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Tips on How to Memorize Piano Music

Tips on How to Memorize Piano Music

Tips on How to Memorize Piano Music

by | Learning Piano, Memorization | 0 comments

At the present stage of pianistic development, an artist does not venture to come before the public and “use his notes.” No artist who values his reputation would attempt it. Everything must be performed from memory—solos, concertos, even accompaniments. The pianist must know every note of the music he performs. The star accompanist aspires to the same mastery when he plays for a famous singer or instrumentalist. We also have the artist conductor, with opera, symphony or concerto at his finger-tips. Hans von Bülow, who claimed that a pianist should have more than two hundred compositions in his repertoire, was himself equally at home in orchestral music. He always conducted his Meiningen Orchestra without notes.

Let us say, then, that the present-day pianist ought to have about two hundred compositions in his repertoire, all of which must be played without notes. The mere fact of committing to memory such a quantity of pages is no small item in the pianist’s equipment. The problem is to discover the best means of memorizing music quickly and surely. Here again we are privileged to inquire of the artist and of the artist teacher. His knowledge and experience will be practical, for he has evolved it and proved it over and over again.

It is a well-known fact that Leschetizky advises memorizing away from the instrument. This method at once shuts the door on all useless and thoughtless repetition employed by so many piano students, who repeat a passage endlessly, to avoid thinking it out. Then they wonder why they cannot commit to memory! The Viennese master suggests that a short passage of two or four measures be learned with each hand alone, then tried on the piano. If not yet quite fixed in consciousness the effort should be repeated, after which it may be possible to go through the passage without an error. The work then proceeds in the same manner throughout the composition.


A player who gives five or six hours daily to study, and who has learned how to memorize, should be able to commit one page of music each day. This course, systematically pursued, would result in the thorough assimilation of at least fifty compositions in one year. This is really a conservative estimate, though at first glance it may seem rather large. If we cut the figure in half, out of consideration for the accumulative difficulties of the music, there will still remain twenty-five pieces, enough for two programs and a very respectable showing for a year’s study.

It may be that Leschetizky’s principle of memorizing will not appeal to every one. The player may find another path to the goal, one more suited to his peculiar temperament. Or, if he has not yet discovered the right path, let him try different ways till he hits upon one which will do the work in the shortest and most thorough manner. All masters agree that analysis and concentration are the prime factors in the process of committing music to memory.

Michael von Zadora, pianist and teacher, said to me recently: “Suppose you have a difficult passage to learn by heart. The ordinary method of committing to memory is to play the passage over and over, till the fingers grow accustomed to its intervals. That is not my manner of teaching. The only way to master that passage is to analyze it thoroughly, know just what the notes are, the sequences of notes, if you will, their position on the keyboard, the fingering, the positions the hands must take to play these notes, so that you know just where the fingers have to go before you put them on the keys. When you thus thoroughly understand the passage or piece, have thought about it, lived with it, so that it is in the blood, we might say, the fingers can play it. There will be no difficulty about it and no need for senseless repetitions.”


Most of the artists agree that memorizing must be done phrase by phrase, after the composition has been thoroughly analyzed as to keys, chords, and construction. This is Katharine Goodson’s way, and also Eleanor Spencer’s and Ethel Leginska’s, three of Leschetizky’s pupils now before the public. “I really know the composition so thoroughly that I can play it in another key just as well as the one in which it is written, though I do not always memorize it each hand alone,” says Miss Goodson. “I first play the composition over a few times to become somewhat familiar with its form and shape,” says Eleanor Spencer, “then I begin to analyze and study it, committing it by phrases, or ideas, one or two measures at a time. I do not always take the hands alone, unless the passage is very intricate, for sometimes it is easier to learn both hands together.” Germaine Schnitzer avers that she keeps at a difficult passage until she really knows it perfectly, no matter how long it takes. “What is the use of going on,” she says, “until you are absolutely sure of the work in hand.”

It is plain from the opinions already cited and from many I have heard expressed that the artists waste no time over useless repetitions. They fully realize that a piece is not assimilated nor learned until it is memorized. When they have selected the composition they wish to learn, they begin at once to memorize from the start. The student does not always bring to his work this definiteness of aim; if he did, much precious time would be saved. The ability to memorize ideas expressed in notes grows with use, just as any other aptitude grows with continued effort.

Instead, then, of playing with a piece, why do you not at once begin to make it your own? Look at the phrases so intently that they become as it were, photographed on your mind. Ruskin said: “Get the habit of looking intently at words.” We might say the same of notes. Look at the phrase with the conviction that it can be remembered after a glance or two. It is only an indication of indolence and mental inertness to look continually at the printed page or passage and keep on playing it over and over, without trying to fix it indelibly in the mind.

In my work as teacher I constantly meet students, and teachers too, who do little or no memorizing. Some do not even approve of it, though it is difficult to conceive how any one in his right mind can disapprove knowing a thing thoroughly. The only way to know it thoroughly is to know it by heart.


A repertoire once committed must be constantly kept in repair. The public player, in his seasons of study, generally has a regular system of repetition, so that all compositions can be gone over at least once a week. One artist suggests that the week be started with the classics and concluded with modern compositions and concerted numbers. Thus each day will have its allotted task. The pieces are not merely to be played over, but really overhauled, and all weak places treated to a dose of slow, careful practise, using the printed pages. Artists on tour, where consecutive practise is difficult or unattainable, always carry the printed notes of their repertoire with them, and are ceaselessly studying, repairing, polishing their phrases, thinking out their effects.

To those who wish to become pianists, I would say: “Keep your memory active through constant use. Be always learning by heart; do it systematically, a little at a time. So it will be daily progress. So your repertoire is built!”

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