Category Archives: memory

When reading isn’t enough – developing inner hearing

You would imagine that having a piano pupil who can sight-read well makes teaching them a real joy. Well, yes it does in some ways, but in others it can be quite challenging. Here is Plato on the subject:

If men learn to write, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.

As our pupils progress, it’s a fact that some of the learning methods which they have used very successfully in the past can cease to be as effective as they once were. However good their reading is, there comes a point when it’s not enough, and we need to bring other things into play as well.

I posted an article recently on teaching a Bach Two-part Invention. Despite my pupil being quick to see how the music is put together, the reality is that playing a piece like this hands together presents some very real problems. Looking at the music vertically, there is a lot of information to take in, and I mean a lot. Too much even. The solution? Don’t read.

fmriSince the advent of FMRI scanning scientists have been able to observe brain activity in considerable detail. Interestingly, if you monitor the areas of the brain which are in use when a musician plays his instrument, the scans look almost identical to those done when the same musician imagines playing their instrument. Wow! I believe that this little bit of information adds weight to how I would approach putting the A minor Invention hands together.

In short, play the right hand and sing the left hand! Singing badly is fine – just the rhythm and the general melodic shape. It’s an engaging task for the pupil, and although it is easier than diving in hands together, it is by no means straightforward. But once they can perform a few bars or so in this way [and the other way up too] the benefits are clear: the left hand part is being run from a different system – not just reading, but something internal (or to go back to Plato, something “from within themselves.” And now, when we play the left hand, it is not just reading which is going on – it’s running directly from something internal as well, reducing the cognitive strain which would be present from reading two lines simultaneously.

The ideal is that eventually everything is internalised, and that reference to the dots on the page becomes less and less necessary. So why is that so many of our pupils still have the notes on the stand weeks or even months into learning a piece of music? Teaching in this way develops so many aspects of musicianship – co-ordination, aural skills, memory, inner hearing, the lot – and it’s so important that we are doing all that we can to empower our pupils to think for themselves. And, ironically, it also improves their sight-reading!


How we learn

Not so long ago I read a fascinating book called How we learn, written by Benedict Carey, a reported for the NYT.

Our brains take in a huge amount of information – that’s not news to me. But what really caught my interest here is this: it’s not just about what we can store and recall, but also about what we need to forget. This is not the place to go into the complexities of the different areas of the brain and their functions, but suffice to say, we filter everything (subconsciously and pretty well instantly) and this information is stored in different ways, dependant on how useful it is. And in general, random stuff – stuff which doesn’t appear to relate to anything else – is pretty quickly sifted out. [It is in fact stored as well, but retrieval can be hard because it is seen as uneccesary so it’s put somewhere at the back I guess!] There is so much that we need to have access to that it would be impossible if our brains had everything immediately to hand, so actually it’s vital that these filters work well.

In the 1880s, Hermann Ebbinghaus developed a series of more than 2300 three-letter nonsense syllables, such as RUR, HAL, MEK, BES, SOK, DUS. And then spent months learning lists of up to thirty-six of them! He then tested his memory of them at specific time periods – 20 minutes, 1 hour, 2 hours, 48 hours etc. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as time passed, his recall was less and less successful, and after 12 days he could remember little more than 25%. [I can vouch for this with my own experience of learning digits of Pi!]

luriaIn the 1920s, the Russian neuropsycologist Alexander Luria began a series of experiments on Solomon Shereshevsky, who had a seemingly endless memory. Once he had studied a chart like the one here for about 3 minutes, he could recall it – reading up, down, backwards – not just for a few days, but for years! Shereshevsky was a synesthete, and for him numbers, letters and words were tinted with associations of colour, taste, shape etc which enhanced his recall.  He might have had an amazing memory, but because his ‘memory filters’ were effectively switched off, he found day to day life very difficult because he found it impossible to sift out the constant conflict of associations attached to just about everything.

