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Memorizing a Repertory

BY MADAME A. PUPIN.
 
A subscriber has requested some rules or suggestions for memorizing and for keeping up a repertory. If properly studied, a piece will be memorized long before it is learned.
 
Most persons begin to practice a piece at a rate of speed as near as possible to the actual tempo of the piece, and continue to practice at the same rate of speed, or faster, quite ignoring mistakes, imperfections, and hitches. They want to hear how the piece sounds; but they do not see that if they practice mistakes, the mistakes will remain; and they do not realize that this method of practice is a slow way to perfection. Let every passage be perfect the first time and every time thereafter.
 
Suppose the piece to be learned be similar in style to the "Perpetual Motion," by Weber. There is a very charming little piece, of only three pages, by Julian Pascal, called "Elfentanz," that will be a good piece to experiment on. A comparatively short time would show the wonderful results which the method of study that I am about to describe would lead to.
 
Divide the piece into sections of four measures each and begin to practice, with right hand alone, at one-fourth the rate of speed; that is, if the tempo of the piece should be 100 for a quarter note, by the metronome, begin with 100 for a sixteenth note. Play with the metronome, moving it by degrees until the fingers hesitate, or strike wrong notes. At the first mistake or wavering on the part of the fingers go back to the first tempo, or perhaps only half way back, and continue to increase speed until the second mistake. Let this point be the limit for that day's practice, and begin on the second four measures, at 100 for a sixteenth note, and work up to the stopping point of first four measures.1
 
It is a good idea to memorize the right-hand part first and get it up to the right tempo, as it makes it so much easier to put the bass in. The right hand, being already accustomed to its part, does not divide the attention, which can be more fully concentrated on the left-hand part.
 
The bass of this little "Elfentanz" appears to be quite difficult, because it is all chords and the thumb is used in each chord, and because it skips about so much; but this method of practice will make it quite tractable. It will be observed that the top two notes of the first chord are the bottom two of the second chord, all through the piece. Memorize two measures by playing them over a few times, observing their order; then begin practicing these two measures, both hands together, at 100 for a sixteenth note and increase speed as before.
 
A person accustomed to this method of practice will push the metronome ahead at each repetition, but one unaccustomed to it would better play each different degree of speed from two to four times. This method of practice requires concentration; for each repetition must be played in exactly the same way, and as perfectly as the finished piece is to be. The perfection of touch, tone, fingering and time is to be put into the first repetition, and carried right along through successive degrees of speed, and the first imperfection marks the limit of speed for that day's practice.
 
This slow practice gives confidence and repose, as it enables one to control the fingers until they fall into the habit of playing right. It also gives one a chance to think ahead, which he must do, in playing from memory, whether he plays slow or fast. Until the playing has become automatic one must practice no faster than he can think ahead.
 
It is well to begin the practice of a piece with a metronome, for it holds one back to the necessary degree of slowness, pushes him gradually forward, and shows him where his first imperfection comes in. At this point he must either stop, or go back to a much slower rate of speed and work up again. When the piece is memorized and can be played slow and fast, and all degrees between, the player may take the different tempos from the metronome, but not allow it to beat during practice. When, by practicing slowly sections of two measures, and later four, eight, or sixteen measures at a time the fingers have become so well trained that they do not need the constant supervision of the mind there will seem to be nothing between your mental conception of the piece and its realization.
 
A person accustomed to practicing at top speed might feel discouraged at beginning at 100 for a sixteenth note, and imagine it would take him forever to learn one piece. But, on the contrary, a trial of this method of study will show it to be a short cut to success.
 
Different persons have different ways of keeping up a repertory. One pianist said he kept his music in a pile and took off the top piece and, after playing it, put it on the bottom; so he was always playing the top piece, whatever it happened to be. This player took no account of moods, and doubtless one piece was the same as another to him. The habit of playing a piece to keep it in condition has two objections: First, it is tiresome; and secondly, it does not keep it in condition. It is better to go over one's pieces at a much slower tempo than the actual tempo of the piece, somewhat as if one were learning instead of playing a piece already finished. By continually playing a piece in its proper tempo little imperfections creep in unobserved. To keep up the time some parts are slurred over and difficult passages become less clear and perfect.
 
Everyone has observed a peculiar lack of interest when taking up one of the pieces of his repertory to study in this careful way, and an inclination to postpone the study of that piece to another day, and so on through the other pieces of the repertory; and when this inclination is indulged the result is the pieces slip away from us.
 
We cannot always keep ourselves at high pressure and force the mind to co-operate in tasks in which it takes no interest. But by studying the laws of our being, we can humor our moods and thus secure their co-operation and interest. While learning a piece we are continually stimulated by the prospect of getting it up to a certain tempo and finish; when this has been accomplished the stimulus is removed and the idea of practicing it in its entirety wearies us.
 
It is a very good plan to divide all one's pieces, long or short, into five equal parts and begin on the first day of every week to practice these portions of each piece in three or four different tempos; the first two tempos slow enough to secure accuracy in execution; then the next one or two tempos somewhat faster, though not up to the actual tempo, to observe if we have all the requirements of the piece under our control. Before we can get wearied with this piece we take up another, and the mind feels a fresh interest, and so on through ten or more different pieces. It may sometimes happen that a short piece, counting out repetitions, has but forty measures, and that gives only eight measures each day. In this way a goodly number of pieces can be gone over each day, and there is a feeling that much has been done. There is also a sense of satisfaction with the work that has been done on the short portion of each piece, because the mind did not relax its interest which it surely does in practicing a long piece from beginning to end every day, or even once or twice a week. In case of any failure to practice the task laid out for each day, the player has the sixth day to finish up odds and ends of practice.
 
 
[1] The metronome should not beat at 200 for a sixteenth, but the weight is put back to 100 for an eighth, which means the same thing. It is better never to put the weight lower than 184, but rather to take half the beat number for a note of twice the value.

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