No one can take it away

The “Lady in Number 6” is a short but truly inspirational film about 109-year old Alice Hertz-Sommer, a concert pianist and the oldest holocaust survivor until her death earlier this year. After a remarkable and long life, this irrepressible lady played piano every day until the end, recalling many of the pieces that literally saved her life. Sommer played over 100 concerts whilst imprisoned in a concentration camp, including all of Chopin’s 24 etudes from memory.

I can’t hope to do justice to such an incredible story in this blog. But the film gives simply the best reason ever for memorising music: “Put as much as you can into your head, because no one can take that away from you.” Can’t argue with that.

Watch this short clip but be prepared to be amazed, inspired and humbled:

Posted in Musings, Reviews | Tagged | Leave a comment

Fabulous Folk

I have just spent a merry few days at the fabulous Cambridge Folk Festival. Although I don’t personally play any folk music, or traditional folk instruments, I love the melodies, wonderful rhythms and a good dance! There was some amazing musical talent on display at the festival, and a veritable panoply of live instruments – fiddle, flute, guitar, pipes, harp, drums, etc – played staggeringly well (as evidenced by the awesome Irish band Lúnasa, pictured below).


Perhaps unsurprisingly, I didn’t see a single sheet of notated music at the festival. Every performer in all of the sets I watched played from memory. Indeed, playing folk music from memory is largely expected, and while various ‘fake’ books of folk tunes exist, folk musicians often learn music by ear rather than using a score. Although some of the melodies and rhythms are undoubtedly highly repetitive, there is enormous skill in having (seemingly) hundreds of tunes ‘in the fingers’ as well as the skill to decorate and combine them in exciting new ways.

Learning music by ear removes one of the key memory aids, namely a visual memory of the score. Although singers will usually have the words written down somewhere, and the chords may be notated on a ‘cheat sheet’, the same is not necessarily true of the melody. Musicians must therefore rely more heavily on other types of memory, including motor memory (through repetitious practice) and auditory memory (through listening to the music). Learning to recognise musical intervals and translate them onto the instrument is particularly important when relying heavily on auditory memory. Even if there is no formal score to analyse, it is important to have a good mental map of each piece, such as the structure and harmonic patterns, otherwise it is easy to get lost. As with classical chamber music, visual communication between folk musicians in a band is also important for key and tempo changes.

While I’m hugely impressed by the musical memory of folk musician, both amateur and professional, I remain somewhat baffled as to why it has become so different in the classical world. Although many classical pieces are extremely complex and no doubt harder to memorise than folk tunes, which have often withstood the test of time largely as a result of being memorable, I think part of the reason for the difference is simply expectation. Folk music is usually played without a score, so folk musicians are expected to learn how to memorise from an early stage and have to rely on it. Unlike classical musicians, who are often required to read music and use the score, folk musicians are generally encouraged to join in and play by ear. Regardless of the musical genre, that must be a skill worth learning.


Posted in Musings | Tagged | 3 Comments

How to memorise music, in theory and practice

sunflowerThe question of whether anyone can memorise music was a hot topic of conversation at the magical Lot piano course for advanced amateur pianists, which I had the privilege to attend last week. Our insightful teacher Susan Tomes gave two wonderful concerts from memory, and was clear about the importance and usefulness of memorising. Despite some marvelous playing (and epic multi-part sight-reading!), most participants did not play from memory and were clearly nervous about trying; I did play from memory (obviously…) and was very pleased not to have any memory lapses throughout the five pieces I played (though I still made plenty of errors)! I don’t think I would have managed that a few years ago, and the course got me thinking about how to pull together everything I’ve learnt over the last 18 months of this blog.

So, how do we memorise music and what practice strategies help? I’ve settled on just two key points about memorising that I think are really useful, both of which suggest various practice strategies for memorising:

(1) Chunking and chaining

chainlinksflippedWe can only memorise things in small chunks, which then have to be joined together like links in a chain to form a sequence. The size of each chunk depends on the prior knowledge of the individual, so that although some skilled performers might be able to memorise large sections of a piece, others should focus on a phrase or even a bar at a time. The fact that we memorise in chunks suggests various specific practice strategies:

  • Identify patterns (scales, chords, harmonic progressions, repeated motifs, etc.) that can form appropriately sized musical chunks for learning. If you have to memorise each note individually it will take much longer as the chunks will be small and plentiful!
  • Learn musical ‘chunks’ (bars, phrases, sections, etc.) and repeat each individual chunk until it is memorised. Try varying a few things – such as articulation, tempo, voicing, rhythm and even key – to improve detailed memory. Remembering new things is hard work, so take regular breaks, then come back and check your memory.
  • Work on the links between chunks, again looking for musical patterns or familiar signposts to help make the transition from one chunk to the next. Eventually small memorised chunks become long sequences, but beware of the links in the chain. Memory slips often occur at the boundaries between chunks (particularly if they coincide with pages of the score), so practice starting within chunks rather than only from boundaries.

