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6 minutes reading time (1286 words)

Learning away from the piano à la Gieseking

2013 Winning Essay Clavier Companion Collegiate Writing Contest

In the Spring of 2013, Clavier Companion sponsored its sixth annual Collegiate Writing Contest, inviting college students from around the world to submit 1,500-word essays on a pedagogical topic of their choice. The esteemed panel of judges was comprised of Ann Gipson, Andrew Hisey, and Victoria McArthur. We extend our congratulations to Larisa Soboleva, whose winning essay appears below. Two runner up essays, "Exploring Ideas for Effective Teaching," by Ashley Danyew, and "The Piano: A Great First Instrument but Terrible Last," by Brittany Utley, are published on our website and can be viewed by clicking here. We extend our congratulations to all of the entrants in a very strong field.

Collegiate students are the teachers of tomorrow and the future leaders of our profession. Clavier Companion is proud to provide them with an outlet for their ideas, and we will again sponsor this contest in 2014. The entry deadline will be June 1st, 2014 (see ad on page 53), and complete rules and regulations can be and can be viewed by clicking here.

Learning away from the piano à la Gieseking

The next time you are with a student and there is no piano around, try the Gieseking method of memorizing, and you may be pleasantly surprised. French-German pianist Walter Gieseking (1895–1956) is well known for both his legendary artistry and his skill in memorizing music away from the piano. He was said to be able to learn new pieces en route to the concert when he did not have access to his instrument. This legend had always fascinated me, so I was intrigued to find out that he explained his method in the book entitled Piano Technique, a compilation of two previous books co-authored with his teacher Karl Leimer: The Shortest Way to Pianistic Perfection and Rhythmics, Dynamics, and Other Problems of Piano Playing.1

Since Gieseking did not provide many musical examples of his method, and those that he did leave were intended for students who began their initial lessons with this approach to memorization, here is my adaptation of his ideas using a intermediate level piece. "The Matin Bell" from Characteristic Studies, Op. 109, by Friedrich Burgmüller, contains many benefits for a young musician, and, as you will see, it can serve as much more than an exercise in memorization. 

Gieseking's method is essentially an enhanced rote method, combining theoretical and musical narration with extra aid from visualization. At the core of the method is the training of the ear—learning to truly listen to oneself—which Gieseking considered essential for sound technical and musical development, even in the early stages of study. The many benefits of his surprisingly simple method of visualization become evident to anyone who gives it a try. 

For those interested in applying learning styles to teaching, it is striking to note how Gieseking's pianistic and pedagogical instincts led him to infer what we know today about the use of multiple sensory modalities for optimal learning. Theoretical and musical narrative requires declarative memory, a typical "left-brain" activity, while listening intently guided by notational visualization engages other parts of the brain related to aural and visual faculties. Gieseking advises the teacher to insist that beginners, even children, engage in this type of memory exercise at every lesson. The piano is not included in this process at all, which is counterintuitive to most, so the teacher needs to keep a close watch to ensure that the student understands the process. 

Asking the student to verbalize what is seen in a selected musical fragment or challenging him to write down the scores would be a fun way of assessing students' grasp of the visualization process. 

"The Matin Bell" 

Assuming your intermediate-level student has never tried visual memorization away from the piano but enjoys challenges, I would assign this piece at a level of preparation before or around the Bach Two-Part Inventions and easier classical sonatinas. Repertoire taught by rote can be at a more advanced level than those learned by a student independently, and this can be motivating for students. Taking note of the structure (ABA + Coda) and main technical and musical challenges, we will focus on sections A and B for the purpose of this article.


The first step is to visualize what Gieseking calls the "note-picture," observing the score with the help of verbal description to note more detail so that, as he puts it, it can be "written from memory."2 For the process described to be effective, the student should be the one verbalizing, with some prompting from the teacher to assist the student. To give you a clearer idea, the following examples are presented in the format of a teacher-student conversation:


After these steps, the student should try to reproduce the entire A section mentally. The teacher can ask the student to write down the score. If it is retained, the teacher and student can keep going. 

In the middle section we have to study the voices in the right hand separately. The conversation between teacher and student might continue as follows:


Visually memorizing the culmination (m. 18) is more effectively accomplished by starting with the left hand, where we have three harmonies: A-flat, D-flat, and A-flat in second inversion. The conversation can again continue:


When we memorize the cadenza (m. 22), visualization is less effective, and we need to memorize the sixteenth notes the conventional way, measure by measure. It may be helpful, however, to point out that the harmonic progression is still the same as the progression in mm. 18-20. Overall, this piece, studied this way, is very useful for developing both technical and musical skills, and for preparing students for works by composers such as Mendelssohn, Chopin, and Liszt. 

Students and teachers can benefi t from Gieseking's visualization method. It aids greatly in helping students grasp the musical big picture before working in the details. This approach can minimize the unnecessary step of having to break bad habits that arise when pieces are learned too slowly, without attention to musicality. As Gieseking recommends, not all the pieces students learn should be approached in this fashion, but the method should be used regularly as a practice for the brain, either in a small section or as the main learning objective of a longer assignment. 

This method can do wonders on occasions when the student is physically tired, and believing in its value can be a psychological lifesaver when one has no access to the instrument and feels pressure to continue making progress. The quality of memorization is stronger using this process, and the composer's marks can be followed more precisely when a clearer understanding of the musical events and intention precedes physical habits. 

Customary memorization relies mostly on physical repetition, along with tactile memory and aural familiarity, but this approach may (unfortunately) be followed without any attention to musical or theoretical features. In contrast, the resultant inner hearing from Gieseking's method is "pure," uninfluenced by physical renditions of the passage that may or may not have been ideal. The physical practice, can then begin, based on what is more likely a closer-to-ideal interpretation. Memorizing becomes easier and more interesting, and students can enjoy the progress in leaps and bounds. I have tried this myself with great success, and now I invite you to try the same. 


1Gieseking, W., and Leimer, K. (1972). Piano Technique. New York: Dover Books. This book contains the unabridged text from The Shortest Way to Pianistic Perfection (1932) and Rhythmics, Dynamics, Pedal and Other Problems of Piano Playing (1938). Both texts were authored by Gieseking and Leimer and published by Theodore Presser. 

2The Shortest Way to Pianistic Perfection, p. 14. 

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