Which is more or less the reason I now have about an hour's worth of music memorized, whereas three years ago, I could only play about four and a half short pieces (and short fragments of many other pieces) from memory. Most of those I've memorized were pieces I love and wanted to keep playing indefinitely, and/or had sections that had too many leaps for me to negotiate without looking at the keyboard. In order to play those pieces to my satisfaction, I had to memorize those sections. In which case, I might as well memorize the whole thing.

No, I didn't analyze the harmonic structure of the music thoroughly - though I knew where the modulations etc were, and what key a particular passage was in (if the key wasn't constantly shifting). Most of the music I've memorized is fast and devoid of slow-moving harmony: I never bothered to memorize any Chopin nocturne, or any piece with lots of slow chords. It was more the patterns and shapes my hands adopted at various stages, e.g. in the chains of diminished arpeggios, and the shape of my hands in the ostinato figuration, in Ravel's Ondine. And that comes from repeating playing, which is why I was able to increase my memorized repertoire (including several of the Goldberg variations) six-fold since acquiring my own (digital) piano. Because I'm able to spend as much time learning and playing new pieces, or brushing up old ones, as I want to.

When you know a piece well, even if you still need to play from the music, all you're really doing is to remind yourself periodically where to start a particular group of notes in a passage, and the pattern of that passage (transmitting to the pattern of your hand/finger movement), not reading every note. Once you've memorized those key moments, you're already close to memorizing the whole thing.

BTW, in Bach, I sometimes memorize each hand by itself in key passages that I have difficulty remembering, though I don't actually leave the other hand (part) off while playing through.

Of course, I'm only playing for my own pleasure, and can pick and choose what I want to memorize. (For instance, I only enjoy playing some of the variations in the Goldberg - the ones that give me a certain tactile pleasure playing them -, and have no inclination to memorize the whole lot grin). If you don't particularly like a piece of music, it can be an uphill task.....

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#2110555 - 06/30/13 11:07 AM Re: Bach and the Art of Memorizing [Re: TwoSnowflakes]
boo1234 Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/06/09
Posts: 504
The only memorization technique that works for me is brute force repetition.

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#2110563 - 06/30/13 11:22 AM Re: Bach and the Art of Memorizing [Re: TwoSnowflakes]
TwoSnowflakes Online   blank
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 02/15/12
Posts: 1030
Over-analyze? Widdle ol' me? Heh. Well, I'm sure I'll trust my own instincts after a little while, but I always get my head around a complicated task by over-analyzing at first until I feel more comfortable with what I can dismiss and let it take care of itself.

The other thing is that sometimes it's hard for those who are more advanced to recognize that at one point something that is now one automatic thing was once a long series of individual deliberate tasks and in order for it to move from deliberate to automatic, you have to put the time in. And you have to put the time in right, or you're just treading water. So, I don't mind a little overthinking at the outset if it saves me from thrashing around unproductively until I hit on a process that works. Or at least limits that time to the bare minimum. I may not have the advantage of youth to learn quickly, but I do have the advantage of age, which has its own advantages in terms of how much focus and second order thinking you can bring to the table.

I spent most of my first piano life not having a good sense of purpose and direction and consequently was very inefficient at progressing. So I'm sure I'll be erring this time on the side of being overly analytical until I'm a little more secure that my instincts are reliable. I still find that I practice like I did as a child (i.e. favoring things already done well, sloppy fingering, and reinforcing errors by speeding up too soon) unless I very specifically use all my concentration not to.

So I'm pretty sure this endeavor is going to be pretty artificially deliberate, at least for the short term. I'm ok with that. smile

The brain is a funny, funny thing.
_________________________
Currently:
Bach, French Suites, No. 3 BWV 814
Brahms, Op. 118 No. 2 Intermezzo A major
Chopin, Mazurka Op. 67 No.4
With the pedal I love to meddle; When Paderewski comes this way... -Irving Berlin

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#2110580 - 06/30/13 12:04 PM Re: Bach and the Art of Memorizing [Re: TwoSnowflakes]
Steve Chandler Offline
2000 Post Club Member

Registered: 02/18/05
Posts: 2693
Loc: Urbandale, Iowa
To answer your question I took a look at the 2nd of the English Suites which is in a minor. It's mostly 2 parts with occasional bits in 3 parts. I would suggest a 2 part invention as entre into the world of Bach. There's one in a minor (like your English Suite), it's lucky #13 and a pretty well known one. It's also much shorter than the prelude to your suite. Good luck and enjoy!

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#2110587 - 06/30/13 12:14 PM Re: Bach and the Art of Memorizing [Re: TwoSnowflakes]
Scordatura Offline
Full Member

Registered: 04/23/12
Posts: 76
Loc: Suffolk, UK
Originally Posted By: TwoSnowflakes
Over-analyze? Widdle ol' me? Heh. Well, I'm sure I'll trust my own instincts after a little while, but I always get my head around a complicated task by over-analyzing at first until I feel more comfortable with what I can dismiss and let it take care of itself.

The other thing is that sometimes it's hard for those who are more advanced to recognize that at one point something that is now one automatic thing was once a long series of individual deliberate tasks and in order for it to move from deliberate to automatic, you have to put the time in. And you have to put the time in right, or you're just treading water. So, I don't mind a little overthinking at the outset if it saves me from thrashing around unproductively until I hit on a process that works. Or at least limits that time to the bare minimum. I may not have the advantage of youth to learn quickly, but I do have the advantage of age, which has its own advantages in terms of how much focus and second order thinking you can bring to the table.