Aside from the fact that learning lists like these would appear to be pretty pointless, I suspect that most of us would look at both of these scenarios and think it unlikely that we could remember them – the main reason being, of course, that they are totally random.

Contrast this then with work done by Philip Ballard in the early 1900s, who conducted experiments on memorising Longfellow’s The Wreck of the Hesperus.

At daybreak, on the bleak sea-beach,
A fisherman stood aghast,
To see the form of a maiden fair,
Lashed close to a drifting mast.

In short, unlike with Ebbinghaus’ random syllables, he found that people’s recall actually improved at successive intervals; there is so much here of imagery and story that the brain recognises it as useful and so it is not assigned immediately to the trash!

So where is the musical application is this?

Whether notated music is written for a single line, or in the case of pianists and others, several notes simultaneously, in one respect it can be seen simply as a series of events.


On these three lines there are 110 note events. My question is this: How random are they? The answer is, undoubtedly, that these notes aren’t at all random, quite the opposite. To a young musician, however, learning a new piece of music, it is often the case that they don’t yet have the experience to place a new piece of music in context, and therefore much of what is before them might well appear, to them, to be random.  Rather like the list of numbers above. Wow, imagine how horrible that would be: to go to a maths lesson and wade through all of those random numbers, in the knowledge that you are to be quizzed on them the following week… No thank you!

Somehow we need to be sure that we help our pupils to access the imagery, the story [theory maybe?] or whatever else they might need to help them to make sense of the notes in the piece of music which they are learning. Otherwise, perhaps it’s no wonder that, although we think we’ve spent time teaching them a piece, we sometimes find ourselves frustrated that they don’t seem to have taken anything in…..



Diploma – so what have I learned?

Several weeks have now passed since I took the dipABRSM diploma in Piano Performance. Results are not published until early in September*, and although I am of course eager to know how I fared, there is no doubt that I have learned a huge amount from this enterprise regardless of what the examiners say! Since it was undertaken largely as a professional development exercise, herewith some thoughts on what I have gained from the experience.

Before that, a little professional context lest I do myself some injustice. As an organist I won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London, and whilst there I won all the major prizes for organ playing, as well as obtaining an MMus in Performance Studies and the ARCM and ARCO diplomas. I am highly trained, and know how to give a first class performance. So my objective here was not to see whether I can pass a piano playing diploma, but rather to see whether I can give a 35 minute piano recital, under pressure, from memory.

I can. The principle thing which I have learned is that, given the right mind set, it is possible to achieve things which might otherwise seem well out of reach. If I’m honest I knew this already – but what I have realised is that this is a fundamental problem for some learners, and that many simply can’t get past I can’t. This is something which I hear all the time in the course of my teaching, and although I do my best to be sympathetic I’m afraid I don’t have much time for it! Arguably that’s what teaching is about – turning I can’t into I can – but the student also has to have the courage to set a new course. And it does take courage. And it can take time, and will often require a great deal of hard work and effort, and I mean a great deal.

I have lost count of the number of times that a pupil has told me, for instance, that they can’t sing the melody of their piano piece, but on realising that I am not going to give up asking they have eventually taken courage and gone on to sing it back perfectly! The I can’t here is just an excuse and not to be taken seriously – more like I won’t or I’m worried I’m going to fail so I’m not going to try. More often than not, from my perspective, the hard facts say that there is no reason at all why it shouldn’t be possible, which is why I tend to take on the dreaded I can’t rather than allowing my pupils to succumb to it. The best learners are those who take on their I can’ts and work out how to overcome them.

I’m not going to pretend that this diploma has not been a big deal for me, and the target which I set myself has not been an easy one to meet. With the music, the diploma exam would have been extremely straightforward, and for me, pretty pointless actually. Without the music, a new set of skills required and a great deal of work has gone into turning a dream into a reality; and having come through the other side I can now enjoy all sorts of new opportunities which were closed to me before. In fact, I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that this experience has transformed me as a musician.

