Sight Readers versus Memorizers:

Learning Bach's Inventions; Inventions #1, #8, #13; Quiet Hands; Sinfonia #15

Many good sight readers are poor memorizers and vice versa.

This problem arises because good sight readers initially find little need to memorize and enjoy sight reading, so they end up practicing sight reading at the expense of memorizing. The more they sight read, the less memory they need, and the less they memorize, the worse memorizers they become, with the result that one day they wake up and conclude that they are unable to memorize. Of course, there are naturally talented readers who have genuine memory problems, but these comprise a negligibly small minority. Therefore, the difficulty of memorizing arises principally because of a psychological mental block built up over long periods of time. Good memorizers can experience the reverse problem; they can't sight read because they automatically memorize everything and rarely have a chance to practice reading. However, this is not a symmetric problem because practically all advanced pianists know how to memorize; therefore, poor memorizers also had the misfortune of never having acquired advanced technique; that is, the technical level of poor memorizers is generally lower than that of good memorizers.

"Sight reading" is used loosely in this section to mean true sight reading as well as practicing music with the help of the score. The distinction between sight reading a piece one had never seen and a piece that had been played before is not important here. In the interest of brevity, that distinction will be left to the context of the sentence.

It is more important to be able to memorize than to sight read because you can survive as a pianist without good sight reading ability, but you can't become an advanced pianist without the ability to memorize. Memorizing is not easy for the average pianist who was not trained in memory. Sight readers who cannot memorize face an even more formidable problem. Therefore, poor memorizers who wish to acquire a memorized repertoire must do so by starting with a mental attitude that this is going to be a long term project with numerous obstacles to overcome. As shown above, the solution, in principle, is simple -- make it a practice to memorize everything before you learn the piece. In practice, the temptation to learn quickly by reading the score is often too irresistible. You need to fundamentally change the way you practice new pieces.

The most difficult problem encountered by sight readers is the psychological problem of motivation. For these good readers, memorizing seems like a waste of time because they can quickly learn to play many pieces reasonably well by reading. They might even be able to play difficult pieces by using hand memory, and if they have a blackout, they can always refer back to the music in front of them. Therefore, they can manage without memorizing. After years of practicing piano this way, it becomes very difficult to learn how to memorize because the mind has become dependent on the score. Difficult pieces are impossible under this system, so they are avoided in favor of a large number of easier compositions. With this awareness of potential difficulties, let's try to work through a typical program for learning how to memorize.

The best way to start is to memorize a few, new, short pieces.

Once you successfully memorize a few pieces without too much effort, you can start building confidence and improving the memorizing skills. When these skills are sufficiently developed, you might even think of memorizing old pieces you had learned by reading.

My piano sessions are either memorizing sessions or technical practice sessions. This is because playing other materials between memory sessions will make me forget whatever I had recently memorized. During technical practice sessions, I almost never need the score. Even during memorizing sessions, I use the score only in the beginning and then put it away as soon as I can.

As an example of short pieces to memorize, let's learn three of Bach's 2-part Inventions: #1, #8, and #13. I will go through #8 with you. After learning #8, try #1 yourself and then start on #13. The idea is to learn all three simultaneously, but if that proves too taxing, try two (#8 and #1), or even just #8. It is important that you try only what you think you can comfortably handle, because the objective here is to demonstrate how easy it is. The schedule given below is for learning all three at once. We are assuming that you have learned the material of sections I to III, and that your technical level is such that you are ready to tackle the Bach Inventions. The pedal is not used in any of the Bach Inventions.

Bach's Invention #8, day one.

The time signature is 3/4 so there is one beat per quarter note and each bar (measure) has 3 beats. The key signature shows one flat, which places the key one step counter-clockwise from C major on the circle of fifths -- or F major. Start by memorizing bars 2 to 4 of the LH, including the first two notes (conjunction) of bar 5. It should take less than a minute to memorize; then start playing it at speed. Take your hands off the piano, close your eyes, and play this section in your head, visualizing every note and key that you play. Then do the same for the RH, bars 1 to 4, including the first 4 notes of bar 5. Now return to the LH and see if you can play it without the score, and similarly with the RH. If you can, you should never have to refer to this part of the score again, unless you have a blackout, which will happen once in a while. Go back and forth between the LH and RH until you are comfortable. This should take only a few minutes more. Let's say that this whole procedure takes 5 minutes; less for a fast learner.