I spent most of my first piano life not having a good sense of purpose and direction and consequently was very inefficient at progressing. So I'm sure I'll be erring this time on the side of being overly analytical until I'm a little more secure that my instincts are reliable. I still find that I practice like I did as a child (i.e. favoring things already done well, sloppy fingering, and reinforcing errors by speeding up too soon) unless I very specifically use all my concentration not to.

So I'm pretty sure this endeavor is going to be pretty artificially deliberate, at least for the short term. I'm ok with that. smile

The brain is a funny, funny thing.


+1

And one of the funniest things about the brain is its ability to generate ideas about how to go about things that thoroughly botch its naturally, innately, provided manner of accomplishing them! The manner in which we, as unknowing infants, manage, on the basis of trial-and-error learning alone and minimal instruction from supposedely wise authorities, master such staggeringly complex skills as standing upright, walking, vocalization, grammar, reading, writing ...

Memorization is a natural, built-in consequence of successfully conducted learning, not some ability supplementary to it. Find a way of uninhibitedly engaging the trial-and-error process - which allows us complete freedom to experiment with our own faculties and strengths - and memorization will ensue. At least, that's my experience, after years of struggling with memorizing difficulties.

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#2110633 - 06/30/13 01:56 PM Re: Bach and the Art of Memorizing [Re: Scordatura]
Ferdinand Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 04/23/07
Posts: 936
Loc: California
Originally Posted By: Scordatura

...
And one of the funniest things about the brain is its ability to generate ideas about how to go about things that thoroughly botch its naturally, innately, provided manner of accomplishing them! The manner in which we, as unknowing infants, manage, on the basis of trial-and-error learning alone and minimal instruction from supposedely wise authorities, master such staggeringly complex skills as standing upright, walking, vocalization, grammar, reading, writing ...
...

We humans do seem to have an innate ability to learn to stand, walk, and speak with correct grammar. But those of us who learn to read and write without extensive instruction are a small minority.
______________________________________________________________

TwoSnowflakes--It sounds like you have a good collection of methods at your disposal. A few more that you may not be considering:

In contrapuntal music, say with a three-voice texture, play the soprano voice while singing the bass. Then play the bass while singing the tenor...etc.

Study the score away from the piano. Try to hear the music mentally, perhaps just one voice at a time. Or imagine your hands on the keyboard, playing slowly.
Later, try this away from the piano without the score.

As for hands separate memorization--I would never memorize hands separately for an entire piece. But sometimes it helps to do this one phrase at a time.

Disclaimer: I am not an advanced player but my memory skills are pretty strong.

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#2110648 - 06/30/13 02:37 PM Re: Bach and the Art of Memorizing [Re: Ferdinand]
Scordatura Offline
Full Member

Registered: 04/23/12
Posts: 76
Loc: Suffolk, UK
Originally Posted By: Ferdinand
Originally Posted By: Scordatura

...
And one of the funniest things about the brain is its ability to generate ideas about how to go about things that thoroughly botch its naturally, innately, provided manner of accomplishing them! The manner in which we, as unknowing infants, manage, on the basis of trial-and-error learning alone and minimal instruction from supposedely wise authorities, master such staggeringly complex skills as standing upright, walking, vocalization, grammar, reading, writing ...
...

We humans do seem to have an innate ability to learn to stand, walk, and speak with correct grammar. But those of us who learn to read and write without extensive instruction are a small minority.


The extensive instruction we receive in these skills tends to be more about the desired results we should be aiming to achieve, and rather less in the form of exact, strict prescriptions as to how we must go about achieving them - which is a matter of doctrine. It's the introducing of doctrine that risks botching the ability to learn, since prescribing exactly how to achieve a result inevitably limits, and excludes our trying out of, our possible ways and means of achieving it.

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#2110655 - 06/30/13 02:54 PM Re: Bach and the Art of Memorizing [Re: TwoSnowflakes]
TwoSnowflakes Online   blank
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 02/15/12
Posts: 1030
I agree. Our brains are more or less gigantic pattern finders, and once we find one that works, we are good at repeating it. The problem is that often we end up learning and unlearning the same way to do something until we happen upon the best way. We can sort of...vault ourselves closer towards the goal if we start from further along in the process by starting with a method that we know others have found to be good ways to do it, too. Because the other thing our brains are good at is observing others and learning by abstraction. Can you imagine if every time a child learned how to do math, he or she would have to reinvent algebra by happening upon the theories behind it by trial and error? No, we certainly need to do a bit of wrestling with it ourselves, but we want to back TOO far up!

It may not be the best way for us, but it stands a better chance than simply stabbing at a task randomly.

And if I know anything about myself, I know what I don't know. And I know I don't really have a great bedrock of existing methods for efficient practicing. I got myself pretty far because I had good teachers, truly loved music, and I've always been quick to learn the basics of anything. But never really learned how to practice efficiently. Nobody really caught me for quite a few years because I made good progress anyway. That's great for a while, but after a certain level, your progress will grind to a halt when the next step is too complicated to achieve if you haven't learned something along the way about organization, efficiency, and routine. My mom was quite accomplished at violin and I think everybody mostly assumed that efficient practice, at least of the sort that got my mom where she had been was something that just...came naturally? I don't know. But she never really helped me learn efficient practice methods. She mostly yelled at me from the kitchen to practice, and if she heard a piano, she figured her job was done. And the truth is, it probably was. I mean, at some point you have to take responsibility for your own learning process and nobody can say I didn't have every advantage.