But if there is just one thing which I will take away from this venture – apart from the extraordinary change in my own playing as a result of the freedom which memory allows – it is a renewed desire to ensure that my teaching is challenging. Not to be unreasonably demanding, but to ensure that our musicians are encouraged and taught how to make demands of themselves, to fight through a few I can’ts and realise that they can achieve amazing things if they have the right mind set.

[*Passed with distinction!]

Diploma progress

In January I stated my intention (see Fantasy Piano Recital) to prepare for an ABRSM diploma, and the five months since then has been the most amazing journey of discovery for me. Not all of it good, it has to be said, but a learning experience which has been hugely worthwhile. Some random observations…

My family have more or less banned me from practising at home, and my 11 year old son can sing my entire 35 minute recital note-perfect from beginning to end! I have always loved practising, and it is fair to say that this project has brought out some of my more obsessional qualities! However, I don’t think it’s all bad news; as a father, I guess I have been modelling commitment and perseverance to my four sons, and indeed in the last week my eldest (aged 17) has decided that he wants to apply to the Royal College of Music next year! And so the cycle continues….!

Apart from the Stravinsky, which I wrestled with largely unsuccessfully as a teenager, all of this repertoire was new to me in January, and I set out with the intention of integrating the memory aspect from the very beginning. In other words, rather than learning the notes and then working out how to memorise them, I deliberately set out to commit short passages to memory from the outset. The result has been that over the past few months I have spent more and more time practising with no music in front of me at all, to the extent that it has become entirely normal not to have it there.

Some parts of the repertoire have been much more difficult to memorise than others. The Schubert, for instance, is physically very ‘samey’ throughout, and the obscure key does not help – looking down, my eyes say B major, but the score says C flat major! And in the slow movement of the Beethoven it has been equally difficult to remember the subtle differences between very similar sections. On the other hand, some of the more technical passages (sequences in Bach and scales and arpeggios in Beethoven and Fauré) have been surprisingly easy to memorise, especially once the basic harmonic plan of the section has been established. The Stravinsky is so physical that actually the muscle memory seems to remain the most reliable method.

Whatever the methods, over the course of the past few weeks the entire programme has fallen into place, in as much as I have been able to play from beginning to end with increasing confidence, and certainly with no need to look at the scores. If anything, I have needed to make a concerted effort to open the music to check details of dynamics and phrasing as it has been months now since I have even looked at the dots!


The freedom gained has been truly wonderful. I have spent a great deal of time with our Model B Steinway in the David Bowerman Hall, and whereas in the past I have been content to sit at a closed piano and play the notes in front of me, I now open the lid and even remove the music desk so that I can hear the instrument more clearly; I listen more carefully. And now that the eyes are free, there are so many things to look at, to concentrate on. Fingers, fingers reflected in the fallboard, hammers hitting the strings, beautiful aesthetics of a fine concert hall, or nothing at all – eyes closed. I’ve experimented with them all, and the different focus which each one brings has been such an enjoyable experience.

Being without music has certainly sharpened my senses. Physically, I am now much more at liberty to see what I am doing with my fingers; watching the weight of the right hand little finger in the Schubert Impromptu makes such a difference to my focus. But this in nothing compared with how much the ear is switched on to sound!

So with less than a month to go, I took the plunge on Tuesday evening and performed to a real audience, my first solo piano recital in 26 years! I am an extremely experienced performer as organist, piano accompanist and conductor, but the single element under scrutiny here was whether my memory could cope with the additional strain of nerves. Getting fired up and excited about playing in a match can be hugely beneficial, but it is perhaps less helpful when you need to retain a vast amount of highly refined detail for a sustained period! The outcome – I really didn’t enjoy one moment of it, since I spent the whole time thinking “Don’t forget it, you’re going to forget it” and barely any making music. A schoolboy error? Yes!!

Not all is lost though, quite the opposite in fact. I think it was a necessary experience, and apart from anything else it has realigned my focus significantly. For although my own self-imposed target (not required for the exam) is to play from memory, the exam itself is neither a piano diploma nor a memory diploma – it is a performance diploma. Time to stop stressing about the memory and move on and up to the next level.

