It’s one of the great romantic images, isn’t it? The lone performer, faced with the huge black beast of a full-size concert grand piano on a bare stage, armed with nothing but his or her memory. And it’s one of the most absurd things musicians put themselves through. We have Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt to thank (or blame!) for the tradition of the concert pianist playing from memory, and both were significant in turning the piano recital into the spectacle it is today. Before the mid-nineteenth century, pianists were not expected to play from memory. Few pianists today would dispute this legacy, and now it is almost de rigeur, so much so that if you go to a concert where the pianist plays from the score, you may hear mutterings amongst the audience, suggesting the performer isn’t up to the job. Which is of course rubbish: sometimes, especially in contemporary or very complicated repertoire, it is simply not possible to memorise all of it. No other musician is expected to play from memory, though some virtuosi, and of course opera singers do.

When I had piano lessons as a child and teenager, I was not taught how to memorize music. Thus, there are very few pieces in my repertoire which I can play from memory now. However, in the course of my study for my Diploma, I realised the benefits of memorization, and I’ve made the practice and exercise of memory part of my daily diet in my practising. Piano students in music colleges and conservatoires are expected to memorise all their music and to perform from memory, and are taught the skills to facilitate successful memorization.

Playing from memory is not a virtuoso affectation. It allows the performer greater freedom of expression and communication with listeners, and if one is not glued to a score, one can be far more gestural. Memorization demonstrates a high degree of skill and application (high-level musicians often display mental agility akin to that of chess masters), and people often exclaim of concert pianists “how on earth does he/she remember all those notes?” (as pianists, we have to learn more than double the number of notes of any other musician). While each individual musician will have his or her own particular method of memorization, there are a number of proven strategies to assist in memorising music, and the storage and recall of information.

For the pianist, there are four kinds of memory, all of which must be employed when learning music:

Visual Memory: human beings use this part of their memory function to record large amounts of information, such as faces and colours and everyday objects. Music is made up of patterns and shapes, and the pianist uses visual memory to “picture” the score, as well as to recall the physical gestures involved in playing.

Aural/Auditory Memory: this is what enables us to sing in the shower! Music is an assortment of sounds, arranged in a certain order. The pianist uses aural memory to know he/she is playing the correct notes and to anticipate what he/she will play in the next few seconds.

Muscular/Kinaesthesic Memory: the ability to recall all the movements, gestures and physical sensations required to play music. Muscular memory is trained by repetitive practice: just as the tennis player practices his over-arm serve in exactly the same way each time to ensure a perfect delivery, so the pianist must employ repetitive practice to ensure the fingers land on the right notes every time.

Analytical/Conceptual Memory: the pianist’s ability to fully comprehend, absorb and retain the score through his/her intimate study and knowledge of it. This involves understanding structure, harmony, dynamics and nuances, phrasing, reference points, modulations, repetitions etc, as well as the context in which the music was composed, whether it is Baroque, Classical or Romantic, for example. This “total immersion” in the score should result in a rich, multi-layered awareness of it.

Many young students rely, often unconsciously, on auditory and visual memory, or on auditory and muscular memory, and many can play competently from memory. However, to play expertly from memory, and to ensure that one’s ability to download and deliver music accurately is completely secure, all four aspects of memory must be trained and maintained.

Students should be encouraged from the very first lesson to memorise their music, but discouraged from relying purely on muscular memory. They need to understand both the building blocks of the music, and its unique language.

Secure memorisation can lead to an assured performance and less performance anxiety. However, even the very best people can suffer from memory lapses, perhaps due to anxiety, lack of proper preparation, tiredness, stress, or any number of other factors. I’ve witnessed memory lapses in concert a few times: on each occasion, the performer managed to maintain the harmonic framework of the music, thus making the errors less obvious, but no less unsettling, and I’ve often wondered how many times post-performance the performer went over that section of the score to exorcise the mistake.

More on strategies for memorisation from The Musician’s Way blog.

