Mental Practice

Question: I have a question regarding mentally practicing the piano. The last expert tip on the Efficient Piano Practice page suggests to study away from the piano. I have heard that a number of great pianists such as Glenn Gould and Walter Gieseking spent most of their practice time away from the piano and learned new pieces just by studying the score. What did they actually do when they practiced mentally? How did they manage to mentally learn a new piece so that they could play it on the piano straightaway?

– Marcel (Dublin, Ireland)

Albert’s reply: Walter Gieseking outlined his (actually his teacher’s) method in detail in the 1932 book he coauthored with his teacher Karl Leimer, The Shortest Way to Pianistic Perfection. Briefly summarized, the method involves analyzing every piece in great detail, translating it into verbal sentences such as “The piece is in 6/8 meter, in C major. The right hand starts with a dotted quarter rest, then come three descending eighths in double thirds, starting on C-E two octaves above middle C. The second measure continues this descending pattern in the right hand, with G-B on the downbeat and D-F on beat two.”

It’s a very good idea to analyze all of your pieces in this manner since it transfers the locus of memory away from the fingers, thus both complementing and reinforcing kinesthetic (muscle) memory.

Very often I find that a confusing passage yields more easily to conscious analysis than it does to further repetition. Making conscious observations – and verbalizing them – often solves such problems because the problems arise from not completely understanding the passage. Simple observations expressed as short statements often solve the problem. An example might be, “The thumbs coincide the first time the motive is played, and the right hand index finger plays together with the left thumb the second time.”

All of us rely on different types of memory, and since playing the piano is a psycho-physical act, one that involves repeated strengthening of nerve pathways to effect a patterned motor skill, we do need to rely most on muscle memory.

What’s most important is that the different forms of memory reinforce one another to the point of synergy, collectively forming a greater whole. Mental practice helps to achieve this end by transferring mostly automatic (i.e., subconscious) movements to the realm of conscious association.

My only major criticism of the Leimer/Gieseking method is that nowhere in their book do they mention that the music should be heard in the mind. Their method is strictly analytical – it does not involve ear training.

It is greatly preferable to hear each voice in the music in your mind’s ear, and indeed it is a necessity, the way a conductor needs to hear each instrument in his mind. You can verify that you’re actually hearing each voice by singing the voices in turn (using solfège), then playing that voice on the piano to check your accuracy. Your aural memory will eventually guide your fingers, and every detail of the music’s sound will form an integral part of your mental impressions of the piece.

It’s also worth noting that Gieseking had a photographic memory and had little personal need for a formal, detailed method as outlined in his book.

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