(2) Multiple representations (visual, auditory, motor, cognitive)

LayersMusic can be stored in our memory through various different representations, and if our memory for one representation fails, the others can act as a back-up. Even if your fingers can’t find the notes, your mind should know what they are, and vice versa. Since music is much more than the sum of its parts, these complementary representations also provide a framework for integrating all the tiny details with the bigger picture. Again, the fact that we can form multiple representations suggests several specific practice strategies:

  • Analyse the music, in order to build up a holistic view of the piece from a purely conceptual perspective. Although this sounds daunting to many people, it is actually not that difficult and can be very interesting and informative. Formal analysis is not required, but a basic knowledge of the themes and harmonic progressions that occur through a piece is stunningly useful for memorising and interpreting the music.
  • Study the music away from the instrument, which can include looking at the score (to build up visual memory for the score or to analyse the music), listening to performances (either recorded or inside your head), ‘playing the notes’ on a table, or writing out the score from memory (to find our where your memory is fuzzy). Neuroimaging studies have indicated that thinking about doing something, such as playing or listening to music, activates the same regions of the brain as actually doing it, so the value of mental practice should not be underestimated.
  • Keep practising! Ultimately we need to be able to produce the notes without too much conscious thought, and the best way to build muscle memory is through repetition, repetition, repetition. But make sure to play accurately (don’t practice mistakes!) and always with musicality.


I am a firm believer that anyone can memorise music, although there is no doubt that it will always be more of an uphill struggle for some than others. But even if memorising is difficult, even if it is a burden, there are still good reasons to try. In addition to the mental benefits that come from memorising, it is wonderfully fulfilling to be able to sit down at one’s instrument and simply play without needing the score. More importantly from a performance perspective, some sections of difficult works are essentially unplayable if the performer has to manage the dual challenge of looking at the score as well as the fingers, and of course memorising provides a great solution to unwieldy page turns!

I’m convinced not only that memorising is worth the extra effort, but also that musical memory can be improved through practice, and that the fear of a memory lapse in performance will gradually lessen. Although musical memory may not come naturally to everyone or work reliably without some effort, it will develop and can be practiced. The ideas listed above have helped me understand and improve my musical memory enormously, so perhaps they will help you too. As Gerald Klickstein (author of The Musician’s Way) recently remarked in The Strad, “With intelligent practice… all of us can acquire the knack to step on stage, free of the printed score, and share music from our souls.”

Posted in Musings | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Memorising Beyond the Notes

notationsMost of the time when we think about memorising music, we think about learning the notes. This is perfectly natural of course – without the notes, of which there can be a great many, there would be no music, no melody, no harmony. However, getting the notes right is only part of the story, and how the notes are played is just as important. Dynamics, tempo, attack, articulation, phrasing, voicing – these extra notations are crucial to making music and can change a mediocre rendition into a brilliantly insightful interpretation. However, memorising these markings can be just as big a task as learning the notes.

Unlike the notes themselves, in general there are two different types of additional notations to memorise: those written on the score as prescribed by the composer, and those decided by the performer who is interpreting the work. Depending on the composer (and the performer!) the relative weight of these two can vary hugely! Baroque composers such as Scarlatti and Bach expected a certain degree of improvisatory freedom from their performers so their scores are typically extremely sparsely notated. In contrast, Twentieth Century composers such as Schoenberg and Ravel wanted as much control over the performer as possible and their scores are often densely marked. Either way, during the course of learning a piece, a performer must learn when to use a variety of:

  • dynamics (i.e. loud, soft, getting louder or softer)
  • tempo (i.e. fast, slow, getting faster or slower)
  • attack (i.e. start of the note, from gradual to sudden)
  • articulation (i.e. continuity of a single note, or transition between multiple notes, e.g. staccato, slurred etc.)
  • phrasing (i.e. shape of a group of notes)
  • voicing (i.e. prominence of an individual note among several when played simultaneously)
  • instrument specific markings (e.g. mute, pedal for pianists, etc.)