With my Diploma behind me, it’s high time I set to work on learning new repertoire, in particular in preparation for my teacher’s spring weekend course.

The day after my diploma recital I woke with aching limbs, and a feeling of extreme tiredness akin to ‘flu, the effect of coming down after a big adrenaline/anxiety induced high (nervousness is surprisingly energy draining). I expect these symptoms are familiar to regular performers, but I was surprised by just how exhausted I felt. Instead of rising early and going straight to the piano as I normally do, I drifted through the day, listening to the radio and “pottering” in a way I hadn’t for months. I felt a little bereft without my diploma pieces to practice, but I’d vowed immediately after the exam that I would not “post mortem” the event. In the words of Doris Day “Que Sera, Sera”.

In his excellent book With Your Own Two Hands, Seymour Bernstein offers a sensible “cure” for post-performance ennui:

At this low point, we have only to let music itself take charge. For every challenge we can possibly want lies before us in the vast and inexhaustible repertory that cannot but replenish our spirit. For true musicians, depression is temporary because their music is permanent.

Two days after my exam, I went on holiday for week, but I did read some scores on my iPad, listen to music and think about the repertoire I wanted to look at on my return.

Chopin – Nocturne in E major, Opus 62 No. 2. The second of the Opus 62 and the last set of Nocturnes published in Chopin’s lifetime, charming and mature works of great expressiveness. The second of the set opens with a stately yet lyrical theme before a more restless middle section. The opening melody is then restated and the piece ends with one of the most exquisite cadences in all of Chopin’s music. Here is Pollini:

Nocturne No.18 in E, Op.62 No.2

Schubert – Impromptu in F minor, Opus 142 No. 1. I first learnt this a few years ago, and then lost interest in it. It is my second favourite of all of Schubert’s Impromptus, the A flat from the first set being my absolute favourite. I love the grand, classical, almost “Beethovenian” gestures of the opening measures, before the music gives way to a plaintive duetting figure. Schumann suggested that this Impromptu could form the opening movement of a Sonata – it certainly has the feel of a Sonata in its varied gestures and textures, yet it stands alone perfectly too. Here is Perahia:

Impromptu No. 1 in F minor. Allegro moderato

Bach, trans. Liszt – Prelude & Fugue in A minor, BWV 543. I heard this in concert recently, performed by Khatia Buniatishvili, who brought delicacy, clarity and grandeur to this work which Bach originally conceived for organ. Liszt demonstrates his deep reverence for Bach in his treatment of the material: he takes no liberties with the music, but rather simply enhances what is already there, capitalising organ sonorities, and some bravura chromatic figuration. Here is Khatia herself:

Bach/Liszt Prelude and Fugue in A minor / after BWV 543, S 462/1: Prelude

Bach/Liszt Prelude and Fugue in A minor / after BWV 543, S 462/1: Fugue

In a blog post linked to his book The Musician’s Way, author Gerald Klickstein says that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” – that it is very difficult to express in words the essence of music, though it is possible to discuss music in theoretical or academic terms, or to describe the skills and activities involved in making music.

Those of us who have had any formal music training will be familiar with the vocabulary, technical terms and explanatory words used when writing about music in an academic way:



Rondo form



Picardy third

Plagal cadence

Dominant seventh

Just a handful, and probably entirely familiar to all of us who studied music at least to A-level (high school) standard. These are all technical terms which tell us about the way music is constructed, and are standard terms when analysing music and describing it in an analytical way. But they don’t tell us much about the essence of the music.

When researching a book some years ago, I became fascinated by the ‘feel’ of piano music under the fingers and hands: what are the physical sensations of playing, say, the opening movement of Schubert’s last sonata or Debussy’s La Cathedrale engloutie? And what emotions are aroused in the performer as he/she plays such pieces? We should never play ‘cold’: even in practice we are – or should be – processing information all the time. How did that passage feel under the fingers? Was it awkward or comfortable? Did I like the sound I made there? What can I do to improve it? Sometimes, you know when you’ve nailed a particularly finger-twisting section when it suddenly flows with a wondrous synergy.

