How did one guy memorise Chopin’s entire piano works – all 3.5 MILLION notes?

17 October 2018, 17:06 | Updated: 17 October 2018, 21:49

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

Three years ago, Warren Mailley-Smith became the first British pianist to memorise Chopin’s complete works for solo piano, for one concert series. Here’s how he did it.

Frédéric Chopin composed 234 individual titles for solo piano, including his famous Nocturnes and Preludes.

These add up to a beautiful – but terrifying – 3.5 million notes, all of which British pianist Warren Mailley-Smith managed to memorise for a series of 11 concerts, that took place between September 2015 and July 2016.

“I was in my mid-30s and by that point, every year as you do concerts, you’re building up your repertoire and learning more pieces,” says Warren, who we met at Finchcocks, a home to piano courses, last week.

“And it occurred to me that I already had a lot of music at my fingertips – so I thought, why not fill in the gaps?”

Why Chopin and not, say, Mozart?

“Chopin is one of those composers whose music, by its nature, draws people to the piano. The majority of pianists have at least some Chopin in their repertoire,” says Warren.

“It’s great fun to play, and his music was one of the first classical composers that I came across. I encountered it when I was a teenager and I just fell in love with it.

“The music had been around for well over 200 years and there was still something incredibly fresh about it. I think that’s one of the reasons why Chopin’s music has never gone out of fashion.”

How do you memorise 3.5 million notes?

“In terms of memorising, when I was young and started playing the piano, I didn’t have a very scientific approach to memorising a piece. I just sat down and practised until I could play it – and then suddenly, it was in my head and I could play it from memory.”

But for this project, Warren needed to learn this vast amount of music in quite a short space of time. To do this, he relied on four types of memory: structural, aural, visual and muscle memory.

Structural memory

“When you have a lot of music to remember, it’s important to have very clear musical signposts in your head. When you have similar passages that go off in a different key or have some additional ornamentation, it’s important to be ultra-clear on those moments.”

Warren suggests using the structure of a pop song as a reference point. Just as a pop song has a chorus, verse and bridge passage, it’s useful to think of a piece of piano music as having different sections.

“You can save yourself a lot of time if you can figure out what all of these chunks of black and white notes on the page are. Having signposts is part of understanding the structure of a piece.”

Aural memory

Aural memory, Warren says, is about “listening to music and hearing the notes in our head and transferring the sounds in our head into shapes with our fingers”.

“Quite often, people say ‘I’m really good at sight-reading but I can’t play by ear’, while others say ‘I can play really well by ear, but I can’t sight-read at all’.

“But an ability to play by ear means you know exactly how the music sounds and what you want to say musically. So if you have a strong sense of that in your head, it makes playing from memory much easier.

“With this Chopin challenge, I was going to bed listening to my playlists, so I was programming my brain while I was asleep or in a queue at the bus stop.”

Visual memory

It’s a really useful skill to be able to memorise music just by reading the score.

“The ability to read music is absolutely essential. That’s actually also really tied in with memorising as well – the ability to visualise the score and absorb the information independently of the instrument.

“To be able to sight-read is to unlock the ability to really play the instrument, because that’s how we can immerse ourselves in a huge range of repertoire.”

Muscle memory

You can develop your muscle memory through repetitive practice, to make your fingers remember which patterns and shapes they have moved in before – but it’s important not to lean too much on muscle memory.

“If we sit there doing the same thing over and over again and desperately trying to memorise it but it’s not going in, it’s really important to take a step back and just look at the score, or just listen to it, and try to see the notes on the page as you’re listening to it. Sometimes, taking the physical process out of doing it makes it easier.”

“My advice would be to identify your strengths and weaknesses in terms of your ability to memorise. In other words, do you find it easy to visualise the page in your head, or do you rely more on muscle memory – that repetitive practice?

“Then, you can consciously work on which aspects of your memorising you struggle with, to improve them.”

What did you learn from the challenge?

“I remember being quite worried that by the end of this process, I was going to be sick and tired of hearing Chopin. But it had totally the reverse effect on me, and I’ve just fallen in love with his music even more.”

Warren is leading the UKs first Chopin Piano Course next March at Finchcocks, Kent. Find out more about Warren’s piano course here.