Anyway, I guess I just want to do this right. And unfortunately, the time has passed for me to be able to simply flail around until I find something that works. I have too much else to do, so I have to approach this in a slightly more organized fashion. I consider myself extremely lucky that the internet exists. Without it, I would not find a website filled with hundreds of other pianists prone to the same navel-gazing I am. wink
_________________________
Currently:
Bach, French Suites, No. 3 BWV 814
Brahms, Op. 118 No. 2 Intermezzo A major
Chopin, Mazurka Op. 67 No.4
With the pedal I love to meddle; When Paderewski comes this way... -Irving Berlin

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#2110659 - 06/30/13 03:00 PM Re: Bach and the Art of Memorizing [Re: Scordatura]
TwoSnowflakes Online   blank
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 02/15/12
Posts: 1030
Originally Posted By: Scordatura

The extensive instruction we receive in these skills tends to be more about the desired results we should be aiming to achieve, and rather less in the form of exact, strict prescriptions as to how we must go about achieving them - which is a matter of doctrine. It's the introducing of doctrine that risks botching the ability to learn, since prescribing exactly how to achieve a result inevitably limits, and excludes our trying out of, our possible ways and means of achieving it.


I think we're probably all saying the same thing. I mean, nobody would ever advocate rubber stamping one person's methods onto another. But the fact that this is a bad way to try to learn anything doesn't take away the fact that there are things we can glean from what works for somebody else.

I guess I was simply soliciting a few different things that work for others, thereby at least starting a few hops down the road than I would otherwise have to. The fact that I've never successfully memorized an entire piece probably means that it wouldn't be a TERRIBLE idea to do some investigating about what has worked for people who are successful at the task. And since none of you are my teacher, I can't ask you to give me the kind of personal pedagogical guidance a teacher would. I can only really just ask you to describe what you do, and take it from there.
_________________________
Currently:
Bach, French Suites, No. 3 BWV 814
Brahms, Op. 118 No. 2 Intermezzo A major
Chopin, Mazurka Op. 67 No.4
With the pedal I love to meddle; When Paderewski comes this way... -Irving Berlin

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#2110672 - 06/30/13 03:37 PM Re: Bach and the Art of Memorizing [Re: TwoSnowflakes]
bennevis Online   content
4000 Post Club Member

Registered: 10/14/10
Posts: 4818
Originally Posted By: TwoSnowflakes
The fact that I've never successfully memorized an entire piece....


Are you sure?

I think you can easily memorize the first Prelude from the WTC - in less than a week. (Maybe two weeks for the Fugue.) Just keep playing it repeatedly with the score in front of you. Then start looking away from the score to your hands a few seconds at a time, noting where you hands are positioned over the keyboard, which keys your fingers are playing, all the while concentrating on the music and the sound you're making. You can then even try looking over the top of the piano, not focusing on anything in particular, letting your fingers play on automatically, still listening intently, as if your fingers belong to someone else, but your hearing is controlling his finger movements.

Then go on from there....

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#2110683 - 06/30/13 03:58 PM Re: Bach and the Art of Memorizing [Re: bennevis]
TwoSnowflakes Online   blank
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 02/15/12
Posts: 1030
Originally Posted By: bennevis
Originally Posted By: TwoSnowflakes
The fact that I've never successfully memorized an entire piece....


Are you sure?

I think you can easily memorize the first Prelude from the WTC - in less than a week. (Maybe two weeks for the Fugue.) Just keep playing it repeatedly with the score in front of you. Then start looking away from the score to your hands a few seconds at a time, noting where you hands are positioned over the keyboard, which keys your fingers are playing, all the while concentrating on the music and the sound you're making. You can then even try looking over the top of the piano, not focusing on anything in particular, letting your fingers play on automatically, still listening intently, as if your fingers belong to someone else, but your hearing is controlling his finger movements.

Then go on from there....


Actually I probably COULD play that one from memory, if I tried. I certainly can play the whole thing in my head.

I have never really TRIED to memorize, is really what it comes down to. I always just...had the music in front of me. Take it away, and I mostly freeze, whether or not I could play it in a less panicked state of mind or not. I do know there are always plenty of passages that I never bothered getting down and those will trip me up and leave me floundering no matter what. So I guess the truth is that I never bothered memorizing because I never really perfected a piece to the point where memorization was necessary. I always was just in a permanent state of acquiring the piece until the next piece came along. Or, it could be the other way around: I never disengage from the music so where I'd be spending my focus truly fixing a passage that needs my full attention, I'm constantly giving my brain a reading task to do at the same time, with the consequence that I'm stuck in the mud in certain places.

So I guess what I want to do is make an effort to memorize along with the initial learning of the piece, so that I can disengage from the music while I tackle the technical aspects of it. I feel like the memorization will both free up the part of my brain that would otherwise be engaged in the executive task of reading, and also serve to make me learn it more organically, than constantly accessing it from external memory. Like the music is my brain's USB drive.

Anyway, I decided to memorize along with the initial learning of the c-sharp nocturne in my signature, and while it's not entirely memorized, the parts I have thus far memorized and then worked on mastering have gone WAY faster than my prior approach, which is reading along every time, like I'm seeing it new for the first time. I can watch my hands and the whole shape of the piece is far more firmly learned. The sound of it, the photographic map of the actual staff in my head that moves along as I play, coordinating with the spatial map on the keyboard now that I'm looking down--it's all integrated into one and just works SO much better.

