Interview with… Caroline Wright

I thought it would be a good idea to test my interview questions thoroughly before inflicting them on the unsuspecting musical public. So in addition to asking friends for their thoughts, I decided to try answering the questions myself to see how it felt. Here are the questions I’ll be posing to other musicians in this blog, along with my own answers. 

CWright_standingPlease tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
I’m a keen amateur pianist and composer. I started learning piano at the age of 7, and began composing almost immediately after that. I largely stopped practicing for several years when I went to University to study natural sciences, where I specialised in chemistry and molecular biology. I bought myself a piano and restarted lessons as soon as I got a job and haven’t looked back since. Over the last 5 or so years, I’ve done two performance diplomas (ATCL and LTCL) and have had a few of my own compositions performed publicly in the UK and Europe. I occasionally perform in public (usually under duress!) and always from memory.

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?
I have memorised music as along as I can remember. I think I probably started initially due to a problem with my eyesight (one lazy eye) which made it difficult for me to shift my gaze between the score and my hands. I’m also a dreadful sight-reader but can play by ear, so it just seemed easier to memorise. I continue to memorise music now simply because I much prefer being liberated from the score. I find playing from memory really enjoyable as allows me to really focus on the music itself.

Have you ever had a major memory lapse during a performance and, if so, what happened?
Yes, I’ve had a few. The worst was probably when I was just a small child; I forgot all the notes and completely froze during a performance in front of the whole school! After what felt like aeons, my music teacher gently nudged my arm, freeing me from the complete paralysis that had set in, and I went back to the beginning, started again and successfully managed to play through to the end of the piece. But it was a traumatic experience! These days I frequently have very minor, very irritating memory lapses, but I can usually cover them up well enough that most people don’t notice. I did recently have a complete memory lapse during a performance of a complicated Bach Fugue (BWV 944) just days before playing it in a competition – I spent a few second stumbling around, and eventually managed to jump forward and pick it up again about a dozen bars later. That was the most dramatic memory loss I’ve had as an adult, and a real shock to the system!

Are there any particular types of music – pieces, composers or genres – that you find particularly easy or difficult to memorise, and why?
I find pieces that jump around the keyboard particularly hard to remember as the motor memory just doesn’t form properly. Highly chromatic and non-repetitive passages are also cognitively difficult, but my problems (so far) tend to be with pieces or sections rather than composers. I think I might struggle to memorise something reasonably contemporary like Ligeti though.

How do you memorise music? Are there particular techniques you use?
As I child I just memorised without giving it a thought. It was only as an adult amateur that I started thinking about how I memorise, partly stimulated by my inspirational teacher Heli Ignatious-Fleet (who will be the next interviewee!) and partly by a need to reduce the potential for public humiliation. I now actively memorise using a combination of techniques, as I think this is the key to achieving security. I study the score in sections, and try to figure out the structure and harmonic progressions. I also have a very visual memory for the keyboard itself, and like to be able to see the notes I’m going to play in my mind’s eye. I use auditory memory too, particularly in mental practice. And obviously motor memory plays a large part, but I try not to rely on it anymore; rather, I try to scrutinise every note under my fingers until I really know exactly what I’m playing.

At what point during learning a piece do you work on memorisation?
Almost immediately, depending on the piece. I usually play a piece through a good few times to familiarise myself with it and decide if I really want to learn it. I once tried to learn a whole score on a train journey (third movement of the Mozart Sonata in A minor) which worked to some extent – my mind knew the notes, but my fingers didn’t!

How do you deal with memory lapses? What tricks do you use to prevent it happening during a performance?
Other than panicking? Well, I’m trying to develop techniques and hoping to pick up from tricks from the pros through this blog. As a child, I performed with the score at the piano as a safety net – I didn’t ever look at it, but nonetheless knew when to reach up and turn the page, which must have looked ridiculous! The main thing I’ve done recently to help with this problem is mindfulness meditation to help stop my mind wandering and prevent the little devil in my head from goading me into forgetting the next note. Once a memory lapse has actually occurred, I rely on my conscious knowledge of the notes and harmonies to get me back on track.

Are there particular techniques you use for maintaining your memory of specific music over a long period of time (i.e. years)?
No – I usually forget pieces quite quickly, which seems like such a shame. Again, I’m hoping to pick up some tricks from other people through this blog, and I’m also trying to play my favourite recently memorised pieces fairly regularly.

What do you think is the role of musical memory in creating new music, either through improvisation or composition?
I have never seen anyone either pose or address this question in the literature, and although I don’t know the answer myself, I feel it must be crucial. While composing, I find I almost have to override aspects of my musical memory to escape from the familiar. This is a particular problem when writing at the piano (which I always do) as the hands all too easily fall upon overlearned classical chords and sequences, and my music can end up being horribly derivative and uncreative. I am also conscious of relying on the transient memorising ability of the audience in my compositions; I like to present different musical material separately and then simultaneously (like counterpoint, but not as clever!), so I am mindful of the need to present each theme clearly enough the first time around that people can remember and hear it when everything is jumbled together.

Have you ever tried to teach others to memorise music? If so, what are the techniques and challenges, and how do people differ in their ability to memorise and recall music? 
No… except through this blog 🙂

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About Caroline Wright

pianist, composer, scientist
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