Robert Estrin - piano expert

Why it's So Hard to Start in The Middle of a Piece

Learn how the human mind works to explain this question

In this video, Robert gives you a scientific explanation to answer this pretty common question in music practice.

Released on January 12, 2022

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription I'm Robert Estrin here. Why is it so hard to start in the middle of a piece? You ever had that situation? Maybe you are practicing and something fumbles and you want to start there. You try and you go, ah, forget about it. You just go back to the beginning because it's so hard to start in the middle. Worse yet, you're in the middle of a performance and you have a finger slip or a moment of memory insecurity and you go, oh, my gosh. You're trying to start in the middle and you just can't do it and you got to go back to the beginning. You go, oh, man. You feel so terrible and the audience is fidgeting there because they already heard you play all that already. This is a real issue. So, first the why and then I'm going to offer you some solutions.

It has to do with the way the human mind works. You see, learning things sequentially is much, much easier than random access memory. For example, have you ever see these memory geniuses who can remember thousands of digits or hundreds of digits? Some of these people are just unbelievable. Or, they can remember countless unrelated items and you wonder how do they do it. The secret that they use is relating something to something else. If you had random objects and you wanted to remember them sequentially, the first crazy idea that comes into your head, a visual image, can really help. So you want car, toaster. Imagine a toaster with a car popping out of it. That's a really weird image that came to my mind, so now I have a car and a toaster. And then you go, now what's next thing?

Well of course I went backwards really. But car, toaster and then orange. Now we have the car and the toaster. The toaster is popping out an orange. The more outlandish visual images ... and you can do a chain of dozens of unrelated things. If the visual images are so ridiculous that you can't forget them, so the more abstract. But the point I'm making here is the sequential nature of the memory. Now in school growing up, I learned all kinds of music because my father taught me how to memorize. For my first lesson when I was a young child I had to memorized all my music and didn't think anything of it. Well, in school though, oh, my gosh. If I had social studies, you had to memorize all these dates and wars and generals and battles, all that stuff. I had no idea how to learn that kind of stuff.

The sequential nature of learning is so powerful. So then what do you do when you want to start in the middle of a piece? You're so used to going through it all at once there's a certain amount of motor memory. Your fingers themselves remember where to go. Once you get off that track, they have no idea where to go anymore. Well, there's a few things you can do to remedy this. Number one. In your practice whenever there a problem and you stop to fix it, find the place in the score. I know it's painstaking to do that, but by finding the place in the score and making yourself start there, you will gain that ability to start at that place. If you had insecurity that time, you know what? You may have insecurity another time and if you know how to start there, boom. It's a life saver.

Anytime you have a problem, something messes up in your practice, that's an opportunity to solidify, to learn how to start right at that point. That's a terrific way of solidifying. Now there's more that you can do. Practicing incessantly with the music after you've memorized something is really helpful. Taking the score, looking at it as you play slowly without the pedal. Utilizing the metronome where appropriate and going through and solidifying. Now one of the best techniques of all, and I've talked about this in the past. If you've never done it, if you have a piece you've memorized and it's pretty secure but you still have issues with it, you wonder what could you do to make it totally solid, be able to start anywhere? Well, the answer to that is to be able to try to play it without the benefit of playing it on the piano.

First, try just playing it on a tabletop. Have the score nearby so when you get to a point you go, what note am I playing in the third finger of the right hand? You find it in the score. You go, ah. Go back a little bit and pass that point until you can play the whole thing on a tabletop or any surface. Play it in your lap if you like. Then the ultimate is be able to play without even the benefit of moving your fingers. Think it all through. Boy, when you can do that, there is a security that comes. That's why for example, memory problems often happen when you have leaps in music because your fingers have a memory all their own. I talk about that motor or muscle memory. But when you have to jump from one section of the keyboard to another, then you have to be cognitive of where you're jumping to.

Now worse yet are pieces that have repeated sections in different keys. We have a sonata for example or a sonatina where in one section you jump from one key to another key and later the same thing comes back, but it goes to a different place. You have to be very deliberate and study your score to remember first time D, second time A or whatever it might be. Lock it in your brain and then be present in your performance enough to know, yes, the second time I go to A or E, whatever it may be. You have to be able to really have that in the back of your brain ready, looking down in yourself so it's not all just automatic pilot. You can't trust finger memory. They are a godsend having that to work with. If people didn't have that to work with, I don't think that pianists could memorize the massive amounts of music nearly as easily.

Now, of course, conductors have to memorize scores or many of them do. They have to know the scores and they don't have the benefit of the fingers. Of course, many conductors are pianists so they may flesh out a lot of it on the keyboard. But for all you pianists out there, take advantage of what you know up here. The sound of the music, the feel of the keys, the visual of the keys. The whole playing experience away from the instrument is awesome. In the meantime, as a first step, make yourself find where you are in the score and start from there. That's going to help you if you ever mess up in those particular places in performance.

I hope this is helpful. Again, I'm Robert Estrin here at, your online piano resource. Thanks for subscribing. If you like the videos, you can ring the bell. That brings it in focus to other people on YouTube. See you next time.
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