However, that piece is pretty easy to memorize. First of all, it's short. Also, the cantabile element of it makes it sing in my head anyway. The Bach (the suites, that is) seems far more academic, and its complicated patterns intimidate me, but I guess nothing ventured nothing gained so time to take off the training wheels there! I think I will start with something slightly shorter, either the invention mentioned above, or something in WTC that is comparable in terms of moving voices and overlapping figures rather than some of the preludes like 1, 2, and..a few others I can't quite remember by number but aren't similar in structure to the suite I want to learn. Also, I have WTC with me, but do not have my inventions with me, and I have no access to a printer to print something out from IMSLP, so ideally I'd work from something I've already got.
_________________________
Currently:
Bach, French Suites, No. 3 BWV 814
Brahms, Op. 118 No. 2 Intermezzo A major
Chopin, Mazurka Op. 67 No.4
With the pedal I love to meddle; When Paderewski comes this way... -Irving Berlin

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#2110687 - 06/30/13 04:07 PM Re: Bach and the Art of Memorizing [Re: Steve Chandler]
TwoSnowflakes Online   blank
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 02/15/12
Posts: 1030
Originally Posted By: Steve Chandler
To answer your question I took a look at the 2nd of the English Suites which is in a minor. It's mostly 2 parts with occasional bits in 3 parts. I would suggest a 2 part invention as entre into the world of Bach. There's one in a minor (like your English Suite), it's lucky #13 and a pretty well known one. It's also much shorter than the prelude to your suite. Good luck and enjoy!


Thank you, this is a great help. The only thing that gives me pause is that I have WTC with me but not my inventions, and no printer to print something out from IMSLP. Do you easily know of something in WTC I that might it the bill before I commit to lucky number 13 and make the effort to either buy it locally or find a printer somewhere?
_________________________
Currently:
Bach, French Suites, No. 3 BWV 814
Brahms, Op. 118 No. 2 Intermezzo A major
Chopin, Mazurka Op. 67 No.4
With the pedal I love to meddle; When Paderewski comes this way... -Irving Berlin

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#2110705 - 06/30/13 04:44 PM Re: Bach and the Art of Memorizing [Re: TwoSnowflakes]
stores Offline
6000 Post Club Member

Registered: 12/28/09
Posts: 6646
Loc: Here, as opposed to there
Simply playing a piece over and over will lead one to eventually remember it, but it won't become a permanent resident for long. The mindless repetition doesn't help you when a snag occurs, whereas, if one breaks things down theoretically, cadentially, hands separately, slowly, sets themselves pick-up spots, etc., etc. then when that snag comes along you'll have a place to go. With Bach, I cannot stress hands separate, slow practice enough. Bach also uses recurring patterns which are a great help with memorisation. Be able to begin from any measure (pick-up spots). The English Suites, if you've no experience with Bach, are one heck of a place to start. They are no easy task, but then Bach isn't an easy task at all. I'm assuming you've some experience with his music or you wouldn't be attempting such advanced rep. If that's the case I wouldn't bother reading through inventions, or the WTC. If, also, you're at this point in your progress then memorisation/practise habits shouldn't be a thing in question.
_________________________

"And if we look at the works of J.S. Bach — a benevolent god to which all musicians should offer a prayer to defend themselves against mediocrity... -Debussy

"It's ok if you disagree with me. I can't force you to be right."

♪ ≠ $


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#2110710 - 06/30/13 04:48 PM Re: Bach and the Art of Memorizing [Re: TwoSnowflakes]
Scordatura Offline
Full Member

Registered: 04/23/12
Posts: 76
Loc: Suffolk, UK
Originally Posted By: TwoSnowflakes

2) How do YOU go about memorizing a new piece? I certainly know enough music theory to break a piece down, or at least understand someone explaining how it breaks down to me. I also know how important it is to come up with some kind of algorithm within the broad framework of a piece to structure its memorization, rather than just going note by note, (i.e. next four measures identical as last four, with X cluster of notes up a fifth in left hand second time 'round, or this figure now repeats 8 times, moving down a X interval/inverting/transposing each time).

So my guess is that I'm not without my own resources here, but I think I'm just interested to hear how more experienced people tend to approach about the task and how they get it mapped out and imprinted as they master a new piece.

I am thankfully not having first to struggle to understand music or build a map for it in my brain. The wiring is there, I guess. I just have to learn how to use it.


While you very possibly have the resources for structuring you need, the key to applying them successfully, IMO, is knowing in principle at what stage in the learning process they become feasibly applicable.

Personally I managed to overcome my difficulties with memorizing only once it dawned on me that, no matter how I saw the music or wanted to structure it, the brain has to respond to, become informed of, achieve control over and learn to retrieve on demand, each and every note presented. Any piece of music is a construction built up from individual successively presented constituents, and the brain has inevitably the same task as that of constructing a house, by assembling its bricks, individually, one by one. And the bricks must have integrity before they can be assembled.

So, basically, I nowadays no longer approach a new piece "top-down" by breaking it down, but by first acquainting myself with its individual notes before attempting to assemble them as successions (a "bottom-up" approach). Once I'm on that stage, meaningful, top-down structuring becomes feasible. The approach is thorough, systematic, efficient - and hugely time-saving, since it eliminates the need to discover just how much breaking down is needed before the notes prove effortlessly memorizable and physically under control.

Bottom-up working isn't typical of mainstream pedagogy, and in my experience most amateurs never even conceive its possibility. The brain has evolved to quickly structure the bit-by-bit information it receives into meaningful wholes, instantly recognizable patterns, configurations etc. since doing so is biologically advantageous for survival-related decision making. Accordingly we automatically hear music as structured sections, sentences, phrases, rhythmic patterns etc., and it can seem counter-intuitive to address pianistic requirements in any other way. Bottom-up working does strike many as counter-intuitive - though the most talented students I've taught seem to find it quite natural. At any rate, the approach is worth checking out before dismissing it.

If you do try it, PM me to let me know if it helps, please!

