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How to memorize piano music

Wouldn’t it be great if you could just sit down at a piano anywhere, anytime and play something heartbreakingly beautiful from start to finish without sheet music?

One of my favorite memories of the piano was listening to a young man at the Oregon State University student union casually play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata without any sheet music. Until then, it didn’t really occur to me that someone could memorize that many notes!

Years later, while studying how the human mind works, I learned that playing piano is part “muscle memory” and part driven by thoughts. To play a piece of music from memory, one must put in substantial practice time to learn proper muscle patterns, and also rely on internal cognitive cues.

Memorizing a piece of music is actually quite achievable.

Here is a basic guide to help you memorize that piano piece that you’ve become obsessed with.

Listen to recordings of the music

You can often find a good quality recording of the music on a streaming app, such as iTunes or Napster (yes, Napster is legit now and has a vast collection of songs). You will internalize the music by listening to the recording with your full attention.

Start practicing at the middle or the end of the music

You’ll notice that if you practice the music from top to bottom every time, that you will get really good at playing the first part of the music, but not so great at the middle and end sections. Instead, choose a spot in the middle or last section by marking the sheet music and beginning your practice there.

Practice hands separately, then together

Nail the left hand part first, then the right hand. After you feel somewhat comfortable with your performance of the separate parts, try practicing slowly with your hands together.

Practice slowly (at first)

Focus on getting each note down and executing appropriate expression of the music at a slow tempo. Once you are able to do a small segment of the music perfectly at least four times in a row, move on to another section. As you do more practice sessions, you can gradually increase the tempo.

The beginning stages of learning a piece of music requires a lot of thinking, analysis, and self-correction. GO SLOW.

Memorize small segments

You may need to memorize the music in segments of two to four measures at first, and later add more segments. New information is easier to digest and memorize if it is broken into chunks.

Use good fingering

After you find the optimal fingering patterns for the music, mark up your sheet music and use the same fingering patterns consistently. Using the same muscle patterns will ensure that your body knows what to do when your brain fails you in the event of “spacing out” during performance.

Analyze the music

This is where any education in music theory comes in quite handy. Every piece of music has some kind of underlying melodic and harmonic pattern. Study the sheet music carefully. Note chords and key changes. Find the pattern and mark up the sheet music as necessary.

Watch your hands as you play

After many practice sessions, hopefully you’ve gotten somewhat comfortable with playing the piece. Spend some time watching your hands as you play. However you shouldn’t be watching your hands the entire time…try looking up from time to time.

Take a break

If you are the type to practice more than one hour a day, you may notice that your performance during the practice session declines. In this case it may be best to take a break from practice until later in the day, or put away the music you are trying to memorize and pick it up again after a nap or a night’s rest. During sleep, our brains consolidate memories and neural pathways. Also, if you are tired, it is more difficult to learn new information. Getting an adequate amount of sleep is critical for memory and learning.

If you’re a beginner at the piano, I highly recommend finding a good piano teacher to coach and support your developing musicianship. I don’t teach lessons, but if you need a referral I’m happy to help!

Do earthquakes harm pianos?

The magnitude 7.0 quake jolted Anchorage and surrounding communities so hard that mounted TVs fell off walls, books flew off of shelves, bottles broke, and some homes sagged down into the ground. The earth opened up under several sections of road, stopping traffic. I’m sure you’ve heard about the major earthquake in Anchorage that struck on November 30, and even better have seen the photos of the damage online.

The quake was so strong that I actually felt a little shake at my house in Fairbanks a couple minutes later. I was in bed and thought that my obese cat had jumped off a piece of furniture, so I rolled over and went back to snoozing. LOL

Anchorage is actually sitting on top of a subduction zone on the east end of the Aleutian trench, where the Pacific plate is subducting beneath the North American plate. So, in plain English it means that this particular region has a lot of earthquakes and aftershocks.

I had a few tuning appointments in Anchorage just three days later, and of course my clients asked me if it was possible that the major earthquake did any damage to the piano. After inspecting and tuning several pianos, the answer was no.

Unless something falls on your piano that shouldn’t (e.g., a fish tank or running water) or a leg breaks off, your piano should be fine. It has a very sturdy cast iron plate that basically holds everything together. The plate is one solid piece, weighs hundreds of pounds, and has the ability to hold several tons of tension from the piano strings. The plate has many large bolts to fasten it to the rest of the piano, and the tuning pins are drilled into a block of wood that won’t move if the piano is in good condition.

There was no evidence that the earthquake made the pianos go out of tune more than they normally do. The strings do have elastic properties, however there was no evidence that the earthquake significantly changed the tension of the strings, or the position of the bridges (these things would cause a piano to go off pitch).

The action parts are actually quite delicate but they are protected by the rest of the piano. The hammers, keys, and wippens did not shift or break. Everything stayed put.

The residents of Anchorage, Eagle River, and Wasilla got a good shake, but I am grateful that there were no fatalities and everyone is OK.

Have a healthy and happy New Year everyone!

What made my piano go out of tune? Myth vs. Fact

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It’s time to separate myth from fact.

I get many questions and comments from clients about what makes a piano go out of tune. Let’s dive right in…

MYTH: A piano goes out of tune whenever you change its location.

Truth: Let’s say you move the piano from one room to another and they have the same temperature and humidity levels. The tuning will remain stable.

If it were moved from one home to another, loading it into the truck and hauling it does not shake or bump anything out of place. It’s actually the change in the ambient temperature and humidity that makes it go out of tune.

MYTH: A piano goes out of tune when you let kids bang on the keys.