Now learn bars 5 to 7, including the first 2 notes of the LH and the first 4 notes of the RH in bar 8. This should be completed in about 4 minutes. These are all HS practices; we will not start HT until we finish memorizing the whole piece HS. However, you are free to try HT at any time, but do not waste time practicing HT if you do not make immediate, fast progress because we have a schedule to follow! When starting bars 5 to 7, don't worry about forgetting the previously memorized bars -- you should put them out of your mind. This will not only reduce mental tension and confusion (by not mixing different memorized sections), but also make you partially forget the previously memorized section, forcing you to rememorize for better retention. Once you are comfortable with bars 5-7, connect bars 1-7, including the conjunctions in bar 8. It may take 3 minutes to do both hands, separately. If you forgot bars 2-4 while learning 5-7, repeat the learning process -- it will come very quickly and the memory will be more permanent. Don't forget to play each section in your mind.

Next memorize bars 8-11, and add them to the previous sections. Let's assign 8 minutes to this part, for a total of 20 minutes to memorize bars 1-11 and to bring them up to speed, HS. If you have technical difficulties with some parts, don't worry about it, we will work on that later. You are not expected to play anything to perfection at this time.

Next, we will abandon bars 1-11 (don't even worry about trying to remember them -- it is important to remove all sense of anxiety and to let the brain concentrate on the memory task), and work on bars 12-23 only. Break this section up into the following segments (the conjunctions should be obvious): 12-15, 16-19, and 19-23. Bar 19 is practiced twice because this provides extra time to practice the difficult 4th finger in the LH. Work only on bars 12-23 until you can play them all in succession, HS. This should take another 20 minutes.

Then finish off bars 24 to end (34). These might be learned using the following segments: 24-25, 26-29, and 30-34. This may require another 20 minutes, for a total of 1hr to memorize the whole thing. You can now either quit and continue tomorrow, or review each of the three sections. The important thing here is not to worry about whether you will remember all this tomorrow (you probably won't), but to have fun, maybe even trying to connect the three sections or to put the beginning parts HT to see how far you can go. Work on parts that give you technical problems when you try to speed them up. Practice these technical workouts in as small segments as you can; this frequently means two-note parallel sets. That is, practice only the notes you can't play satisfactorily. Jump from segment to segment. The total time spent for memorizing on the first day is 1 hour. You can also start on the second piece, Invention #1. Between days 1 and 2, practice playing in your mind whenever you have extra time.

Day two:

review each of the three sections, then connect them. Start by playing each section in your mind before playing anything on the piano. You might need the sheet music in some places. Then put the music score away -- you will seldom need them again except for emergencies and to double check the accuracy during maintenance. The only requirement on the 2nd day is to be able to play the whole piece HS from beginning to end, both on the piano and in your mind. Concentrate on bringing up the speed, and go as fast as you can without making mistakes. Practice relaxation. If you start to make mistakes, slow down and cycle the speed up and down. Note that it may be easier to memorize playing fast, and you might get memory lapses playing very slowly, so practice at different speeds. Don't be afraid to play fast, but make sure that you balance this with sufficient intermediate speed and slow play so as to erase any FPD. Beginners have most difficulties at chord changes, which often take place at the beginning of a bar. Chord changes create difficulties because after the change, you need to play a new set of unfamiliar notes.

If you are completely comfortable HS on the 2nd day, you might start HT, using the same small segments used to learn HS. The first note of bar 3 is a collision of the two hands, so use only the LH and for this note, and similarly in bar 18. Play softly, even where "f" is indicated, so that you can accentuate the beat notes to synchronize the two hands and practice relaxation. You will probably be slightly tense in the beginning, but concentrate on relaxing as soon as possible.

Moderate speed is often the easiest speed to play from memory because you can use the rhythm to keep you going and you can remember the music in phrases instead of individual notes.

Therefore, pay attention to the rhythm from the very beginning. Now slow down and work on accuracy. To prevent the slow play from speeding up, concentrate on each individual note. Repeat this fast-slow speed cycle and you should improve noticeably with each cycle. The main objectives are to completely memorize it HS and to speed up the HS play as much as possible. Wherever you have technical difficulties, use the parallel set exercises to develop technique quickly. You should not need more than 1 hour.

