We recently ran part one of this series on playing instrumental music from memory, citing five strategies for playing securely without music. If you missed that post, please check it out here.
Memory work is an aspect of practicing that does not always get full attention or exploration. But students whose teachers take them through activities such as these do indeed perform well under pressure. Knowing a piece inside and out gives a performer a sense of security- a sense that “I can make it through this no matter what”, taking the unknown out of the scenario, nearly completely. The “what if” thoughts that can run through a performer’s mind recede, as confidence moves in with an understanding of the structure of the piece, the tonalities, what each hand is doing, and so on. This kind of study brings in a purposeful performance, where the artist is living “in the moment” for the entirety of the piece.
So the next five tips from our article by Clinton Pratt include some tried and true wisdom, and some new ways to test and establish memory.
6 Muscle Memory is one aspect of memorizing, but it is a dangerous one. Speaking from experience, if a student is relying on the “feel” of the piece to get through, their performance is in a precarious state. The piano, for example, will absolutely not feel like the piano at home, or the piano at the teacher’s studio. For string players, the acoustics will not be like home, the piano accompaniment they are hearing may sound different. With so many variables, relying on the “feel” can make for a risky performance, where once the “feel” is off, it is very difficult to get back on. Instead, Mr. Pratt suggests “Slow Play”. Practicing your piece much slower than normal will force a performer to know the piece without relying on the muscle memory crutch. Set a metronome for this one – and keep to the slow tempo!
7 This one may be new for some teachers and students, and is specifically for pianists. One of the causes of memory slips is when one hand messes up, and the other doesn’t know what to do next. Combat this problem with “One-Handed Play”. As you are memorizing music, include hands separate memory. When the piece is fully memorized, keep testing one-hand memory. Or try to trick yourself – make a purposeful mistake in one hand and see if you can keep going with the other. The teacher should be able to lift one hand off the piano keys, while the student keeps the other hand moving along without missing a beat.
8 Students should evaluate themselves, asking themselves how different aspects of the piece are coming through. Dynamics, phrasing, melody over accompaniment, mood, steady beat, are all things students should be able to assess. If a contest is in the future, a student could fill out a blank judges form, with comments about their own performance. Being able to so a “Self-Assessment” will help the student listen actively to their own playing. It also helps them think in the moment, letting the music flow out of them no matter what the assessment is at the time.
9 One of my favorite ways to practice a performance is to play for others. The more a musician has the experience of playing through nerves, the easier it will be to perform overall. Setting up “Mock Performances” will help students manage the feeling of that elevated state of performing. If they can learn to co-exist with that state rather than fight it, the end result will be a more satisfying performance. Students enjoy recording themselves, playing for family members, or even for stuffed animals, suggests Pratt.
10 Ah – time for the “Pep Talk”! This can come from a parent, a teacher, or from the student performer. Positive phrases such as
- “I can do this”,
- “I can’t wait to do this”,
- “I can do this- I’ve done it before” and
- “I love sharing my music with others”
can all help to build a sense of eagerness. Remind your student that the audience is rooting for them- they want the performers to succeed. Thinking these positive phrases can be helpful all the way up to the actual moment of the performance.
I would just add two more thoughts to these wonderful ideas outlined in this article. One is that any musician should also practice going through their score away from their instrument. They don’t even have to physically move their fingers, but just think through each note as if they are playing it. Also, leading up to playing, say, in a recital, look at the space where you’ll be playing and picture yourself playing there, and playing well. Stay focused until it is your turn to play, then enjoy all the work that has led you to this moment!
To read the full article, see the current AMT magazine at our Wexford location!
Pratt, Clinton “Don’t Crack Under Pressure!” American Music Teacher. February/March 2020: 17-21. Print.