Richard

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#2110715 - 06/30/13 05:05 PM Re: Bach and the Art of Memorizing [Re: TwoSnowflakes]
BruceD Offline
Yikes! 10000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/26/01
Posts: 17829
Loc: Victoria, BC
Here's a "trick" to test your memory of a piece - one that you have already memorized.

- Play the first measure;
- play the second measure in your head without playing at the piano;
- play the third measure;
- play the fourth measure in your head, etc., etc.
All this should be done at a steady tempo, both slowly and at performance-level tempo, if you really know the piece.

That's one sure way to prove that you are not relying solely on finger memory. Moreover, you have to be pretty alert and concentrating to succeed doing this.

Regards,
_________________________
BruceD
- - - - -
Estonia 190

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#2110727 - 06/30/13 05:28 PM Re: Bach and the Art of Memorizing [Re: TwoSnowflakes]
Scordatura Offline
Full Member

Registered: 04/23/12
Posts: 76
Loc: Suffolk, UK
Originally Posted By: TwoSnowflakes


I have never really TRIED to memorize, is really what it comes down to. I always just...had the music in front of me. Take it away, and I mostly freeze, whether or not I could play it in a less panicked state of mind or not. I do know there are always plenty of passages that I never bothered getting down and those will trip me up and leave me floundering no matter what. So I guess the truth is that I never bothered memorizing because I never really perfected a piece to the point where memorization was necessary. I always was just in a permanent state of acquiring the piece until the next piece came along. Or, it could be the other way around: I never disengage from the music so where I'd be spending my focus truly fixing a passage that needs my full attention, I'm constantly giving my brain a reading task to do at the same time, with the consequence that I'm stuck in the mud in certain places.

So I guess what I want to do is make an effort to memorize along with the initial learning of the piece, so that I can disengage from the music while I tackle the technical aspects of it. I feel like the memorization will both free up the part of my brain that would otherwise be engaged in the executive task of reading, and also serve to make me learn it more organically, than constantly accessing it from external memory. Like the music is my brain's USB drive.


Spot on! That's the way.

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#2110738 - 06/30/13 05:43 PM Re: Bach and the Art of Memorizing [Re: TwoSnowflakes]
jazzyprof Offline
2000 Post Club Member

Registered: 11/30/04
Posts: 2621
Loc: Ann Arbor, MI
Originally Posted By: TwoSnowflakes
The only thing that gives me pause is that I have WTC with me but not my inventions, and no printer to print something out from IMSLP.

But why do you need a printer? You can just download the pdf files from IMSLP onto your Macbook Air, set the computer on your piano and get to work on the happy task of memorizing! You should work on small sections, maybe four measures a day if you are not used to memorizing music. The nice thing about reading on your laptop is that you can really blow things up so that a few measures fill up the whole screen. Makes it a lot easier to read and also forces you to focus on mastering those few measures instead of just reading through the whole piece.
_________________________
"Playing the piano is my greatest joy...period."......JP

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#2110743 - 06/30/13 05:50 PM Re: Bach and the Art of Memorizing [Re: BruceD]
gooddog Offline
4000 Post Club Member

Registered: 06/08/08
Posts: 4777
Loc: Seattle area, WA
Originally Posted By: BruceD
Here's a "trick" to test your memory of a piece - one that you have already memorized.

- Play the first measure;
- play the second measure in your head without playing at the piano;
- play the third measure;
- play the fourth measure in your head, etc., etc.
All this should be done at a steady tempo, both slowly and at performance-level tempo, if you really know the piece.

That's one sure way to prove that you are not relying solely on finger memory. Moreover, you have to be pretty alert and concentrating to succeed doing this.

Regards,

Excellent! An additional approach is to play the piece in chunks very slowly starting from the end. For example, play the last chunk, the 2nd to last chunk, etc.
_________________________
Best regards,

Deborah

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#2110775 - 06/30/13 06:26 PM Re: Bach and the Art of Memorizing [Re: TwoSnowflakes]
Scordatura Offline
Full Member

Registered: 04/23/12
Posts: 76
Loc: Suffolk, UK
Originally Posted By: TwoSnowflakes
Originally Posted By: Scordatura

The extensive instruction we receive in these skills tends to be more about the desired results we should be aiming to achieve, and rather less in the form of exact, strict prescriptions as to how we must go about achieving them - which is a matter of doctrine. It's the introducing of doctrine that risks botching the ability to learn, since prescribing exactly how to achieve a result inevitably limits, and excludes our trying out of, our possible ways and means of achieving it.


I think we're probably all saying the same thing. I mean, nobody would ever advocate rubber stamping one person's methods onto another. But the fact that this is a bad way to try to learn anything doesn't take away the fact that there are things we can glean from what works for somebody else.

I guess I was simply soliciting a few different things that work for others, thereby at least starting a few hops down the road than I would otherwise have to. The fact that I've never successfully memorized an entire piece probably means that it wouldn't be a TERRIBLE idea to do some investigating about what has worked for people who are successful at the task. And since none of you are my teacher, I can't ask you to give me the kind of personal pedagogical guidance a teacher would. I can only really just ask you to describe what you do, and take it from there.


To extract from the above:
Quote:
I mean, nobody would ever advocate rubber stamping one person's methods onto another. But the fact that this is a bad way to try to learn anything doesn't take away the fact that there are things we can glean from what works for somebody else.


I gotta say, your first sentence here amazed me. Historically, piano teaching has a truly appalling track record for dogmatic, authoritarian instruction. Take Clementi's coin-on-the-back-of-the-hand, and legion other instistings about "the only true, correct way" of holding the hand, using the fingers, playing with arm-participation. etc. - 80 + percent of them differing ways from each other, sometimes diametrically! All of these methods have had their advocates (disciples), forming schools founded on this or that doctrine.