Day three:

learn HT in the three major sections as you did with HS. As soon as you notice confusion setting in HT, go back to HS to clear things up. This is a good time to further increase the speed HS, up to speeds faster than final speed (more on how to do this later). Of course, those with insufficient technical skill will have to play slower. Remember: relaxation is more important than speed. You will be playing faster HS than HT, and all attempts at increasing speed should be conducted HS. Since the hands are not yet well coordinated, you should have some memory lapses and it may be difficult to play HT without mistakes unless you play slowly. From here on, you will have to depend on the slower post practice improvement to gain any major improvement. However, in 3 hours over 3 days, you have basically memorized the piece and can play, perhaps haltingly, HT. You can also play the entire piece in your mind.

Now start on the second piece, #1, while you polish up the first piece. Practice the two pieces alternately. Work on #1 until you start to forget #8, then go back and refresh #8 and work on it until you start to forget #1. Remember that you want to forget a little so that you can relearn, which is what is needed to establish long term memory. There are psychological advantages to using these "win-win" programs: if you forget, that is exactly what you were looking for; if you can't forget, that's even better! This program will also give you an idea of how much you can/cannot memorize in a given amount of time. Youngsters should find that the amount you can memorize at one time increases rapidly as you gain experience and add more memorizing tricks. This is because you have a run-away situation in which the faster you memorize, the faster you can play, and the faster you play, the easier it becomes to memorize. Increased confidence also plays a major role. Ultimately, the main limiting factor will be your technical skill level, not the memorizing ability. If you have sufficient technique, you will be playing at speed in a few days. If you can't, that just means that you need more technique -- it does not mean that you are a poor memorizer.

Day four:

There is not much you can do to rush the first piece technically after two or three days. For several days, start practicing #8 by playing HS, then HT, at different speeds according to your whim of the moment. As soon as you feel ready, practice HT, but return to HS if you start making mistakes, have memory lapses HT, or if you have technical problems getting up to speed. Practice playing the piece HT in segments, jumping from segment to segment at random throughout the piece. Try starting with the last small segment and work backwards to the beginning.

Isolate the trouble spots and practice them separately. Most people have a weaker LH, so bringing the LH up to faster than final speed may present problems. For example, the last four notes of the LH in bar 3 (Inv. #8), 4234(5), where (5) is the conjunction, may be difficult to play fast. In that case, break it up into three parallel sets: 42, 23, and 345 and practice them using the parallel set exercises. Then connect them: 423 and 2345. 423 is not a parallel set (4 and 3 play the same note), so you cannot play this as fast as parallel sets. First bring them up to nearly infinite speed (almost a chord) and then learn to relax at those speeds, playing in rapid quads (see section III.7b). Then gradually slow down to develop finger independence. Join the parallel sets in pairs and, finally, string them all together. This is actual technique enhancement and therefore will not happen over-night. You may see little improvement during practice, but you should feel a distinct improvement the next day, and a lot of improvement after a few weeks.

When you can play it HT, start playing HT in your mind. This HT practice should take a day or two. If you don't complete the task of playing in your mind now, for most people, you never will. But if you succeed, it will become the most powerful memory tool you have ever used.

By day 5 or 6

, you should be able to start piece #13 and begin practicing all three pieces every day. An alternate approach is to learn only piece #8 well first, then after you have gone through the entire procedure so that you are familiar with it, start #1 and #13. The main reason for learning several pieces at once is that these pieces are so short that you will be playing too many repetitions in one day if you only practiced one. Remember, from day one, you will be playing at speed (HS), and from day two, you should be playing at least some sections faster than final speed. Also, it takes longer to learn these three pieces, one at a time, than three together.

Beyond day two or three, how fast you progress will depend more on your skill level than memory ability. Once you can play the entire piece HS at will, you should consider the piece memorized. This is because, if you are above the intermediate level, you will be able to play it HT very quickly, whereas if you are not that advanced, the technical difficulties in each hand will slow the progress. Memory will not be the limiting factor. For HT work, you will obviously have to work with coordinating the two hands. Bach designed these Inventions for learning to coordinate the two hands and, at the same time, to play them independently. This is the reason why there are two voices and they are superimposed; also, in #8, one hand plays staccato while the other plays legato.

All three pieces discussed above should be completely memorized in one to two weeks and you should begin to feel comfortable with at least the first piece. Let's say that for two weeks, all you did was to concentrate on memorizing these three pieces. Now if you go back to old pieces that were memorized previously, you will find that you don't remember them as well any more. This is a good time to re-polish them and to alternate this maintenance chore with further polishing of your new Bach pieces. You are basically done. Congratulations!