The other outcome is that this was a brilliant learning experience, not only for me but also for my willing audience, made up for members of the choral society and a few school colleagues and pupils. As a teacher, I think it is vitally important that they should see that I am still learning, and moreover that I am not afraid to show them that learning is not always easy. As ever, although the exam day looms larger and I want to do the very best that I can on the day, the process has been transformational, and will bear fruit long after the outcome (pass or fail?!) has faded.

Fantasy Piano Recital

As a piano student, I was never taught to memorise music – in my ignorance, I think I just assumed that it was something which you could either do or you couldn’t, and since I couldn’t, I didn’t. I suspect that I was also guilty of going to piano recitals  and singularly failing to observe what I now believe to be an extraordinary feat, that of memorising a whole recital programme with apparent ease. This, coupled with the equally extraordinary technical and musical mastery which the world’s finest pianists also command, makes me wonder whether the sharing out of gifts sometimes seems a little unfair!

With this in mind, a recent article in The New York Times, which suggests that playing with the score is more acceptable these days, couldn’t have come at a worse time for me! For me, being a real pianist means all of the above, and having just discovered (okay, perhaps a little late in life!) that actually I can memorise, I don’t need to hear just now that maybe it’s not so important after all.

Learning to memorise is difficult, and requires a methodical approach with reference to the technical, aural, harmonic and visual, to name just a few of the many strands which come together to form a system which is utterly reliable. Plus determination, self-belief, perseverance, time and a great deal of hard work. I am not for a moment suggesting that pianists who play with the music are not able to convey great musicianship; it’s just that I am looking for that artistic freedom which comes from knowing the score completely. And if it proves difficult? I’ll find a way, but can’t is not an option for me. [link here to an excellent blog by Mel Spanswick on the same subject.]

In order to force my own arm on the issue, I have set myself the challenge of preparing for an ABRSM diploma this year. Candidates are required to give a 35 minute recital; memory is not a requirement, but I am adding this self-imposed element to the challenge. My ultimate objective – to be a better pianist. And along the way I am increasingly awed by those pianists who hold so much music in their heads!

He is my proposed recital programme:

Bach Prelude & Fugue in g minor (Bk 1), BWV 861
Beethoven Sonata in c minor, op.10 no.1 complete
Schubert Impromptu in G flat, D.899 no.3
Fauré Impromptu op.31 no.2 in f minor
Stravinsky Piano-Rag-Music

To help in my preparation, and in particular to gain further insights into possible interpretations, I would love some ideas for a Fantasy Piano Recital. Please feel free to nominate your preferred pianist for each of the works above ie. Bach – Glenn Gould, Beethoven – Barenboim etc. I look forward to hearing your ideas.


[subsequent progress reports here and here!]

If I play you a note, can you sing it back?

When I see a pupil in order to practise aural tests, which I have done literally hundreds of times, the first thing I always do is ask them to sing a note. Surprisingly often it plays out something like this:

Me:  Sing this note to me please. [plays note on piano]
Pupil:  Can you play the note again please?
Me:  But I’ve only just played it!
Pupil:  Yes, but I’ve forgotten it!

The request to hear it again might even come whilst the note is still sounding! Of course it may well be that the pupil is using stalling tactics – any excuse not to have to sing. It can be scary, and I do mean that quite sincerely. Worse, however, is that I suspect that many genuinely believe that they can’t remember the pitch. At this point I have to insist, gently but firmly:

Me:  Just sing the note.
Pupil:  I can’t.
Me:  Sing it.
Pupil:  Lah! (correct note)
Me:  Well done!
Pupil:  Oh!

The thing is, unless they have genuine pitching problems (see The Choir who can’t sing) they will almost invariably get it right; the only problem has been in believing that they can remember it.