I wouldn’t suggest for a moment that learning these markings is a separate endeavour from learning the notes – far from it, they should be learnt together. But we should recognise that memorising notations is in itself an important part of learning a piece. As with notes, memorising can occur in multiple ways:

  • Visual – what has the composer marked on each note and in each bar? Can you see it in your mind’s eye away from the score? Where exactly is each marking placed?
  • Auditory – what should each note or group of notes sound like? Can you hear it in your mind’s ear? Can you perceive it clearly when listening to a performance?
  • Motor – do your muscles ‘know’ how to play each note or phrase? Are you producing the sound you want?
  • Cognitive – what is the musical purpose of each notation? How does it fit into the overall structure of the piece? Which notations are fixed by the composer and which can be decided by the performer?

Pianist and writer Susan Tomes recently remarked on her blog that, in her experience, the composer’s markings are often largely ignored by students. I have certainly found that to be true, and although I can often write out from memory the notes of pieces I have memorised, I can rarely remember the dynamic markings, where exactly to begin a change (such as increasing or decreasing the volume or speed), or how notes are grouped into phrases in the score. Part of the reason for this, I would suggest, is not that we disagree with the composer’s markings or actively intend to ignore them, but simply that we do not focus on learning notations. We spend our time learning notes, chord progressions and fingerings. But when creating and communicating a musical interpretation that accurately represents the composer’s intentions as well as those of the performer, as much attention should be given to the information surrounding the notes as the notes themselves.

Posted in Musings | 1 Comment

Interview with… Jeremy Ng (pianist)

JeremyNgPlease tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
My musical journey started with the piano when I was about 7 or 8. At that time, I did not like piano and was forced by my parents to learn it. When I was 13, I joined the school military band playing the flute, and about a year later, I became serious with learning the flute. It was also around this time that I started really picking up interest in piano as well, and music in general. I listened not just to flute music, but also piano and orchestral works. However, I decided that I should focus on one main instrument, and so I just played the piano occasionally for leisure. While in the school symphonic band, I competed and performed in many music festivals. I held the section leader appointment where I led the flute section. I also attained my DipABRSM in Flute Performance when I was about 18, and I was a finalist (junior category) in the 1st Singapore Flute Festival.

When I turned about 21, I started gradually playing more and more piano, as its repertoire spoke to me at a much deeper level. It also allowed me to have greater freedom of expression. I have recently started making piano videos and uploading them to YouTube. Right now I’m 23 and I consider myself an amateur pianist.

Do you actively memorise music and perform without a score? If not, why not? If so, why? When in your musical development did you start to memorise?
Memorising begins as soon as I start learning a piece of music. Almost every single work I learn is memorised automatically. For flute, it just happens naturally from all the hours put into practising. Or just simply from playing them over and over again, because I enjoyed the pieces I learnt. I don’t have to put in an extra session dedicated just for memorisation. I still perform with the score, but it’s used only as a safety net. Very often, I’m playing for fun at home, an entire work without any score.

For piano, it is the same in that memorisation begins as soon as I start learning a piece. But there is more to it. When I found interest in the piano when I was about 13, I didn’t have a teacher any more, and was free to learn whatever I like. It so happened that all the piano repertoire I loved were actually way out of my reading capabilities, so a lot my “practice” was actually really more of memorising work. I was way too slow at reading music, and never thought of exercising my sight-reading abilities. I regretted that, because today, my sight-reading is horrendous.

It’s only recently that I started to become more conscious of the way I memorise. The reason for making this decision is because, while I became good at memorising, I was fast to forget as well.

Have you ever had a major memory lapse during a performance and, if so, what happened?
It’s never happened to me. And I think it’s very unlikely to happen for flute, because you don’t play chords, just single notes. It’s too easy. However, I can easily see this happening if I were to perform a solo piano recital. I’ve only performed publicly once in my life on the piano, and there wasn’t any major memory lapse for that one. There was a slight blank-out moment though, but I was fortunate enough to get back on track quickly.

Are there any particular types of music – pieces, composers or genres – that you find particularly easy or difficult to memorise, and why?
No, they are all pretty much the same for me. Or at least I haven’t noticed any difference if there is. I get lost in time very often while at the piano, so there might be a possibility that I do take a little longer to memorise certain types of music without even knowing it.