How well you can play from memory depends on your technique as well as how well you have memorized. It is important not to confuse lack of technique with the inability to memorize, because most people who have difficulty memorizing have adequate memory but inadequate technique. Therefore, you will need methods for testing your technique and your memory. If your technique is adequate, you should be able to play comfortably at about 1.5 times final speed, HS. For #8, the speed is about MM = 100 on the metronome, so you should be able to play both hands at about 150 HS. At 150, you got Glenn Gould beat (albeit HS - he plays at around 140)! If you cannot do well above 100 HS, then you must improve your technique before you can expect to play HT at anything close to 100. The best test for memory is whether you can play it in your mind. By applying these tests, you can determine whether you need to work on technique or memory.

Most people have a weaker LH; bring the LH technique up as close to the RH level as possible. As illustrated above for bar 3 of the LH, use the parallel set exercises to work on technique. Bach is particularly useful for balancing the LH and RH techniques because both hands play similar passages. Therefore, you know immediately that the LH is weaker if it cannot get up to the same speed as the RH. For other composers, such as Chopin, the LH is usually much easier and does not provide a good LH test. Students with inadequate technique may need to work HS for weeks before they can hope to play these inventions HT at speed. In that case, just play HT at comfortably slow tempos and wait for your HS technique to develop before speeding up HT.

Bach's music has a notorious reputation of being difficult to play fast, and is highly susceptible to FPD (fast play degradation, see section II.25). The intuitive solution to this problem has been to patiently practice slowly. You don't have to play very fast to suffer FPD with many of Bach's compositions. If your maximum speed is MM = 20, whereas the suggested speed is 100, then for you, 20 is fast and at that speed, FPD can rear its ugly head. This is why playing slowly HT and trying to speed it up will only generate more confusion and FPD. Now we know the reason for that notorious reputation -- the difficulty arises from too many repetitions of slow HT play, which only increases the confusion without helping your memory or technique. The better solution is HS, segmental practice. For those who had never done this before, you will soon be playing at speeds you never dreamed possible.

Quiet hands. Many teachers justifiably stress "quiet hands" as a desirable objective. In this mode, the fingers do most of the playing, with the hands moving very little. Quiet hands is the litmus test for technique acquisition. The elimination of unnecessary motions not only allows faster play, but also increases control. Many of Bach's music were designed for practicing quiet hands. Some of the unexpected fingerings indicated on the music score were chosen so as to be compatible with, or facilitate, quiet hands play. Some teachers impose quiet hand playing on all students at all times, even for beginners, but such an approach is counter-productive because you can't play quiet hands slowly so there is no way to teach it at slow speed. The student feels nothing and wonders why it is any good. When playing slowly, or if the student does not have sufficient technique, some extra motion is unavoidable, and is appropriate. To force the hands to be motionless under those conditions would only make it more difficult to play and create stress. Those who already have quiet hands technique can add a lot of motion without detriment when playing slowly or fast. Some teachers try to teach quiet hands by placing a coin on the hand to see if it is quiet enough so that the coin will not fall off. This method certainly demonstrates the teacher's recognition of the importance of quiet hands, but it does nothing for the student. If you are playing Bach at full speed using quiet hands, a coin placed on your hand will immediately fly off. Only when playing beyond a certain speed does quiet hands become obvious to the pianist, and necessary. When you acquire quiet hands for the first time, it is absolutely unmistakable, so don't worry about missing it. The best time to teach the student what quiet hands means, is when playing sufficiently fast so that you can feel the quiet hands. Once you have it, you can then apply it to slow play; you should now feel that you have much more control and a lot more free time between notes. Thus quiet hands is not any specific motion of the hand but a feeling of control and the near total absence of speed walls.