Following my recent post 17 x 24? Fantastic thinking, I have been asking numerous colleagues and pupils to work out this sum for me, out loud. Quite a few, including several staff, have said that they couldn’t do that. At this point, I have had to insist, gently but firmly (!) and all have gone on to work it out correctly! This says a great deal to me about what we believe we can or can’t do, versus what we can actually do if we push ourselves a little more. In order to do this sum, we need to store a few numbers with a view to recalling them again; we might not think we can do this, but actually we can. And it is exactly the same with pitch; if we listen in the knowledge that we will be asked to recall that information, we can do it. We just need to ignore the ‘lazy’ voice in us which says we can’t!

I have been working this term with a boy who is in the Choir who can’t sing. He is preparing for a Grade 8 instrumental exam (ABRSM) in the summer, for which the aural tests are very demanding at the best of times, never mind one who really struggles to pitch notes at all. But this morning we had a major breakthrough! He has come a long way (really!) and is now 90% reliable, perhaps even more, in singing back notes in tune, although there is still some dodgy ‘wiring’ in there somewhere! However, when I have tried to get him to sing scales, he wanders way off key – although he can start in the right place, he invariably ends up losing his way very quickly. Singing up a five-note scale and back down again has been hopeless, until today that is…

This morning, having been thinking about memory, it occured to me that he didn’t have a point of reference, that he didn’t remember where it was that he was supposed to be heading back to. In effect, he was working out his sums but forgetting the subtotals as he went along. In simply pointing out that he needed to store the key note, sing up the scale and then return to that same key note, he then sang the scale in tune. It really was that easy. It wasn’t perfect, but the penny has dropped and he knows it! [Incidentally, I use solfa (do, re, mi etc) for this very reason – it helps to identify specific pitch references which are so critical to singing in tune and with understanding.]

I am still working on the wiring problem! We can be working for fifteen minutes singing basically in tune, and then all of a sudden and for no apparent reason, he will lose his way and not be able to sing back a pitch at all accurately. And then as suddenly as it went, he will be back online again. However, as he practises his singing this problem is showing up less and less often, and with this morning’s huge step forward, coupled with his a real desire to improve his skills, I am confident that he is heading in the right direction.

The joy of teaching is in the fact that every pupil is different, and whilst some just get it, others sometimes need some creative thinking on the teacher’s part to unlock their gifts.  This morning I learned just as much as my pupil, if not more!

[In February 2016 we made a video of the Choir who can’t sing, performing You raise me up. Yes, the choir is still going strong – click here to take a leap forward in time….!]

What’s 17 x 24? Fantastic thinking!

This week I have been asking my piano pupils (to their initial surprise – ‘this is a piano lesson!’) to work out the answer to 17 x 24, in their heads, talking me through their calculations as they go. Most go for something along the lines of:

10 x 24 = 240
5 x 24 = half of 10 x 24, which is 120
add the 240 to the 120, that’s 360
2 x 24 = 48
Finally add the 48 to the 360, and the answer is 408.

This system 2 thinking requires us to be able to hold pieces of information in our head whilst we manipulate other information, and then to recall them when needed. In fact, our heads are crammed full of facts and figures which have been stored there, and mental arithmetic is a good way of demonstrating how this works (or doesn’t!) Problems arise when we get to the end of the sum, and realise that we can’t recall one of the components; then we have to work it out again, and hope that in the meantime we don’t lose a hold of anything else which we are going to need to complete the task.

When we are learning a new piece of music, we are essentially doing just the same thing as detailed above. Each melodic shape, chord or rhythm is a small piece of information which can be stored in our head, with the specific aim of also being able to recall it. Unlike numbers, these elements have numerous other qualities – for instance sound and pitch, visual appearance (both on the page and on the instrument), feel – which can be an additional help in storing them reliably.

Having started each lesson this week with a maths problem, I have then given each pupil a new passage of music to play. Rather than just wading through it in blissful ignorance we have looked in detail at those melodic shapes, chords and rhythms, with a view not just to playing them, but also to remembering them. Having just come from a task in which they know that they are required to store information carefully, each student has been remarkably attentive in memorising each detail.


