\"\"
Piano Forum logo

How do concert pianists learn & memorize music so quickly? (Read 590 times)

Offline caevon

  • PS Silver Member
  • Newbie
  • ***
  • Posts: 8
How do concert pianists learn & memorize music so quickly?
« on: June 29, 2021, 05:07:19 AM »
I'm sure that, as pianists, we have all heard the legendary stories of people learning entire concertos in a week or on the taxi ride to the performance venue without a keyboard. That's extremely difficult for the rest of us, but there has to be some method the legends are using to memorize that quickly, right? I'm a pre-college student (in high school) right now so I'm not going to have any need for memorizing entire concertos in an hour or something, but I'd still love advice on this matter  ;D

I attend a normal public high school which doesn't really leave much room for me to practice, and I'm going into my junior year this fall so time will be even shorter. One of my struggles has always been learning new pieces quickly. It always seems to take months for me to get them down, and another few to memorize. I do put in the time (3-4 hours daily usually) but I suppose I am not practicing efficiently enough.

I'm currently tackling some larger works (Chopin Concerto No. 1, Ballade No. 4, some other stuff) and learning/memorization is almost definitely going to be a huge issue. What methods do y'all professional pianists use starting from the moment you begin learning a new work? How do you approach a new piece? How do you get it up to tempo, etc.?

Thank you all so much!

Piano Street's Digital Sheet Music Library

Chopin: Ballade 4, opus 52
piano sheet music of Ballade 4


Online lostinidlewonder

  • PS Silver Member
  • Sr. Member
  • ***
  • Posts: 6365
Re: How do concert pianists learn & memorize music so quickly?
«Reply #1 on: June 29, 2021, 06:47:56 AM »
Read a work multiple times, much of it becomes mastered and you can focus on what small parts are troublesome. When you have controlled thousand and thousands of pieces nothing much suprises your any more and it is all routine.

To break away from spending months on pieces before they are mastered often people need to rethink their approach to their piano studies. Many peoples goals are repertoire orientated, they have specific pieces they wish to play or a specific style they are interested in or a specific grade they want to accomplish. This often doesn't prioritize practice method or sight reading skills which are the most important skills if you want your musical experience to be as broad as possible.

There are so many works I learned as a youngster I can simply sight read with mastery instantly now with zero need for any practice. If I could have told my child self that this was possible I would have worked on my reading skills much earlier on. However I think though that everyone needs to take time with different musical journeys and then it will set themself up to take more effective approaches when the time is right.
"The biggest risk in life is to take no risk at all."
www.facebook.com/groups/348933611793249/

Offline ranjit

  • PS Silver Member
  • Sr. Member
  • ***
  • Posts: 944
Re: How do concert pianists learn & memorize music so quickly?
«Reply #2 on: June 29, 2021, 08:19:06 AM »
To break away from spending months on pieces before they are mastered often people need to rethink their approach to their piano studies.
Mastery is a bit of a tricky word in this context. When people talk about it taking months to master a piece, I assume that they are talking about refining all of the small details. I'm tempted to say that it's very possible to learn to play a new work in a week, but I realize that at least for me it won't be note perfect and there will be a few details missing or fudged. Does that still count as master? If not, wouldn't learning to play a piece at mastery still take a similar amount of time, if it is at a level challenging for you?

Online lostinidlewonder

  • PS Silver Member
  • Sr. Member
  • ***
  • Posts: 6365
Re: How do concert pianists learn & memorize music so quickly?
«Reply #3 on: June 29, 2021, 09:44:18 AM »
Yes it is not defined clearly. There is mastery and then total mastery. Mastery I mean in a way in which the piece is played so it would pass an exam, not something that is as good as you possibly can get it. To get something to its absolute best really can takes years of maturation but I don't think we really need to consider mastery always in this context. I imagine it like creating a sculpture, mastery is getting the overall shape and form right, then of course there is that fine chiseling and extreme detail you can go into but that process can go on forever and I am sure some people will admit that there are pieces they have played for years which are still improving to this day.

There are pieces you can absolutely play with total mastery with lots of details just by reading it, these pieces should not require even an minute to practice if your skills are at a level to do that. This needs to be a process that is experienced by everyone however like I said some people will not experience that because they are accustomed that all pieces they tackle takes months.

...it's very possible to learn to play a new work in a week, but I realize that at least for me it won't be note perfect and there will be a few details missing or fudged. Does that still count as master? If not, wouldn't learning to play a piece at mastery still take a similar amount of time, if it is at a level challenging for you?
I guess the level measured which constitutes mastery is different for everyone. I think a few missed detailed and uncontrolled expression in places cannot be at a level which would represent a failed exam result. What that EXACTLY is is different for everyone but I think most teachers would understand what a pass or failed attempt sounds like if they mark a lot of students and people who know pieces very well could measure honestly if their attempts are of high value or riddled with uncontrolled issues.