In the case of the Bach pieces discussed here, the quiet hands become necessary at speeds close to final speed; obviously, the speeds were chosen with quiet hands in mind. Without it, you will start to hit speed walls at the recommended speeds. HS practice is important for quiet hands because it is much easier to acquire and feel it in your hands when played HS, and because HS play allows you to get to quiet hands speed more quickly than HT. In fact, it is best not to start HT until you can play in the quiet hands mode with both hands because this will reduce the chances of locking in bad habits. That is, HT with or without quiet hands is different, so that you don't want to get into the habit of playing HT without quiet hands. Those with insufficient technique may take too long a time to attain quiet hands, so that such students may have to start HT without quiet hands; they can then gradually acquire quiet hands at a later time, by using more HS practice. This explains why those with sufficient technique can learn these inventions so much faster than those without. Such difficulties are some of the reasons for not trying to learn pieces that are too difficult for you, and provide useful tests for whether the composition is too difficult or appropriate for your skill level. Those with insufficient technique will certainly risk building up speed walls. Although some people claim that the Bach Inventions can be played "at any speed", that is true only for their musical content; these compositions need to be played at their recommended speeds in order to take full advantage of the technical lessons that Bach had in mind. There is an over-emphasis on speed in this section because of the need to demonstrate/achieve quiet hands; however, do not practice speed for speed's sake since that will not work because of stress and bad habits; musical play is still the best way to increase speed -- see section III.7.i.

For those with stronger RHs, quiet hands will come first with the RH; once you know the feel, you can transfer it to the LH more quickly. Once it kicks in, you will suddenly find that playing fast becomes easier. This is why HT practice doesn't work for learning new Bach pieces -- there is no way to get to quiet hands quickly.

Bach wrote these Inventions for technical development. Thus he gave both hands equally difficult material; this provides more challenges for the LH because the bass hammers and strings are heavier. Bach would have been mortified to see exercises such as the Hanon series because he knew that exercises without music would be a waste of time, as demonstrated by the effort he put into these compositions to incorporate music. The amount of technical material he crammed into these compositions is incredible: finger independence (quiet hands, control, speed), coordination as well as independence of the two hands (multiple voices, staccato vs legato, colliding hands, ornaments), harmony, making music, strengthening the LH as well as the weaker fingers (fingers 4 and 5), all major parallel sets, uses of the thumb, standard fingerings, etc. Note that the ornamentals are parallel set exercises; they are not just musical ornaments but are an integral part of technical development. Using the ornaments, Bach asks you to practice parallel sets with one hand while simultaneously playing another part with the other hand, and producing music with this combination!

Be careful not to play Bach too loud, even where F is indicated. Instruments of his time produced much less sound than modern pianos so that Bach had to write music that is filled with sound, and with few breaks. One of the purposes of the numerous ornaments and trills used in Bach's time was to fill in the sound. Thus his music tends to have too much sound if played loudly on modern pianos. Especially with Inventions and Sinfonias, in which the student is trying to bring out all the competing melodies, there is a tendency to play each succeeding melody louder, ending up in loud music. The different melodies must compete on the basis of musical concept, not loudness. Playing more softly will also help to achieve total relaxation and true finger independence.

If you want to learn one of the Sinfonias (3 part Inventions), you might try #15 which is easier than most of the others. It is very interesting, and has a section in the middle where the two hands collide and play many of the same notes. As with all Bach compositions, this one contains a lot more than first meets the eye, so approach it with care. First of all, it is allegro vivace! The time signature is a strange 9/16, which means that the groups of six 1/32 notes in bar 3 must be played as 3 beats, not 2 (three pairs of notes instead of two triplets). This time signature results in the three repeat notes (there are two in bar 3) that have thematic value and they march across the keyboard in characteristic Bach fashion. When the two hands collide in bar 28, raise the RH and slide the LH under it, both hands playing all the notes. If the thumb collision is problematic, you might eliminate the RH thumb and play only the LH thumb. In bar 36, be sure to use the correct RH fingering: (5),(2,3),(1,4),(3,5),(1,4),(2,3).

Finally, let's discuss the last necessary step in memorizing -- analyzing the structure, or the "story", behind the music.

The memorizing process will be incomplete until you understand the story behind the music. We shall use Invention #8. The first 11 bars comprise the "exposition". Here, the RH and LH play basically the same thing, with the LH delayed by one bar, and the main theme is introduced. The "body" consists of bars 12 to 28, where the roles of the two hands are initially reversed, with the LH leading the RH, followed by some intriguing developments. The ending starts at bar 29 and brings the piece to an orderly finish, with the RH re-asserting its original role. Note that the ending is the same as the end of the exposition -- the piece effectively ends twice, which makes the ending more convincing. Beethoven developed this device of ending a piece multiple times and raised it to incredible heights.

We now present some explanations for why developing such a "story" is the best and perhaps the only reliable way to memorize a composition permanently. That is how all great musicians organized their music.