How do we describe that feeling to non-musicians, to the lay reader who simply wants an idea of a concert experience or performance in a review, or to the student who needs a simplified explanation of how to tackle a certain aspect of technique?

I encourage my students to think of descriptive words for the music they are studying. I was inspired to do this largely by the delightful and ever-expanding Musical Adjectives Project. Many students were quite inventive, proving that they had spent some time actually thinking about their music, and a lot of them felt the exercise had been very worthwhile. I fed the words into to create a word cloud – you can see the results here: I now regularly use this exercise in my teaching, and also when learning music myself.

In my music reviews, I’ve learnt to be both concise and descriptive, while avoiding unnecessary analysis or off-putting technical terminology. Most readers want a sense of what it was like to be there, the excitement of a concert experience that will encourage them to book tickets to see a particular performer. As a pianist myself, I know how a professional pianist has achieved a certain effect (ultra-light staccato, pristine passage work, sonorous chords) but I don’t think the average reader wants exhaustive explanations of arm weight! However, one technical term, ‘jeu perlé’, often used in relation to semi-quaver passages in Mozart, is perfect as it is also visual: imagine a pearl necklace, each pearl bead separated by a tiny knot. Well-executed jeu perle playing has a tiny ‘silence’ or ‘knot’ between each note and thus each sound is clearly defined.

I find myself using architectural or artistic words to describe the music I’ve heard in concert: arabesques, curlicues, filigree, arching, soaring, sweeping. Or more physical terms: bouncing, jogging, stamping, limping, dancing, throbbing, breathing, sobbing, hand-filling. Or weather: showering, thunderous, misty, dripping, rumbling, splashing.

We talk about ‘colour’ in music, often in relation to dynamics, from the most delicately nuanced pianissimo to bold fortissimos – and all the subtle shadings in between. Then there is light and dark – ‘chiaroscuro’ – bright, hazy, shimmering, veiled harmonies, tenebrous chords….

Sometimes we might describe a piece of music in relation to another: a passage of Debussy played with “a Mozartian clarity” (back to jeu perlé), Bachian arabesques, Schubertian melodies, Debussyan harmonies. Or we can use the sound of other instruments: brassy, fluting, string or woodwind articulation.

So, taken all together we have a rather fine vocabulary with which to write about music. Of course words can never recreate the exact sounds of a piece, and each listener’s and concert goer’s experience is highly personal and subjective, but if a review or description of a work excites you, moves you or gives the sensation of actually being there, then the writer has done a good job.

More on the Musical Adjectives Project here

Imagery. Emotion and Imagination – blog post by 3-D Piano




I’d love some more guest articles on this blog – on any aspect of pianism, piano teaching, performing or general musical musings. Please contact me if you would like to contribute.

Pianist, teacher and writer Catherine Shefski studied at Smith College, Massachusetts, and at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London, where she was taught by EPTA founder, Carola Grindea.  Catherine has performed as a soloist and chamber musician, has taught “virtual” piano lessons, and writes an informative blog, All Piano, with the mission to “make piano lessons relevant for the digital generation”.

During my piano playing “formative” years, age eight to seventeen, I studied with four piano teachers. Two teachers at college and four post-grad brings the total to ten. Each teacher contributed something to my growth as a pianist and as a teacher. I find myself passing along choice tidbits of information to my students, clearing up confusion about musical terminology and offering practice tips.

I’d like to share just a few lessons I learned along the way, in addition to all the repertoire, which made certain teachers (and lessons) memorable.