A brief example (for a pupil working at approximately Grade 7 standard)

  • In the left hand, after an initial middle C, the first minim chord is E flat minor (all black notes.) The physical sensation of playing and lifting the chords whilst holding the bass note is very memorable.
  • The bass note in the bar 2 is a fifth lower than middle C (basic theory, fifths apart are either both on lines or both in spaces).
  • In bar three the chord looks like a triad of D flat major, with the colourful sound of an added C. (The chord shape is white / black / white / black)
  • Bar 4 looks like a G major chord (the dominant, which will inevitably lead back to C) – but the D# makes it into an augmented triad – good opportunity to learn/revise this.
  • In the right hand, the melodic shapes in bars 1-2 have all sorts of elements which will aid memory. The first two pairs rise, the second two fall; the finger patterns are the same for each pair (1-2, 1-2, 4-3, 4-3); the first pair are white notes, the second pair black etc,
  • Choice of fingering helps not only in playing the notes, but to instil a strong feel for the shapes.
  • Bar 3 is the same chord shape as the LH (my pupil has already noticed!) and just leaps an octave. Again, a swift roll of the wrist makes it instantly memorable, and after one more glance the pupil is no longer looking at the music.
  • Bringing finger 2 over to land on the B in bar 4 is actually fun! And of course it’s a B, because that’s the leading note of C which is where the music is going to return to.

Most significantly perhaps, having worked with each hand separately (and it really didn’t take that long) I then took the music away and my pupil pieced together all 8 bars, hands together; not fluently, but entirely accurately, and with all the LH syncopated chords in the right place (which we had not even discussed). Teacher impressed + pupil empowered = success!

It’s gone off the top of the screen by now, but can you still remember the sum in the title, and the subtotals which you stored to get you to the final answer? It’s not a difficult sum, but it does require us to summon up what Daniel Kahneman calls ‘effortful mental activity.’ In short, it’s hard work but we know we can do it.

Our memories are amazing, and if they can store a few numbers – 240, 120, 360, 48 – then why can’t they store E flat minor, perfect fifth, LH ‘pivot’ feel, roll of the wrist, leading note? Fact: they can. This can be introduced at the most elementary level, and indeed it should be – even just covering the music and asking the pupil what the first note was will begin the process of encouraging them to use their brain to store and recall, which is developing an enquiring mind. Minus this recall, they will have to be resigned to working it all out again, every time, which is arguably even harder work, and not in the least bit empowering. In my experience children love to be challenged, and we should do some of that every lesson!

Thinking, fast and slow

I am currently reading an amazing book by Daniel Kahneman called Thinking, Fast and Slow. He presents the idea that we have two systems for thinking – System 1 is effortless and intuitive (fast), System 2 uses deductive reasoning (slow).

An example of Thinking Fast might be in recognising something, a car for instance – we just know it’s a car! Thinking Slow might be finding the answer to a sum, say 18 x 23 – we know it’s a multiplication sum, and how to do it, but we also know that it’s going to take considerable mental strain to hold various subtotals in our head before we arrive at the answer – and indeed it does!

However, Kahneman goes on to suggest that, with sufficient training, we can reach a point where we have expert intuition. It strikes me that, in my own field, this might be called musicianship! I am particularly interested in how we can strive to attain this expert intuition, especially with regard to the transition from reading the score to memorizing it.

