On this website, I am going to share with you some ways and tips that will help you to play piano pieces from memory at recitals. Learn your sheet music more effectively and thoroughly so that you can give good performances without your sheet music.
Playing from Memory is Frightening
For me, playing at recitals solely from memory is always a pain in the neck. It is not too much to say that it is the most frightening thing in the world. I guess many of you have had the same experience too, where your mind goes totally blank even though you hardly make any mistakes in practices. Well, I hate to say this, but the fact is that you had not memorized your music perfectly. As a piano teacher, I feel it is not only the students who must be blamed, but it is the teachers’ responsibilities too.
How to Memorize a Sheet Music Perfectly
Here are the 18 ways to memorize piano pieces and to retain them in your memory for a long period of time. Playing from memory is not an easy thing to do. So, take your time and keep working hard. Be sure to practice every day.
- Make Photocopies
Now, we are going to memorize the sheet music. We are going to write a lot of different things in it. However, writing directly on the pages is sometimes distracting for teachers.
So, make some photocopies beforehand. They can be folded and put in your bag too, becoming much easier to carry around.
Put marks on where you have difficulties memorizing. Jot down any things you realized while looking at the sheet. It will be a one and only sheet you can never let go of.
Just be careful because sheet music does have some restrictions on the copyright. As long as you use the printed sheets for personal use, it is OK.
- Try to Play Without Looking at the Sheet
This is the FIRST step to memorizing your sheet music. Many people think that this is the last thing they should do, but it isn’t.
The long journey starts here, after you have become able to play without the sheet.
I know you will have already spent quite a lot of time until then, but playing from memory is a training of brain rather than fingers!
Children should be able to learn the sheet music a month before the day of recital, at the latest. For adults, it’s much earlier than that.
- Know the Structure of the Music Piece
No matter how small the piece is, there is always a rule. Try to find that rule and write it down on the sheet music.
For example, let’s call a phrase that’s similar to A “A’”. How are A and A’ different? What element makes A go into a different phrase?
Try to understand it in a logical way. Mark all the important notes and chords. Pay special attention to those parts and memorize the sheet music.
Failure to do it will make you stay in the infinite loop.
One of the trickiest things that make playing from memory hard is the similar parts that appear in the music. So, focusing on those similar parts is quite effective.
- Master the Fingering Perfectly
I know from my own experience that sometimes even if I think I know the notes perfectly, fingering just slips out of the mind. And it happens when you had “kind of” practiced it but not understanding it perfectly.
Always Practice with the Best Fingering.
Saying to yourself “Here, change to the fourth finger” “First, second, and the fifth finger for this chord” also helps memorizing the sheet music.
- Memorizing the Shape of Your Hand
When playing, it is only the keys and the shape of your own hands that come into your sight. Memorizing the shape of your hand will also help you memorize the sheet music.
“Here, the left hand and the right hand move in the same way” or “this is when both hands come closest to each other” is enough.
You will feel secure by doing so.
- Read it, not See it
One of my pianist friends reads the sheet music whenever she has time. According to what she says, she even spends more time reading than playing the music sometimes.
Playing piano is not the only way to practice. Even when you cannot actually play, there are various ways to do so. Reading the sheet music is one way.
Don’t just see it. Read it as if you were trying to solve its mysteries.
She has never made mistakes in performing from memory.
- Playing with One Hand is a Minimum Requirement
Are you able to play with one hand each? If you try it, you must be surprised to know how you can play with only the right hand, but not with the left hand.
When you play with both hands, you focus mainly on listening to the melody. You are paying less attention to the inner voice or the accompaniment.
If you try to play one hand at a time, you will notice every piece of sound which you have usually been passing by. You will know how far you are from performing from memory.
It is generally said that left hand needs three times as much practice than right hand. When doing this practice, you can put the other hand on the key board. But be careful not to produce any sound.
Please Do Try This Practice of Using One Hand Each.
- Playing Vertically, Four Measures at a Time
Have you ever had the experience when your teacher said “please play from here” and you become a little panicked, end up going back to a lot before? Even by looking at the music sheet, it is difficult to play from the middle. You have to have played it over and over for many times.
Practice playing vertically.
Play four measures at a time. I said four measures because many pieces are made of four measures. If not, you can also divide them into phrases.
After playing four measures, put your hands on your knees. After several seconds, resume playing.
Putting your hands on your knees is important to reset the whole music. Putting them on the keyboard isn’t effective enough. Be sure to put them on your knees.
When you are done with practicing four measures, then, move onto two measures, and finally to one.
In case the whole phrase is made of chords, playing chords ⇒ hands on knees ⇒ playing chords might be good as well.
