As one might expect for a book written by the Editor of a major national newspaper, Alan Rusbridger’s new book “Play it Again” has received quite a bit of media attention. The book is a compelling personal account of an amateur pianist struggling to learn Chopin’s mighty first Ballade in G minor, juxtaposed against his frenzied professional life at the epicentre of breaking news during a year of extreme turmoil for the media industry.
Early on in his quest, Rusbridger discovers that the technical challenges of the Ballade are simply too demanding to allow him to stare fixedly at the score while playing. Despite not being a natural memoriser, he therefore embarks on a project to memorise a piece of piano music – perhaps for the first time in his life – in order to liberate himself from the tyranny of the score. He makes frequent reference to the difficulties of memorising throughout the book, and the text is peppered with interesting insights from both professional pianists and cognitive neuroscientists.
Professor Ray Dolan, a neuropsychiatrist at UCL, offers a useful perspective on memory. He explains that piano playing is largely a procedural skill involving implicit (unconscious) memory that is formed through experience – of repeatedly playing a the same piece in this case. Some might think of this as ‘muscle memory’, though as Dolan points out, there is no such thing. Muscles can acquire agility and strength, but only the brain can acquire memories. However, the part of the brain devoted to controlling the hand and fingers can actually grow in size as we learn new skills, allowing greater control, dexterity and sensitivity as a result of practicing. Good news for pianists, though one wonders which bit of our brains shrinks in order to make space! This point is echoed by Dr Lauren Stewart, a specialist in music and the mind from Goldsmith’s College in London, who emphasises that this “mental plasticity” continues throughout life.
Curiously, Dolan’s focus on implicit memory leads him to suggest that pianists are unlikely to be able to recall a memorised piece using explicit (conscious) memory – to literally sit down with a pen and paper and conjure it up note by note. I’m not sure I agree with this assertion. Even if procedural memory is crucial for memorising music, conscious knowledge of the notes, phrases and structure of the piece is surely just as important, and can be an absolute life-saver under the pressures of a particularly nerve-wracking performance. Perhaps I’ll take Dolan up on his challenge and give it a try… Watch this space!
Stewart also raises the idea of ‘chunking’, an oft cited technique in the memorisation literature whereby small items (e.g. notes) are grouped into meaningful bundles (e.g. chords, scales, etc.) based on prior knowledge, which makes them easier to remember. Various other important concepts relating to musical memory are raised in the book – neatly summarised as “auditory, visual, muscle, structural, harmonic” – but surprisingly little detail is given either about specific memorising techniques or the interplay between them. The associated website contains some more detailed information, including an illuminating interview with renowned music psychologist Professor John Sloboda from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. Although he echoes Dolan’s point about practice leading to “automatisation” and physical fluency, he also talks about developing a multi-dimentional conceptual map from which performers can reconstruct a piece of music even if some parts are temporarily absent (during a memory lapse, for example). Which chimes exactly with the basics of musical memory that I’ve tried to describe. Sloboda also asserts that “there is no such thing as 100% note perfect reproduction of a piece.” Which is greatly reassuring!
The book also describes some astonishing anecdotes: Artur Pizzaro, who allegedly learned the whole of Brahms’ second piano concerto on a long distance flight; Walter Gieseking, who could apparently look at a difficult passage just once before playing it. Do these epic feats of memorisation point towards a fundamental difference between amateur and professional musicians in the way they memorise music? The word ‘amateur’ is often erroneously used to mean unskilled, when in fact the origin of the word is ‘love’. Amateur musicians are those who play music simply for the love of it. As pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim eloquently says, “Music is not a profession. Music is a way of life”. Although there is unquestioningly a gaping chasm of technique that separates many amateurs from professionals, this is not true of all amateurs, and some could well have become professionals had they made different choices in their lives. Memorisation is just like any other aspect of music – practice makes perfect. In the end, perhaps what separates the amateur from the professional is the level and extent of mental and physical preparation. As pianist William Howard puts it, a professional “can turn in a decent performance no matter what the circumstances”. Their second best is still good enough.
“Play It Again” offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of both professional and amateur pianists as they strive towards greater mastery of their art.
For more information, see: http://alanrusbridger.com/playitagain