It was a typical teaching day for me. Afternoon students were rolling in, playing their recital pieces and getting my feedback. As usual, I was sipping on my tea, relishing my job.
In came Samantha. She was musical, liked to perform, and was eager to show me what she had accomplished during the week. She began playing her recital piece but immediately started fumbling notes. She glanced up at me with surprise and frustration; I waved her on with my hand, not wanting to verbally interrupt. She continued, but with more mistakes. Her memory, it seemed, was faltering.
“I promise,” she said, “I had this perfectly memorized this week. I don’t know why this is happening to me.” A familiar line to me and to countless other piano teachers.
Samantha, like all my students, had been taught solid techniques for memorizing. We stressed the aural, visual, kinesthetic, and conceptual aspects of memory. We drilled in sections. She practiced silently in her mind during down time. Even so, Samantha’s memory had to grow on its own natural timetable. I reassured her that all would be fine. She just needed to give her memory time to congeal. She looked at me with a slight smile, surprised that I would take her so easily at her word. Samantha's memory, like that of so many others, had not yet advanced to the next stage.
So, how many stages of memory are there? I am not sure, actually. There may be quite a few, and there are definitely multiple types of memory. Plus, techniques for locking down music in the brain are innumerable. For practical piano teaching purposes, I have boiled memory down to three stages. It should be noted that dedicated time and practice are needed to achieve each stage!
1. AT HOME
In this stage, students can play their piece at home by memory, but no where else. This was where Samantha was at in her memory process. While at home, in a comfortable setting, on a piano she knew, her memory was just fine. Plus, I would guess that she practiced long and hard with the score every day before attempting memory. The ability to freshly recall the notes after a robust practice session is akin to being able to recall facts learned in history class, moments after studying written notes.
2. THE TEACHER’S STUDIO
In stage two, the student’s memory is secure enough to hold solid in the first run-through at the lesson. As a general rule, I let my students play through their entire piece without interruption before offering comments. Essentially, this is a performance. Playing well by memory at the studio is a challenge for students who are predominantly kinesthetic. The sudden change in the feel of the keys from the home instrument is enough to cause memory problems. I sympathize with kinesthetic students because that’s how I am wired. Also distracting is that a teacher is sitting nearby, analyzing everything, ready to add a “constructive” comment or two. Or three…
The final stage is appropriate for the stage — the concert stage, that is. Here, the music must be played well on any piano, in front of any audience. Playing by memory in the studio (stage two) still has a comfort level that does not completely challenge the memory because the piano and audience are somewhat familiar. I remember concert pianist Sam Rotman in lecture once stating that he wouldn’t perform a newly learned piece in public until he had played it around 50 times for intimate audiences of family and friends. My students don’t rack up dozens of performances before a recital, but they certainly get a few with their inner circles. Neighbors, friends, family, and even church acquaintances can provide the perfect audience to help students hone their memory. These friendly ears won’t criticize (no one should do that anyway), and students can go home and work extra hard on passages that didn’t go as planned.
If memory isn't happening as quickly as you would like, be patient with the three stages. Most of all, work hard, and over time it will pay off...in its own time.
Do any of you have memory tips? I would love to hear from you in the comments!
Adam & Anna Bendorf are piano teachers in Santa Clarita, CA. Santa Clarita’s city council gave the city the official slogan, “Awesometown.” That slogan is on web sites, hats, and advertisements. It’s even plastered on city buses. So, if you feel that your city isn’t very awesome, move to Awesometown. And drop in for a piano lesson if you want.