- Try Skipping Every Other Measure
Try skipping every other measure. That means, “to play the measure you skipped in your head, imaging the sound in your head”.
For example, let’s look at “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”. Play the first measure “C, C, G, G” and then put your hands on your knees, skip the second measure, go onto the third measure and play “F, F, E, E”. So, you will only be playing the notes which are NOT in the brackets. It will sound as “C, C, G, G” (A, A, G, -) and “F, F, E, E” (D, D, C, - ).
After having succeeded with the odd numbered measures, try even number measures.
This way make it way easier to do the horizontal practice.
- Try Playing from Where You are Told To
This method will need the assistance of someone who can play the piano.
Let that person play one part (such as chords) and start from there.
Generally, when you are playing the piano, you are listening to the actual sound of the note you are playing, and at the same time, thinking about the next note that’s coming. You are listening to the sound of the next note in your head.
Because this method will not allow you to do that, you will be able to play from anywhere you like.
If you do it by yourself, you will be playing from where you have already imagined the sound. It will require a lot of experience of playing from memory.
- Play Extremely Slowly
This method is also indispensable for memorizing sheet music.
How slow? As slow as it loses its original shape so that you might even become fed up with it.
It might not be easy. So, using a metronome will be helpful. It does take a lot of time. But it’s definitely worth trying.
Doing little by little will be fine, so that you can leave enough time for other practices.
It might make you sleepy or absent minded, but be sure to sharpen your nerves and check whether you are learning it right or not.
- Play with Your Eyes Closed
Shut down any information from sight.
Speed doesn’t really matter. If you hit a wrong key by mistake, search for the right one with your eyes still closed.
By doing so, you will know if you really know the notes.
If you can imagine the sheet music in your head, that’s better. Remembering what you have written in is also a very good tendency.
If you are able to jump from one note the next with your eyes closed, it means you have practiced quite a lot. You will feel safe if you can do this.
Of course, the situation where your fingers “move automatically even if the notes slip out of your mind” will be ideal. However, when you are nervous, the possibility for such a miracle to happen is very low.
Only the act of closing your eyes will make you relaxed. You can use this as a tip to make yourself calm and relaxed.
- Memorizing Sheet Music in Brain
This is something you can anytime, anywhere.
The best time will be before going to bed or when you are riding a train. Close your eyes and move your finger only a little bit.
When you cannot remember, look at the sheet music. Put a sticky memo on the page.
It is a big mistake not to look at sheet music thinking. Study it enough so that you can remember it as clearly as a photograph.
- Air Piano Practice
Yes, play the "piano" on something other than a piano.
Try it on a table, for example. Imagine musical motif in your mind as well.
In your head, and with your fingers, pay attention to what note you are playing and what kind of sound you are trying to produce.
In fact, this is an extremely difficult exercise unless you have all the sounds perfectly in your head.
It is, at the same time, a very advanced way of practicing without the piano.
- Try Writing the Sheet Music You Will be Playing
It is time taking. That’s for sure. But if you are too worried you can’t even sleep, it’s worth trying.
It doesn’t have to be the whole piece. Only where you could not play (in the Air Piano Practice etc.) will be enough.
But this will require the knowledge of sheet music.
- Make Small Cards
It is an advanced version of the horizontal practice.
Divide the piece into small phrases (such as four measures). Write them in the sheet music you have photocopied.
Then, make small cards with paper. Write A-1, A-2, etc. on each card.
Draw it from a bag just like a lottery. Play the part that’s written on the card. For example, if you have drawn F-3, play the third measure of the third phrase.
You can skip it if it’s exactly the same phrase. Also, if the piece is a very long one, alphabet will not be enough. So, you should think about a way to do it.
- Play in Reverse
Start with the very ending and play one measure at a time toward the beginning.
W-4, W-2, …A-2, A-1, and so on. When you become a master of playing from memory, you will be able to do it.
If you have reached this level, it’s perfect. This is the ultimate way of memorizing sheet music.
- What If You Get Disappointed at Yourself ?
By the time you have tried all the different ways mentioned on this page, I guess you should have noticed quite a few things you have not learned thoroughly.
Don’t be disappointed! Try think this way: “Thank goodness, I was able to know where I’m weak at”. You are lucky it wasn’t the day of performance.
The act of memorizing sheet music is like knocking on the surface of a newly constructed building and repairing the places that were too weak. To make it stronger!
And of course, when you are doing it, your senses are sharp, with your brain working really hard. I am sure that your performance is improving too, without you noticing.
Some exercises might be harder than others depending on the person. So, try them in whichever order you like.