As for your second, absolutely so. Godowsky insisted "the best method is eclectic". That method - unlike the authoritarian ones - isn't incompatible with natural, trial-and-error learning, nor does it remove the necessity of it for discovering what works best for oneself personally. Human civilization, of course, grew on the basis of learning from each other, as opposed to discovering everything for oneself unaided. But it advanced by discovering - by trial and error experimenting - what methods were erroneous and retaining those
that work reliably for the greatest variety of situations.

I can see you know all this inside-out, so keep on picking our brains!

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#2110791 - 06/30/13 06:58 PM Re: Bach and the Art of Memorizing [Re: TwoSnowflakes]
wower Offline
Full Member

Registered: 03/13/10
Posts: 242
Loc: Calgary
Ug. I saw this this morning with no replies, got busy at work, and now it has 19 responses making my initial thoughts kind of irrelevant now. In any case, I think you have a good constellation of tools to use. Especially BruceD's which I've heard echo'd else where before and would use myself if the opportunity ever arrose. What drives me nuts, or perhaps something I've always wondered about, is what quality it is that makes Bach so hard to memorize. I think it's because the patterns are so complex they blur into randomness.

And I don't think you were over-analyzing. Nor do I take it as a pejorative either. I was under the impression internet forums were made for questions. As someone that makes their living off analyzing, I think most of the pitfalls lay in mis-prioritizing. Getting that wrong can waste time and resources and is also off topic. Have a good day.
_________________________
Bad spellers of the world untie!

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#2110796 - 06/30/13 07:04 PM Re: Bach and the Art of Memorizing [Re: TwoSnowflakes]
PianoStudent88 Online   content
3000 Post Club Member

Registered: 06/16/11
Posts: 3153
Loc: Maine
BruceD gives a method of testing your memory, once a piece is memorized. But I don't see where he gives any tools to use to achieve that memorization to start with.
_________________________
Ebaug(maj7)

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#2110824 - 06/30/13 07:48 PM Re: Bach and the Art of Memorizing [Re: TwoSnowflakes]
TwoSnowflakes Online   blank
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 02/15/12
Posts: 1030
Quote:
The English Suites, if you've no experience with Bach, are one heck of a place to start. They are no easy task, but then Bach isn't an easy task at all. I'm assuming you've some experience with his music or you wouldn't be attempting such advanced rep. If that's the case I wouldn't bother reading through inventions, or the WTC. If, also, you're at this point in your progress then memorisation/practise habits shouldn't be a thing in question.


The problem is that I am both at once semi-advanced and basic. When I quit taking lessons, I had never made the jump to a very sophisticated, self-directed learner. I ultimately, of course, gained that skill, but it wasn't on the piano.

Fast forward 25 years and you're a teacher evaluating my level. You put various pieces in front of me right and like some kind of parlor trick, I can sight read quickly and the ability to just play is simply...there. I'm sure many of you who came back as adults can attest to the fact that when you learn to play as a child, you just have that in you.

But the next step is the doozy. I'm no longer at all finding it difficult to practice, but I'm almost as terribly inefficient at it as I was as a child. Well, it's not as bad as all that as I am not ACTUALLY a child anymore and certain elements of the way I practice now are quite different, but it's weird because as engrained as the general facility to play is--which is something I'm so glad I can simply rely on to be there so I am not facing the monumental task of being a true adult beginner--the flip side of the coin is that without consciously trying to override it, I practice automatically similarly, too, because clearly old habits die hard, whether those habits are good or bad. It's coming along. I'm really already a lot better at honing in on mistakes, recalibrating my sense of what's too fast of a speed for the level of technical achievement for a particular passage, and generally keeping a more sophisticated sense of what I'm trying to accomplish at any given time.

It's just that at the same time, certain things that OUGHT to be second-nature to me are not.

So, do I have experience with Bach, then? Well, in certain major respects, I guess I do. I checked my inventions book when I first got back to playing. I played every last one of them; there are dates at the bottom. And sure enough, they're all familiar to me. Several still sound pretty damn good as long as I pull the ripcord a few lines in. I can't play a single one through without mistakes, though. They were clearly never really mastered. My guess is I managed to play them mistake-free enough to have my teacher sign off on them, at which point the music seeped back out as fast as it went in.

I clearly was an unrepentant piano crammer, lol!

Boy, if this is not a cautionary tale for all those sloppy unfocused but semi-talented teenagers out there, I don't know what is. One day, ONE DAY, you will regret it. It may not be now. Even when you quit (which you will, once you aren't progressing because your practicing skills suck for anything but low-to-mid-intermediate repertoire with which you had, up until then, been able to dazzle your teachers with all that lovely "potential") you may not recognize the true cause then, but one day...you will.

*sigh*

Anyhoo. So I've got some Bach experience, at least on paper. Are the English Suites at my level? My teacher seems to thinks so. Is she right? Who knows. She put it in front of me and while I've never played them before I can play each hand separately no problem, and even mark my way through it with both hands in a way that probably inspires a lot of initial confidence and precludes her from thinking that perhaps Minuet in G is how we're going to get our Bach on. There are a lot of loose ends that, once woven together, she probably thinks make up a pretty good player and thinks we can do it through challenging pieces rather than lowest-common-demoninator pieces. I hope she's right. I'm slightly buoyed by the fact that it appears she's not a complete idiot--she recognized pretty damn fast I had wriggled out of ever drilling to automation those scales and arpeggios and set about fixing that within the first ten minutes of my first lesson. I think I'm the only person who was assigned in the first week a Chopin nocturne and...the c-major scale, and there was no way I was getting out of it. I mean, duh, I could play c-major. I knew the fingering. Yet did I execute that the same way, every time? Uh, she's the one that pointed out that while I knew the correct fingering if you asked, if you asked me to PLAY it I did little fingering switcheroos all through it without even realizing it, depending on whether the hands were together or separate, or the scale was going up or down.