If it takes someone a week to learn something which otherwise someone else could sight read immediately I am not sure if that would also represent masterful rate of learning. So it depends on the pieces under inspection. Not a large amount of piano repertoire are ridiculously difficult and a vast majority is doable in very quick time if your practice method if sharp.
"The biggest risk in life is to take no risk at all."
www.facebook.com/groups/348933611793249/

Offline ranjit

  • PS Silver Member
  • Sr. Member
  • ***
  • Posts: 944
Re: How do concert pianists learn & memorize music so quickly?
«Reply #4 on: June 29, 2021, 06:29:28 PM »
I guess the level measured which constitutes mastery is different for everyone. I think a few missed detailed and uncontrolled expression in places cannot be at a level which would represent a failed exam result.
Yes, that metric seems reasonable.

If it takes someone a week to learn something which otherwise someone else could sight read immediately I am not sure if that would also represent masterful rate of learning.
I'm thinking of something like a Chopin waltz (I always keep using this as a benchmark lol). I think that, with a decent amount of effort, it's possible to play a Chopin waltz in a week from memory, with maybe the occasional slip. Would it pass an exam? Possibly, if you're good. I get your point about sightreading ability, but I think it should be pointed out that there is considerable room for improvement even when it comes to memorizing pieces. And at least for me, memory hasn't had as much to do with sightreading as it has had to do with comprehension, for lack of a better word.

Offline determined2learn

  • PS Silver Member
  • Jr. Member
  • ***
  • Posts: 59
Re: How do concert pianists learn & memorize music so quickly?
«Reply #5 on: June 29, 2021, 08:26:10 PM »
Others with much more experience than I have can certainly correct me if I'm wrong, but I've read and watched videos where the pianist can quickly read/identity patterns. I guess we can consider it critical thinking/reading - applying what has been read, learned previously to the present piece.


Good luck!

Offline ranjit

  • PS Silver Member
  • Sr. Member
  • ***
  • Posts: 944
Re: How do concert pianists learn & memorize music so quickly?
«Reply #6 on: June 29, 2021, 08:54:18 PM »
I guess we can consider it critical thinking/reading - applying what has been read, learned previously to the present piece.
Just to add to this, there is a lot of subconscious pattern recognition which seems to go on. If you here the first half of a melodic phrase, can you predict what will happen next? Over time, I've found myself almost being able to predict exactly what will come next in a lot of situations. Of course, the composer could play with your expectations, but you are still dealing with a much smaller set of possibilities, and this kind of intuitive structure and predictive ability aids memory in my experience. It's partly why I think that composers will automatically gain a fairly decent memory for music, because they often have to learn these aspects in more detail than a mere performer. Of course, performers at the highest level are something different altogether.

Online lostinidlewonder

  • PS Silver Member
  • Sr. Member
  • ***
  • Posts: 6365
Re: How do concert pianists learn & memorize music so quickly?
«Reply #7 on: June 30, 2021, 12:48:58 AM »
I'm thinking of something like a Chopin waltz (I always keep using this as a benchmark lol). I think that, with a decent amount of effort, it's possible to play a Chopin waltz in a week from memory, with maybe the occasional slip. Would it pass an exam? Possibly, if you're good.
Even measuring what a week of work is for each individual is different. If you simply look at time applied it will be quite various but more importantly if you take effective use of time you will gain more insight into ones ability level. What you might do in one week is a month worth of practice for someone else, so I feel stating the time it takes to learn something is quite all over the place even when we state days, weeks, months etc.

I get your point about sightreading ability, but I think it should be pointed out that there is considerable room for improvement even when it comes to memorizing pieces. And at least for me, memory hasn't had as much to do with sightreading as it has had to do with comprehension, for lack of a better word.
Sight reading develops you in different ways and it specifically improves memorization as the gap between your technical potential expands and reading level closes in on that. At higher levels sight reading and memorization go hand in hand. For example I can learn 100 pieces at once with sight reading skills but this would be rather impossible if one tried to do it via memorization. Memorization does not necessarily rest on being able to play something totally without the sheet music, the definition of memorization expands as your reading skills improve. Yes memorization is also playing pieces totally without the sheets but as your reading skills improve it no longer needs to be exclusively so and you synergize memory and reading to create a hybrid approach.

Of course there are situations where you must memorize (unless you are a sight reading god) but the process you get there (if one wants to develop reading/memorization synergy) requires you read a lot first and wean off the need to read as you purposefully prioritize the muscular memorization. This is of course different for everyone, I am not the best reader in the world so what I might have to memorize to play effectively a better reader could merely read it and play it perfectly without the need to memorize it. This situation is relative to each person, most lower level sight readers will find they have to delegate a lot to muscular memorization if the technical challenges they are reading strain their reading capabilities.

Lower level reading requires that one deals with many easier works and thus it can feel that you still cannot escape memorization to play works which are at your technical potential/interest. However if you put yourself to the absolutely beginner level and try to learn very early music you will find you probably can merely do it all with reading skills and you don't need to memorize like an early beginner might with their very first pieces. So an early beginner might tell you that everything they learn needs to be memorized because its impossible to read and play it immediately without overloading your brain hampering the ability to listen to what sounds you are producing. They need to memorize patterns to be able to play it effectively and reading only allows them to play a passage with difficulties and lack of freedom. This experience is relative and expands all the way up to the higest levels.

"The biggest risk in life is to take no risk at all."
www.facebook.com/groups/348933611793249/