The quote on the front of this book – “a lifetime’s worth of wisdom” – is pretty spot on. There are numerous things to share, but I particularly like this line:

anything that occupies your working memory reduces your ability to think

In short, processing all of those notes on the page takes a huge amount of our working memory – in Kahneman’s terms, it takes a great deal of Slow Thinking to make it all happen. The better way, I’m sure, would be for us just to be able to trust our instinct and play, but realistically that’s probably not going to happen. Unless, of course, we have that expert intuition (aka musicianship). There are a whole host of ‘back up’ devices which the musician needs to develop, which support and ultimately should replace the note reading element in our playing. Individually they might all seem rather trivial stuff that we just have to learn; theory, aural, scales, diminished sevenths… But actually, these things are the building blocks which develop that intuition, that musicianship. If we can recognise a dominant seventh chord for instance, and know that it is likely to resolve to it’s tonic, then we will know that A7 falls to a chord of D – and then it is less of a surprise to find that we are playing notes which fit with D major. Of course we can read them too, but this little bit of learned knowledge gives us a hint of intuition to back up the reading bit; in other words, the notes which we play are not longer a random coincidence, but we actually understand why they are how they are! And if we can hear the dominant seventh as well, then our ear might also give us a few suggestions as to what sort of sound to expect next. A little harmonic knowledge and aural skills combined will go a long way, to the point that we may well find that we arrive at the right place before we even read the notes!

Even before discovering Kahneman’s book, I realise that I have subscribed to his way of thinking for some time. I have often thought of memorizing music as having installed it on the hard drive, as opposed to accessing a memory stick (oh, the irony of a name!) The difference is that we hear the computer whirring as it processes the information on the memory stick ie this is Slow Thinking. If we can install the notes on our hard drive, that is, memorise the music, then Fast Thinking becomes a very real possibility. And the way to do that is to develop an expert intuition, our understanding of how the music works – our musicianship.

By the way, the answer is 414!

Memory – easy in theory?

When children first learn to read, they work out one word at a time, and it can be very obvious to the adult that, although they might eventually reach the bottom of the page, they haven’t actually taken in the meaning of the words which they have read. Reading each word has demanded their entire focus, and has not been understood in context. As they become more familiar with the way that language works, they become increasingly fluent, and eventually we hope that they will read with understanding, and with a rise and fall in the intonation of the voice which further enhances the meaning not just of the words, but of whole phrases and paragraphs.

My pupils are very familiar with the phrase ‘know it, don’t read it.’  In other words, if they are having to work out each note afresh every time they encounter it, how well do they really know the music? There are two distinct levels here: we might be able to play a piece faultlessly from beginning to end, and therefore know the music, in as much as we know what all the notes are, what order they come in, the correct rhythm etc. But in the same way as the child in the illustration above can read the words but not understand them, I would question the merits of teaching a student to play a piece without also helping them to understand the wider context in which the notes are found.

The simplest way to test whether our pupil really knows the music, of course, is to take the dots away!

I find that the first response is usually ‘I can’t do that!’ However, a few choice questions from the teacher might provoke a different response: ‘Can you remember what key the piece is in?’ What note does it start on?’ ‘Can you sing back the first part of the tune?’ Questions like these can help the pupil to realise that actually they can remember some of the music, but much more significantly, they might also find that a little theory helps them recall it. If the piece is in F major, it begins to make sense that the first bass note is F and the melody starts on A, since both fit in the chord of F major.

This is one tiny example – but I firmly believe that children can be stretched, and that they can and indeed enjoy being stretched – it’s exciting and enabling. Especially if they believe that their teacher believes that they can do it. And believe me, they can!

Taking the music away gives us all sorts of excuses to find endless ways of remembering the music; children are endlessly resourceful and they are also amazingly inventive, but whatever way they might come up with, they are now investigating the music in a new way. Before, all they had to do was decypher the notation, nothing more – a potentially daunting exercise but little more than that. Now, they have to enquire, to search their mind for connections between the notes in order to remember them. And it is this which will open their eyes and ears to the way in which the music is put together; keys and chords suddenly become useful guides, rhythms need to be internalised, the ear might remember something which the fingers did not. Pianists can look at the keyboard and see patterns there too.

This is how I love to teach music theory and aural. Not at a desk with a pencil and paper (although I do love that too!) but at the same time as learning the music. The music, not just the notes.

Don’t play the notes… Play the meaning of the notes
Pablo Casals


‘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