Eep.

Frustrating, because I damn well know my circle of fifths. I know my melodic minor from my harmonic. But none of it was AUTOMATIC and thus nothing was consistent on execution. No wonder I could never do fast runs. This, to her, was an unacceptable state of affairs that required immediate correction, and she didn't care if my assignment for the week was an eclectic mix of the basic and the advanced.

So I got slapped with the first assignment of two octaves, c major, NO CREATIVE FINGERING. And she wasn't done there: cadences and inversions, chromatics (parallel, contrary), thirds, sixths, arpeggios and inversions of said arpeggios (parallel, contrary), chords, broken and together, three note and four note (parallel contrary.) We solid? Ok, good. Now same thing in the relative minor, natural, melodic and harmonic. Got it? Now, up a fifth. Lather, rinse, repeat. And jeez, I was sloppy. Without rigorously concentrating, my fingering wanted to wander all over the place, and that woman can see a fourth finger where a third finger should be with some unnervingly laser-like accuracy.. Well, that's fixed. I'm only on week six (and thus C, G, D and their relative minors) but for the first time, it's in there and it's useful and reliable. I can close my eyes and play two handed four octave arpeggios mistake-free, even contrary. That's a weird thing for me to be able to do with reliability. It was always my dirty little secret that I never had those things as well as it was assumed I would have had given my level. But now I can. So I am at least moderately confident that there's something in there that can be taught.

Anyway, point is ("wait, she has one," you ask?) I am kind of a bundle of weirdly mismatched levels and skills, which makes it not THAT surprising that I could at once be reasonably ready to play and yet still have some unnervingly basic things that aren't as automatic as one would assume they would be given the level of music being attempted. Fixing how I learned and played scales was pretty easy. No threshold memory hurdle, certainly. Just take no prisoners on the fingering and whatever starting speed that entails, so be it. Keep it loose and tension-free, play into the keys properly, and then jack up the speed while maintaining all of the above.

But I don't trust myself as far as I can throw myself to not paint myself into a corner on Bach at this level without some precautionary steps.
_________________________
Currently:
Bach, French Suites, No. 3 BWV 814
Brahms, Op. 118 No. 2 Intermezzo A major
Chopin, Mazurka Op. 67 No.4
With the pedal I love to meddle; When Paderewski comes this way... -Irving Berlin

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#2110826 - 06/30/13 07:57 PM Re: Bach and the Art of Memorizing [Re: jazzyprof]
TwoSnowflakes Online   blank
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 02/15/12
Posts: 1030
Originally Posted By: jazzyprof
Originally Posted By: TwoSnowflakes
The only thing that gives me pause is that I have WTC with me but not my inventions, and no printer to print something out from IMSLP.

But why do you need a printer? You can just download the pdf files from IMSLP onto your Macbook Air, set the computer on your piano and get to work on the happy task of memorizing! You should work on small sections, maybe four measures a day if you are not used to memorizing music. The nice thing about reading on your laptop is that you can really blow things up so that a few measures fill up the whole screen. Makes it a lot easier to read and also forces you to focus on mastering those few measures instead of just reading through the whole piece.


You make an excellent point.

As digital as I am for most everything else (I have not had a written calendar/dayplanner since the first Palm Pilot came out, and have used email to great effect since 1996 even when it was still unix command line), in law and in piano, I default to paper and I can't give you a good reason why.

In the interest of being open to change, I will try. I can't guarantee I won't instinctively poke my ever-present pencil into my LCD screen, though.
_________________________
Currently:
Bach, French Suites, No. 3 BWV 814
Brahms, Op. 118 No. 2 Intermezzo A major
Chopin, Mazurka Op. 67 No.4
With the pedal I love to meddle; When Paderewski comes this way... -Irving Berlin

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#2110831 - 06/30/13 08:14 PM Re: Bach and the Art of Memorizing [Re: TwoSnowflakes]
TwoSnowflakes Online   blank
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 02/15/12
Posts: 1030
Quote:
I gotta say, your first sentence here amazed me. Historically, piano teaching has a truly appalling track record for dogmatic, authoritarian instruction. Take Clementi's coin-on-the-back-of-the-hand, and legion other instistings about "the only true, correct way" of holding the hand, using the fingers, playing with arm-participation. etc. - 80 + percent of them differing ways from each other, sometimes diametrically! All of these methods have had their advocates (disciples), forming schools founded on this or that doctrine.


Well, I never said it wasn't attempted, only that nobody has ever REASONABLY said one person's technique can be rubber stamped onto another! smile I do, however, subscribe to the school of thought that says that until you know enough to choose differently from an informed point of view, get that rubber stamp ready.

