‘My piece is in…F? G? Er, I don’t know!’

My current preoccupation with memory has not only had a profound effect on my own playing, but just as significantly, on my teaching too.

Let’s suppose that a pupil is learning the melody line of a piece. The first objective would generally be to practise this line until it is fluent. But once they can do this, it is perhaps worth asking how much have they learned? Well, they’ve learned to process the notes so that they can read (accurately and in real time) what comes next, so that there are no mistakes and the melody flows. They might also have included accurate dynamics and phrasing, which will capture the necessary rise and fall of the line so that the composer’s wishes are fulfilled. Job done. Really?!

Now take the music away. Can the student remember which note the melody started on? No? So let’s ask the same question again – how much have they actually learned? I’d argue very little, if anything; they haven’t learned anything about the music – all they have been doing is reading it, but nothing has been retained, internalised, remembered. They haven’t learned the music at all, just how to play it; and these two things are very different indeed!

If they can remember the first note, how much more follows that? Not much, or a surprising amount? And do they know how they are remembering it? Is it because the melody rises in a scale, or maybe an arpeggio? If so, what key does that scale or arpeggio belong to? Can they tap the pulse?  Does a particular finger pattern help them to remember the next bit, or maybe, for pianists, the pattern is of all white notes except for the final one which is black? Perhaps their muscle memory fails them, but they can pick out the rest of the melody by ear? All of these are potential triggers to help the memory, but they also ensure that the student is constantly analysing what is going on, possibly from multiple angles. If this isn’t developing an enquiring mind, nothing is!

I am not suggesting for a moment that a weak pupil, or even a talented one for that matter, should be told that she should instantly be able to memorise a whole piece, with no help, all in one go, by analysing numerous, complex elements of music which they might barely be aware of. What I am suggesting, however, is that by introducing a little memory work into our lessons, we can ensure that our pupils are investigating for themselves how the music works. Over time, they will begin to develop an understanding of phrase structure, chords, sequences, as well as improving their aural and analytical skills – in fact, there is a pretty endless list of things, all of which will enhance their musicianship. That’s much better than just learning to play the notes with little idea of what is actually going on.

In terms of teaching time, I don’t find that asking a question takes any longer than giving an answer; ‘What dynamic does the music change to in bar 5?’ (said whilst swiftly covering up that bar) takes no longer than ‘Remember to play forte in bar 5′, but the difference is that the former requires the student to think, and thinking is good!


for further reading (!), follow this link to The 5Es for outstanding instrumental teaching

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