  • Piu means “more” and peu means “little.”
  • Piu mosso means more motion and meno mosso means less motion.
  • Accidentals do not affect the same note of a different octave, unless indicated by a key signature.
  • Senza means without and sempre means always.
  • To shape the melodic line it usually makes sense to go to the long note.
  • If there is no fingering written in the score, follow the “next note, next finger” rule.
  • Una corda means use the soft pedal (one string); tre corda means release the soft pedal (three strings).
  • When you have two phrases with identical notes and rhythm, make them different by dynamic contrast or a change in touch.
  • Grace notes in Chopin are generally played on the beat.
  • F# minor melodic scale is the only scale that changes fingering on the descent.
  • m.d. (main droite) right hand and m.g. (main gauche) left hand.
  • With a ritardando at the end of a piece pay attention to the space between the notes. Should be incrementally longer with the longest wait before the last note.
  • When working on very soft passages, practice “excavating the pianissimo.” In other words, begin from nothing and then gradually you’ll get to the softest sound possible.
  • Before playing extended octave passages, try flipping your arm over and reaching an octave with your hand upside down, fingers pointing to the floor. It a good stretch!
  • Sopra means above.
  • Sotto voce meas “under voice”, or soft.
  • A staccato note under a slur is a portato. Think of it as a “plump staccato.”
  • When working for dynamic contrast, practice stopping and preparing before the change.
  • When working with large complicated chordal passages, practice squeezing the chord to shape the hand. Your muscles will remember.
  • Sightread chords from the bottom to the top.
  • To play a passage of thirds, fourths, fifths, etc. legato lift the finger that is to be repeated while connecting the rest.
  • When in doubt sing the melody.

© Catherine Shefski


I received an email late last night from my teacher (who I haven’t seen since the early autumn) wishing me luck in my Diploma exam next week, and offering, I felt, a genuine endorsement of all the learning and preparation I’ve put in over the past year. In her final paragraph, the line “try to remember what excited you about these pieces in the first place” reminded me of how important it is to keep repertoire alive and fresh, even if one has been working on it for a long time.

A busy professional pianist will need to have several programmes of music “in the fingers” at any given time, which can be made ready for some kind of performance at any given time. Alongside that there is new repertoire to be learnt, old repertoire to be revised, overhauled, finessed, or just simply kept going. And then there is the “emergency” repertoire – stepping in for an indisposed colleague or being required to learn something quickly. “Note bashing” is no substitute for the hard graft of careful, in-depth learning, spending time with the music and understanding what makes it special.

One of my students was amazed when I told him I had been working on the Debussy ‘Sarabande’ for a year and a half. “Don’t you get bored with it?” he asked. I replied that, on the contrary, I actively look forward to spending time with my Diploma pieces each day, and I do so with a degree of excitement and anticipation. A long association with a work can make one hyper-sensitive to all its subtleties and nuances, yet with that growing familiarity, one can also approach it in new ways. Listening or playing around the music can also offer new insights; also, playing for others, as I have done in the course my preparation for my exam, has thrown up new thoughts and ideas. I believe that this “living with the music” – and for some of my pieces that includes just having the score lying around my home, open on a table or by my bed so I can see it – gives one a profound understanding of the music. These days, it strikes me that many young pianists learn far too many pieces too quickly, perhaps pushed by tutors or, more likely, promoters and PR people to make them more appetising to the listening public. While one may marvel at the vast repertoire someone like Lang Lang carries in his fingers and his head, listen carefully to a performance of say, his Chopin Études at the Festival Hall earlier this year, and you will hear a largely superficial reading of these extraordinary pieces. Surface artifice, showy technical wizardry, crowd-pleasing pianistic gimmickry seem to be the order of the day, rather than a true understanding of the music. Alternatively, there is middle-of-the-road technique and formulaic modes of expression (nothing too controversial, but sounding sufficiently exciting or natural to satisfy crtics and audience) which also avoids having to confront the music head on, and live with it.