How do you memorise music? Are there particular techniques you use? Do you use visual memory, and if so, what do you visualise?
Now that I’m more conscious of my memorising, I do not just rely on the muscle memory I acquire from practising, or from playing a work from start to finish several times out of leisure. At least that’s the case for music that I intend to have memorised for a long period of time.

One of the most important methods I use right now is to ensure I’m able to start from as many different places as possible in the music. Sometimes, even in the middle of awkward passages. Like many amateurs, I used to be able to only play from start to finish. The second method is to make sure I can play with either RH or LH separately. I also often do this in the middle of practising even if the particular passage is easy enough for me to play with hands together immediately. It’s important that I actually see all the keys I’m hitting, and practising hands separately achieves that. The third method I use is to visualise my hands playing the music. I can either do this at the piano, or away from it. I make sure I can visualise my fingers pressing every single key clearly.

At what point during learning a piece do you work on memorisation?
As mentioned above, memorisation begins as soon as I begin practising a new work. But conscious effort at memorising only begins after I’ve mastered a piece.

How do you deal with memory lapses? What tricks do you use to prevent it happening during a performance?
I guess prevention starts right in the practice room! If I master the 3 methods mentioned above well enough, I should be comfortable enough to get back on track in the event that I still encounter a memory lapse. Also, I might do some improvisation on the fly!

Are there particular techniques you use for maintaining your memory of specific music over a long period of time (i.e. years)?
The same as the 3 methods above. Nothing really specific. If I had to maintain memory for years, I would simply revisit the piece every few months and repeat the process of the 3 methods. I think this is preferable to playing the piece over and over again every single day, just to ensure you don’t lose memory. This is because every time you lose memory and regain it back, you actually strengthen the memory.

What do you think is the role of musical memory in creating new music, either through improvisation or composition?
I don’t think I’m experienced enough to answer this. For me, improvisation / composition is inspired simply from listening to lots of music and analyzing lots of scores, but not necessarily having musical ideas specifically memorised. I guess it’s something like writers. When writers read widely, particularly books by great authors, their writing will inevitably improve.


Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Analysis of Schubert’s last Piano Sonata

I’ve recently started learning Schubert’s humungous last piano sonata, D960 in Bb major. Written in 1828 just months before his premature death at the tender age of 31, the sonata is a poignant farewell to life with a mixture of joyous melodies and angry outbursts. Heavily influenced by meeting Beethoven, who died just a year earlier, Schubert penned three last piano sonatas around the same time, all published posthumously, of which this is the last and perhaps most serene. Despite languishing in obscurity for decades, all three of these last sonatas are now considered master works.

The sonata has taken me a while to really understand, but it has been well worth the effort! We are taken on an incredible lyrical journey, from an epic first movement, through a heart-breaking second moment, followed by an energetic scherzo and finally a dramatic rondo. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to hear Paul Badura-Skoda playing this piece live in concert last month. With the benefit of a lifetime’s study, he created an incredible sense of intimacy and his interpretation sparkled with insight. Have a listen to one of his many recordings of this piece:

Because the first movement in particular is so long (for a single movement), I decided that taking an analytical approach early on in the learning process would be useful both to increase my understanding of the piece and to help with memorisation. The movement is in classical sonata form, which essentially means that it has three clear sections with certain ‘rules’ linking them:

(1) Exposition – the first subject is presented in the tonic key, followed by a second subject usually in the dominant; the whole exposition is usually marked as repeated
(2) Development – substantial development and modulations of the themes
(3) Recapitulation – a return to the exposition, but ending in the tonic and capped with a coda to finish

MusicalPerformanceFormal analysis can be quite daunting, but having just read In Musical Performance: A Guide to Understanding (ed. John Rink, Cambridge University Press, 2002), I was inspired to take Peter Hill’s advice and study the score away from the piano. In the same book, John Rink describes a number of ways to go about analysing a piece for the benefit of performance, which includes identifying formal divisions and creating a tonal plan. Doing a fairly basic analysis is actually quite fun, incredible informative and really not that difficult!I worked from the start of the piece in chunks, trying to identify sections and themes, and recorded just four things about each chunk:

  • bar numbers (for ease of reference)
  • principle key
  • theme (or its derivative)
  • overall dynamic

To analyse the first movement only took about an hour with pencil and paper and at the end of the hour I was much clearer about the musical material in the piece and its organisation. I’ve referred repeatedly to my sheet of A4 throughout memorising this movement, and it has helped create a map of the piece. There is a very clear structure to the piece, with a clear arrangement of thematic material makes, and knowing this makes it easier to focus on potentially tricksy transition points. There are some shocking tonal transitions (from F to C#m between the exposition and development for example!), but nonetheless the same basic thematic material is used both economically and creatively. Particularly useful is the realisation that the Recapitulation is almost identical to the Exposition, except that Theme II and III are transposed up a fourth. The beautifully simple main theme (Theme I) appears nearly a dozen times throughout the movement, from the start to the final coda, providing familiar ‘safe’ territory for listener and performer alike.