Truth: A good technician will tune it with what are called “stabilizing blows” and they whack the key harder than any 4-year-old can. This ensures that the strings do not shift whenever someone plays a passionate Rachmaninoff composition or when little Johnny slams his tiny hands into the keyboard while performing his latest jazz piece.

Here’s what will keep your next tuning stable and is supported by science and research in the piano technology:

1. Stable temperature. If you keep the piano by a fireplace, drafty area, or keep turning the thermostat WAY down, the piano will go out of tune quickly.

2. Stable humidity. As you are aware, the moisture content of the air in Alaska can change quite drastically throughout the year. In January, your skin is cracking and you’re generating enough static electricity to light up a Christmas tree. In September it rains so much that you seriously consider building an ark. The change in the moisture content of the air has a tangible effect on your piano. The wood will swell as it absorbs moisture in the rainy season and the pitch goes sharp. Actions get sluggish and keys are more likely to stick. In the winter, the soundboard shrinks and the pitch goes below the standard A440.

3. New strings. If your piano is new, the strings are still “in training” due to being too elastic. They will continue stretching for about a year after you purchase it. Individual strings that get replaced by your technician will take several adjustments before they hold steady and stop stretching.

4. Tuning pin stability. Each string is attached to a tuning pin, which can be rotated any time the tension in the string needs adjustment. (That’s what your piano technician does when they come to tune it.) If the tuning pin does not have enough torque, it will not hold the string in a stable position. Tuning pin instability only becomes a major issue in old pianos with cracked pin blocks.

There you have it. You are now an educated consumer. 🙂

Need a local piano teacher referral? I’ve got you covered. Send a message from one the contact forms on my site.

The Piano Lifesaver System

The piano should be treated like a houseplant. In order to thrive, it must be protected from extremes in temperature, humidity, and light.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
If you have invested a substantial amount of money in the purchase of your piano and you want it to survive Alaska’s seasonal roller coaster, the Dampp-Chaser Piano Lifesaver system is the solution.
I remember once when a new client hired me to tune a baby grand piano, then to play at her daughter’s wedding in Anchorage. The piano hadn’t been serviced in a very long time. It lived through many tough winters and had a crack in the soundboard several millimeters wide, which was the source of a buzzing noise when I played my jazz and classical repertoire. This issue was completely preventable.
The Piano Lifesaver System has been installed in more than 520,000 pianos worldwide, and with a good reason. The Piano Lifesaver can double (even triple) the useful life of your piano. If your instrument is something you want to pass down to younger generations, or if you want to get the best possible resale value for your piano, consider installing one of these systems inside your piano.
What is it? It is a climate system that regulates the humidity inside the piano to 45%, regardless of what the relative humidity is inside the house. A basic system consists of a humidifier tank, sensor probes, humidistat, and dehumidifiers.
The humidistat senses when the moisture content in the wood parts of the piano are too low or too high, and cycles the humdifier and dehumidifier to maintain constant level of humidity.
The soundboard is the heart and soul of the piano, and is made from a thin piece of Sitka spruce that is quite sensitive to changes in the humidity. It will swell and bow outward in high humidity, putting extra tension on the strings (raising the pitch), then will shrink in low humidity (dropping the pitch). It is not uncommon that some of my client’s pianos will drop 20% or more in pitch during the winter months, and then go 20% sharp in the fall when we get a lot of rain. It will also develop hairline cracks in very dry climates and seasons, and those cracks often grow larger if they are neglected.
Preventing the swelling and shrinking of the soundboard helps the piano hold stable tunings, making practice and performance more enjoyable.
The piano should be treated like a houseplant. In order to thrive, it must be protected from extremes in temperature, humidity, and light.
Click here to visit the Piano Lifesaver website to learn more about how it protects your piano.

 

Beware the free piano

“It is best to hire a technician you trust to evaluate the piano before you take it home, even if it is a gift. It will save you a trip to the dump.”

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So someone offered you a free piano. That’s great!
If it’s not a lemon.
Stop to think about the reasons why someone may give it away and expect nothing in return. It may include one of the following reasons:
  • They don’t have time to sell it.
  • They have tried selling it but were unsuccessful.
  • They know the piano is not tuneable, and do not want to take it to the dump.
  • The piano is near the end of its useful life, and the current owner does not want to invest money in rebuilding it.
  • There are feelings of guilt associated with throwing it away.
This is not to say that every free piano is worthless. Once in a while, someone gets lucky and receives a free piano that is in good shape.
Keep in mind that the condition of the cabinet (outside of the piano) doesn’t tell you anything about the quality of the parts inside the piano. There are many moving parts, along with strings and a soundboard, trapwork, and a large metal plate.
Some piano technicians offer a piano inspection and appraisal service, and can give you more information about the current condition of the piano. A good technician will offer a little bit of education if you don’t know much about pianos.
This is a service that I offer to my clients. After inspecting the piano for structural problems, I look inside the piano for signs of corrosion and damage. Broken and malfunctioning parts are identified. I write down pertinent information about the piano and ask questions about its history. At the client’s request, I provide an estimate to bring the piano into “playable,” good, or excellent shape.
In a worst case scenario, the piano has problems that make it untuneable or give it a poor tone. Some of these problems include the following:
  • cracked pinblock
  • very old, brittle strings
  • corroded/dirty bass strings
  • soundboard cracks
Unless you have enough technical knowledge to identify these problems, it is best to hire a technician you trust to evaluate the piano before you take it home, even if it is a gift. It will save you a trip to the dump. Or the headache of coming up with the money for expensive repairs that you were not prepared for.
An appraisal and evaluation should be done anytime you are seriously considering buying a piano, due to the possibility of the seller not disclosing or being aware of improvements that the piano needs to bring it to an acceptable condition.