Interview with… Heli Ignatious-Fleet (pianist)

I’m very grateful to Heli not only for being my first interviewee for this blog, but also for nurturing my interest in musical memory and being an inspirational piano teacher.

Heli Ignatious-FleetPlease tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
I teach classical piano (mostly advanced students) in Cambridge, UK and perform a few times a year. I am also a principal tutor on the European Piano Teacher Association (EPTA) UK Piano Teachers Course and teach on courses for pianists at Benslow Music Trust.

Do you actively memorise music for performance? If not, why not? If so, why? When in your musical development did you start to memorise?
I have always memorised music. As a child, I composed and improvised at the piano, and playing without the score seemed to me the norm. Playing from memory was also part of my music education – you were expected to learn your pieces from memory.

Have you ever had a major memory lapse during a performance and, if so, what happened?
Only once in my lifetime of playing from memory in public. I think it was due to mechanical work on a Chopin Etude, I panicked when jumping onto a chord. I had obviously only done it with muscular memory.

Are there any particular types of music – pieces, composers or genres – that you find particularly easy or difficult to memorise, and why?
Anything with clear harmonic structures seems easier than, say, Schoenberg. Debussy is not difficult even if the chord progressions are idiosyncratic

Are there particular techniques you use for memorising music? 
Yes: fragments, no automatic playing, mental maps of everything – structures, emotional; intensities, movements. I also do away from the piano work, mental playing. I remember William Fong saying that he plays mentally when shaving. I have talked to other pianists who all agree that they do it, and what’s more, many find it for themselves, as I did – no-one told me how useful it is. I discovered it before my first public appearance as a music student, I went for walks and played everything in my head.

At what point during learning a piece do you work on memorisation?
After I have settled to some comfort in my playing, and the ideas begin to crystallise.

How do you deal with memory lapses? What tricks do you use to prevent it happening during a performance?
Focus on something which is happening “now” – one aspect only, such as tempo fluctuation, dynamics, the sound: trying to be present, not jump ahead.

Are there particular techniques you use for maintaining your memory of specific music over a long period of time (i.e. years)?
I trust it to be dormant like sleeping beauty. But I feel I should find the time to revisit more music than I do.

What do you think is the role of musical memory in creating new music, either through improvisation or composition?
Surely it is a vital part of musical imagination? But I do not compose nor improvise now.

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?
Yes, I teach pupils to memorise. I find it difficult to teach any techniques but the ones I use (and have researched). A mystery to me is the pupil who has a photographic memory. Are they still score bound? My teaching is based on lifting the music from the score. Music is a living reality which but briefly settles on paper, only to brought to life elsewhere. A pupil who responds to this, seeing the importance of seeking the meaning and the beauty, needs surprisingly little help when it comes to memorising. Fragments are another way of dotting the music with memory hooks. No mindless playing!

Website: Heli Ignatious-Fleet


About Caroline Wright

artist, scientist, musician
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