My teacher is very...precise. Very Russian. There are ways of doing things. And there are ways of not doing things. But she's the first to also say that everything yields to practical reality. But some things she's not so easy-going on. There's no way to play that includes keeping your elbows locked to your sides like you're holding onto two newspapers for dear life. Why was I doing that? I'm sure I didn't always do that. So I got a lot of fingers lifting the elbow. And while I may not always rotate my elbow in such a formulaic way as I come down an arpeggio, it's not a bad place to start until I have a more intrinsically natural method of my own. But in the end, she's listening to the sound, and as long as her way results in a better sound than my way, it's her way or the highway. When she wants to hear pieces I'm putting the finishing touches on, she actually sits on the other side of the piano, just to listen without seeing anything.
_________________________
Currently:
Bach, French Suites, No. 3 BWV 814
Brahms, Op. 118 No. 2 Intermezzo A major
Chopin, Mazurka Op. 67 No.4
With the pedal I love to meddle; When Paderewski comes this way... -Irving Berlin

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#2110895 - 06/30/13 11:19 PM Re: Bach and the Art of Memorizing [Re: TwoSnowflakes]
PianoStudent88 Online   content
3000 Post Club Member

Registered: 06/16/11
Posts: 3153
Loc: Maine
TwoSnowflakes, you might find some ideas from the following:
Martha Beth Lewis
Cerebroom
Bernhard at Pianostreet

Could you practice learning to memorize by starting with something simpler than the English Suites? Of course it might be that nothing less than that complexity is enough to challenge your memorization ability, and/or memorizing Bach at that level is different in kind than memorizing simpler things.

You mentioned in the OP having difficulty looking at your hands; that's an example of a discrete skill where perhaps you could increase your ability by starting simple.
_________________________
Ebaug(maj7)

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#2110949 - 07/01/13 02:02 AM Re: Bach and the Art of Memorizing [Re: PianoStudent88]
wower Offline
Full Member

Registered: 03/13/10
Posts: 242
Loc: Calgary
Originally Posted By: PianoStudent88
BruceD gives a method of testing your memory, once a piece is memorized. But I don't see where he gives any tools to use to achieve that memorization to start with.


BD can probably answer better for himself but his statement immediately resonated with me. Your post seems to infer the goal is only to get good at one exercise which is far far too narrow to what I have in mind. I imagine most posters on PW would hope to rock out a live performance. Such discussions become easier with a broader knowledge in the science of memory, from mnemonics to neuroscience, but I understood BD to be proposing the development of tools which facilitate a deeper knowledge of a piece (and it's one of the harder skills to gain IMO). I would hazard to guess when one later sits on a bench in front of an audience they will be happy to have had the experience and practice.
_________________________
Bad spellers of the world untie!

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#2111057 - 07/01/13 09:04 AM Re: Bach and the Art of Memorizing [Re: TwoSnowflakes]
PianoStudent88 Online   content
3000 Post Club Member

Registered: 06/16/11
Posts: 3153
Loc: Maine
I'm not saying BruceD's suggestions were not useful; to the contrary, they seem very useful. It just doesn't seem to me as if "play a measure from memory, leave the next measure silent, play the next measure from memory" is the place to start with memorizing a piece. But given that most suggestions on this thread are to memorize simply by playing a piece over and over, perhaps that is the full set of instructions: play the piece a lot, then start testing yourself with the alternate measures.

I don't understand why you say I seem to infer that the goal is only to get good at one exercise. That isn't what I'm trying to say at all. I agree with you that the goal is to give a good performance. What I'm wondering about is how to get there.
_________________________
Ebaug(maj7)

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#2111092 - 07/01/13 10:12 AM Re: Bach and the Art of Memorizing [Re: PianoStudent88]
bennevis Online   content
4000 Post Club Member

Registered: 10/14/10
Posts: 4818
Originally Posted By: PianoStudent88
But given that most suggestions on this thread are to memorize simply by playing a piece over and over, perhaps that is the full set of instructions: play the piece a lot, then start testing yourself with the alternate measures.



Repetition is the key to learning anything - including memorization. Any fancy technique that may short-cut the process - if they work - is fine. But in the end, a lot is based on muscle memory. That's why pianists can think of what they're going to have for supper while playing Chopin beautifully at the same time (yes, many concert pianists admit to day-dreaming while playing - even in concert grin - without the audience noticing any different).

I can still remember my multiplication tables (up to 12 x 12) from when I learnt (i.e. memorized) them as a kid - by chanting aloud in class. Yes, we were taught the principles and all that, and I believe children in 'progressive' schools these days are taught fancy methods involving drawing shapes - but in the end, learning by rote imprints things into your long-term memory, which more complicated methods like learning the harmonic progression of the whole piece, or individual contrapuntal lines, apart from taking far longer, is less amenable to getting into your long-term memory.

I memorized Mozart's K545 first movement when I was a kid - simply by playing it again and again, because it was so enjoyable...and eventually I found I didn't need the music to play from any more. There was a gap of about 15 years when I barely touched the piano (or any keyboard) - then, when I came upon an upright (on a ferry ship), I sat down....and played that piece right through without any memory lapse. OK, the runs were uneven - I was really rusty - but all the notes were there.

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#2111134 - 07/01/13 11:32 AM Re: Bach and the Art of Memorizing [Re: bennevis]
wower Offline
Full Member

Registered: 03/13/10
Posts: 242
Loc: Calgary
Originally Posted By: PianoStudent88
I don't understand why you say I seem to infer that the goal is only to get good at one exercise. That isn't what I'm trying to say at all. I agree with you that the goal is to give a good performance. What I'm wondering about is how to get there.


Because it seemed to me you took the exercise as the goal instead of a step (to good performance). The old adage of not seeing the forest through the trees seems apt.

Originally Posted By: bennevis
Any fancy technique that may short-cut the process - if they work - is fine.


I'm a great proponent of using mnemonics. And I don't think there is anything fancy about them because they exactly leverage how the human brain naturally works. I was as shocked as anyone to learn it's a completely valid - even useful - short-cut. There is a caveat to this, however, which at the higher competitive levels mnemonics can become extremely rigorous and convoluted. (But there is not enough time in the day for me to learn and refine a memory system to narrowly remember massively long digit strings.)
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