Here’s my analysis (which comes with my usual health warning: I’m not a musicologist, so there may be errors, and the definitions of thematic boundaries are my own). I’ve colour-coded it by theme to highlight the structure and give a bit of clarity. Inevitably, a great deal of detail is lost when paring a sonata down to this level, but nonetheless I think it provides a useful frame of reference. Perhaps it will prove helpful to someone else too?




Posted in Musings | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Spontaneity in Music

StephenHoughOver on the Cross-Eyed Pianist’s blog, the wonderful pianist Stephen Hough said something in his interview that has really resonated with me: “study the score intensely then play as if you’re improvising”.

I’ve written previously about improvisation, or spontaneous composition as some like to call it. Despite being primarily associated with jazz, its routes are firmly grounded in classical music. Baroque performances were filled with opportunities for the performers to demonstrate their skills at extemporisation and ornamentation and some of the great classical pianists such as Bach and Chopin were renowned improvisers. Although it is rare in the modern world, there are still classical musicians who improvise regularly, and even those who are not natural improvisers would do well to practice it, as being able to improvise briefly and persuasively may be the only way out of a tight spot in a concert when a sudden memory lapse strikes!

However, classical improvisation has undoubtedly become a rare treat. Twentieth century composers such as Ravel and Stravinsky were publicly scathing of improvisation and interpretation, and required performers to adhere strictly to the exact instructions of the composer as detailed in the score. Compounded by the development and rise of recorded performances over the last few decades, this sentiment has pervaded classical music to the point where minor interpretive differences between near identical performances are now the focus of musical critique.

However, I don’t think improvising per se is quite what Hough had in mind when he made his comment. Rather, he is referring to the need for musicians to bring a spontaneous quality to their playing, in spite of many hours of hard labour spent doing meticulous and precise practice. Classical musician in particular spend an enormous amount of their time learning repertoire to extremely exacting standards – notes, rhythms, articulation, phrasing, dynamics, harmonies, structure, etc. This involves many hours pouring over a score, listening to recordings, and doing highly repetitive practice to get a piece to a state where it might eventually be ready for public consumption. Nonetheless, we value creativity and originality in our performers, and relish live music for the potential novelty it offers. How then do we add a fresh, improvisatory feel to a piece, as if – like many listeners – we are discovering the magic of the music for the first time?

One of the reasons many people play from memory is that it gives the performer more freedom, both physically and mentally. In 1915, Edwin Hughes wrote that “performing with a bundle of notes obstructs absolute freedom of expression and the most direct psychological connection with the audience”. By releasing ourselves from the tyranny of dots on a page, we can truly listen to the music and find new meaning. We can stretch time, emphasise different sounds, and bring familiar music alive with new ideas.

In Musical Performance: A Guide to Understanding*, renowned music psychologist Aaron Williamon wrote that “many performers agree with this view… that performing from memory frees them to create and communicate novel musical interpretations, and allows them to cast aside the unnecessary mental crutch and musical security blanket of the printed page”. In an interesting experiment, in which audiences were asked to rate the expressivity and communication of otherwise identical performances with and without the score, Williamon was able to show that “audiences rate the memorised performances higher than non-memorised” one. In the same volume*, Peter Hill writes that “we need to recognise that practice may blunt our creative intelligence” and we must take steps (such as mental study prior to physical practice, espoused by Hill) to “liberate our musicality”.

Nearly 300 years ago, in his Essay on the Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments, CPE Bach wrote that we should “play from the soul, not like a trained bird!” This same sentiment still holds true today – although musicians must invest enormous energy in studying the score and playing the notes as the composer intended, they must also strive for a level of creativity in performance that more closely resembles improvisation. If playing from memory can help achieve that lofty aim, surely all musicians should at least give it a try?

* Musical Performance, A Guide to Understanding, ed. John Rink (Cambridge University Press, 2002)

Posted in Musings, Reviews | Tagged | 4 Comments