david chang

How Do You Commit a Piece of Piano Music to Long Term Memory?

house David Chang Jun 1, 2022

If you have ever attempted to memorize piano music, you’ve no doubt experienced the differences in short term and long term memory. You work hard on a piece, drill the technique, and mentally rehearse the music; then, you finally play it through from memory the first time. It’s an exciting moment!

But what happens the next day? You stumble when you try to play through the piece from memory again. Even worse, you can barely play an entire section without memory slips.

Don’t worry - this is perfectly normal. My piano lessons in Brooklyn often focus on the art of moving a piece of music from your short term memory into your long term memory, and my proprietary techniques have helped hundreds of students memorize professional pieces of piano music.

Keep reading to learn more about my memorization techniques, or get in touch for a free consultation.

At What Point is Piano Music in Your Long Term Memory?

I would consider a piece to be stored in my long-term memory if I could go one to two weeks (or longer) without practicing it at all (at least physically) and still perform it without too much trouble. This situation is, of course, not ideal, but it would be a very good test.

Another good test would be if I could perform the piece from memory comfortably for both myself and for others while remaining consciously aware at all times of what is coming next in the music.

When is a Piece of Piano Music Performance Ready?

The idea of “performance ready” is difficult to pin down, and it varies depending on both the difficulty of the piece and the standards & goals of the individual pianist.

Most importantly, as noted above, you must be able to play the piece from memory with conscious awareness, at all times, of what exactly you are playing and what comes next. There will be elements of tactile, visual, and aural memory at work. If at any point you feel like you are purely letting your hands run with the music, and your mind is not fully engaged, you are not ready for a high-stakes performance.

Other elements of performance readiness include:

  1. Can you play the piece at steady tempos without a metronome?
  2. Have you memorized the dynamics, and can you execute them?

Additional reading: What Chopin Should You Learn First?

How Often Must You Revisit a Piece of Piano Music?

To keep a piece of piano music at a performance level, you will need to revisit the music from time to time. This means that you will need to drill your technique and memory in a concentrated manner leading up to a performance, even if you had memorized it in the past.

Memorized pieces in my repertoire typically occupy two positions:

  • Pieces at a concert standard (95%+) in preparation for a recital or another big event
  • Pieces I’m maintaining at 85%+

These percentages refer to my own present capabilities. The higher the percentage, the more I have practiced the piece, the more I have exhausted every single possible strategy and methodology, the more I have tried to make the piece as technically and musically perfect as possible, and the more likely I will probably get diminishing returns if I practice too much.

Additional reading: How Traveling Pianists Can Practice on the Road

Revisiting Pieces At Concert Level (95%+)

If I want to be able to perform a piece at concert standard (95%+ of my current ability), daily practice is definitely preferable. In this situation, I have several routines that I strive to do daily in order to keep at my maximum potential:

  1. Perform (and often record) the piece from memory while trying to always remain consciously aware of what is coming next in the music
  2. Play the piece through mentally from memory, making sure to see, hear, and feel everything to the best of my ability
  3. Go through a specific practice routine with the metronome and/or altered rhythms (unless the piece is neither technically demanding nor rhythmic)
  4. Perform through the most difficult areas of the piece (and other pieces) randomly to test their reliability and then practice accordingly
  5. Listen to the recording of the performance, assess, and continue to re-record and re-assess accordingly
  6. Listen to other recordings online and do further research for ideas and inspiration.

To be able to do all of these things would be ideal, but there is not always adequate time to do all of this, so I simply try the best that I can. If I want even greater reliability, I memorize the piece separate hands both mentally and physically.

Revisiting a Piece That is at 85% Readiness

A standard of 85%+ (an arbitrary percentage, of course) would mean that the performance still more or less sounds “perfect” to the layperson and to the average listener. It would be a good condition in which to perform for friends, community events, and all but the most high-stakes situations. There would still be no stopping whatsoever, the performance would be quite musical, there would be a certain standard of accuracy, and my memory would still be pretty dead solid.

Within this standard, there is much greater variability in terms of how often I need to revisit a piece in order to keep it performable. If the piece is very technically challenging, it is possible that daily metronome or other technical work is necessary to maintain a certain level of accuracy and reliability. However, if I have practiced the piece very well for a certain period of time, often technical issues are overcome to some extent and the daily technical work may not always be necessary. Daily performance and performance of the most difficult sections of the piece “cold” for a period of time helps to increase the likelihood of reliability later. The difficulty of the individual piece, however, will always be a factor.

If the piece’s technical issues have been largely solved or the piece was not that technically challenging to begin with, mental practice and performance alone are often sufficient to maintain a piece at an 85%+ standard. This is when the idea of “needing” to revisit a piece becomes open to discussion. If I want to play a well-learned piece at this standard and there are no longer any significant technical difficulties, I might be able to perform it at this “performance level” without revisiting it at all for several weeks. However, the less I at least go over it mentally and/or practice performing it, the more nervous I’ll probably be. Even if the memory is solid, psychological factors can also take a toll on the quality of the performance.

That being said, I can generalize and say that to maintain pieces that no longer pose significant technical difficulties at 85%+, “revisiting” them may consist only of reviewing them mentally every few days. I would literally perform them at least once a week. However, it is important to emphasize that in the end, there is no simple, straightforward answer. I will always tend to review pieces mentally and physically (through performance) as often as possible to ensure that I am really playing to the best of my ability within the context of a reasonable amount of time. I must be as efficient as I can (while still doing the best that I can) in order to free up time - the more time I have, the more I can be constantly learning new pieces and improving old pieces.