Piano Performance: Music Inertia VS Phrase Control

Updated: Feb 27

Piano Performance: Music Inertia VS Phrase Control

When we play a piece we have studied thoroughly, we used 5 different memories:

  1. The memory of the name of the notes

  2. The memory of how the piece sounds

  3. The memory of how the piece looks on the score

  4. The memory of the piece looks in the keyboard

  5. The memory of how the piece feels in our fingers

Some of these memories develop very strong roots inside our brain. These roots are experienced as strong reflective movements which help performing difficult passages at fast speed. The memories that work in this way are the sound and the muscle memories. On the downside, these reflections work much better when the flow is continuous. For that reason, when we play using these memories exclusively, we will find more difficult to start from different sections of the piece than when we use other resources.

It is true that music inertia (the fact that notes come to our mind faster when we start from the beginning) affects all memories, but the aforementioned ones are particularly dependant on it. So which memory’s development should we prioritize when preparing to perform in front of an audience? The memory of the name of the notes. This one is the one we always struggle the most to build and use. The main reason: it is the most abstract of all. It demands a bigger effort but it worths applying it. This memory can provide us with the power of singing through the piano.

When the Romanians refer to performing the piano, they do not use the verb “play” but the verb “sing”. This is a very wise way of describing what we should be doing when we make musing using this rather indirect instrument, the piano. The memory of the names of the notes, allows us to easily manage the attacks and to maintain a higher level of control over dynamics and phrasing. This is due to its relation with the speech. We are all very used to speak in an organised way; the voice cadences can show our intentions to the listener or even our moods.

Daniel Barenboim in his book “A life in Music” mentions that language affects the way we perceive music. I adhere 100% to this statement, and I base partially mine on the same ideas.

We should work hard on reinforcing the memory of the name of the notes, not by singing them, but, at the beginning, just by saying them aloud while we play. In this way we will slowly create a memory of how each note sounds. Sooner or later we will be able to hear the notes while we say their names. Eventually we will be able to study when we are not in front of the instrument. Accessing this information even without the score will increase our independence from the score and from the visual resources in general. Most importantly, as it is a fairly difficult task to achieve, it will allow us to focus all our intellectual resources into performing and following our musical plans, rather than getting distracted with stimuli from our near surroundings.

The issue with the sound and the muscle memories relates mainly with how we access these memories. As we mentioned before these memories are quite dependant on music inertia therefore there are more difficult to organize partially.

On the contrary, if we manage to make a clear and strong acknowledgement of the musical text, we will be able to manipulate music in a far more effective week. The memory of the name of the notes ties up with the memory of how the score looks and the memory of how the piece looks in the keyboard, so reinforcing it means you gain control over most of the musical material involved in the act of playing the piano.

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