When I selected the pieces for my diploma over a year ago, I did not, then, have a clear idea of how I would organise the programme. I selected the repertoire on the basis of my passion and love for the music (which is always my criteria for selecting repertoire), though I was aware, at the back of my mind, that I should choose a range of music that would demonstrate my ability to handle different styles and tempi. With my teacher’s recent comment in mind, here is a brief resumé of what excites and interests me about the pieces in my Diploma programme:

Bach – Toccata in E minor from 6th Partita BWV830: Bach was an obvious choice: I hadn’t learnt any Bach seriously since school (amazingly, since I adore his music), but my teacher warned against selecting anything too intricate or fast as rapid semiquavers in an opening piece could trip me up. This Toccata is grand and serious, redolent of the Toccata in D minor in its chromaticism, yet it combines more virtuosic/decorative toccata elements with the singing serenity of the fugue subject and involving contrapuntal textures. It is cerebral and meaty: I play it virtually every day, even if I don’t need to, as I love to lose myself in its intricacies. It requires total mental commitment. When I play it, I see the interior of a northern European Baroque church, gold arabesques and curlicues adorning the fundamental architectural structure.

Debussy – ‘Sarabande’ from Pour le Piano: I’ve always loved the music of Debussy, especially his piano music. The first piece I learnt as a junior piano student was a simplified version of the Prelude La Fille aux cheveux de lin (‘The Girl with the Flaxen Hair’) and this remains a favourite piece. I liked the nod back to a Baroque model in the suite Pour le Piano and intended to present both the ‘Prelude’ and the ‘Sarabande’ in my exam programme. But the Prelude proved too tricky. The Sarabande sits perfectly with the Bach and is a calming contrast to the intricacies of Bach’s writing. I love the shifting colours of this piece and the ambiguous parallel harmonies.

Schubert – Impromptu in E flat, Opus 90 No. 2: I first learnt this piece when I was about 14, and played it very badly then! My teacher advised me not revive something I’d learnt in my teens, but I persisted with this piece and simply approached it in an entirely new way, to the extent of buying a new Henle score (my Peters Edition had disintegrated!). I felt it was important to have something rapid, playful and contrasting in the the middle of my programme. I love the “prettiness” of the opening section – too many pianists play this too darkly for my liking – and the rough gypsy flavour of the trio and coda. It is an immensely difficult piece, not least because of its speed, and there is a tendency to focus on tempo rather than shaping. Played well it dances and mesmerises: my turner got a bit lost in it when we rehearsed earlier in the week and forgot to turn for me, despite some serious head-nodding on my part!

Liszt – Sonetto 123 del Petrarca: My first serious foray into Liszt and proof that I could play Liszt, having avoided him for years, thinking his music unplayable for an amateur. This piece soothes after the frenetic Schubert, with a beautiful, romantic melodic line, interspersed with breathless climaxes. Played badly, this music can sound schmaltzy and self-indulgent. I have tried to let the music “breathe” (listening to the earlier song versions has been very helpful) and relax. It is one of my most favourite pieces and has inspired me to learn further pieces from the Annees de Pelèrinage.

Karol Szymanowski – Mazurkas Opus 50: A friend once said to me, “If you like Chopin, you’ll love Szymanowski”. It’s true that some of his music shows a clear connection with that of his fellow countryman, but he also drew influence from Debussy and Ravel, as well as Bartok and Smetana. The Mazurkas have a rough folksy edge with moments, especially in the first one, which could be pure Debussy. The second one adds a nice roughness and energy after the Liszt and before the Messiaen…..

Olivier Messiaen – ‘Regard de la Vierge’ from the Vingt Regards: I found this piece deeply arresting the first time I heard it, not because of its profound religiosity and spiritualism, but because of its soundscape. This was my first serious attempt at atonal music, and now I am hooked. It is full of interesting colours and textures, is absorbing to play and expresses concepts that are far bigger than us.

My exam recital is next Wednesday. Having lived with most of these pieces for over a year now, it will be strange to wake on Thursday morning and think what I should be practising….. but also very exciting to be considering new repertoire.

You can hear my complete programme on SoundCloud via the Media page.