I’m delighted to have follow blogger Frances Wilson (aka The Cross-Eyed Pianist) as my second interviewee, whose wonderful blog helped inspire me to start my own.
Please tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
I am a pianist, piano teacher, blogger on music and pianism, and reviewer for international concert listings site Bachtrack.com and an arts/exhibitions reviewer for Bachtrack’s sister site OneStopArts.com. I’ve been teaching for just over 6 years and have a busy studio of 24 students (19 children, ranging in ages 7-15, and 5 adults). Currently studying with Penelope Roskell (Trinity-Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance) for an LTCL Diploma in Piano Performance.
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 was never taught how to memorise music as a child/teenager, so my memorisation skills are quite weak. There is no requirement to play from memory for the Diploma I am working for and so I always perform from the score. Having said that, I have memorised all the page turns in my Diploma repertoire, and any other “tricky areas” such as cadenzas.
Have you ever had a major memory lapse during a performance and, if so, what happened?
Not “major” – though it felt quite major at the time! – I had a memory lapse during my ATCL Diploma recital in the Liszt Sonetto 123 del Petrarca. I had just completed the cadenza on p3, got to the top of the keyboard and could not remember where to go next. It felt like an age, but my page turner told me afterwards it was literally a tiny pause in the flow of the piece.
Are there any particular types of music – pieces, composers or genres – that you find particularly easy or difficult to memorise, and why?
Anything with distinct or repeating patterns is easier to memorise (for example, one of the few pieces I can play from memory is Schubert’s Impromptu in E flat from the Opus 90 set: it’s full of repeating patterns).
How do you memorise music? Are there particular techniques you use?
I use a combination of aural, visual and tactile memory. The shape and patterns of the notes on the score and their “physical geography” on the keyboard, and a constant replaying of the score in my head away from the piano. Whenever I learn new music, I spend quite a lot of time studying the score away from the piano, understanding the structure and individual components of the piece. I am also a ‘grapheme-synaesthete‘ (I see numbers, letters, colours, days of the weeks etc, and the musical keys in colours) and while I do not actively use my synaesthesia in memorising music, it is always there and I may retain a memory of a particularly chord, cluster or passage because of its colour scheme. This tends to happen more frequently – and consciously – when I am studying or hearing music away from the piano, rather than when I am actuallypractising. If I’m at a concert, I find it easy to visualise the score in my mind and see the colours which I associate with each note.
At what point during learning a piece do you work on memorisation?
I suppose I should answer that I begin the process at the outset of learning, but in fact I never set out to memorise a piece in a particularly organised way!
How do you deal with memory lapses? What tricks do you use to prevent it happening during a performance?
Memory lapses can be prevented by a thorough knowledge of the score, through visual, aural and tactile memory. Learning a secure fingering scheme at the outset is also a good insurance policy against memory lapses. And an understanding of the architecture and harmonic structure of the work. Training oneself focus and concentration is also useful.
Are there particular techniques you use for maintaining your memory of specific music over a long period of time (i.e. years)?
Generally, I’ve found that memorising a secure fingering scheme goes a long way to retaining the piece in my head and fingers. In fact, when I revisited the Schubert E flat Impromptu for my Diploma, I found I could recall all the fingering I’d learnt as a teenager when I first encountered this piece.
What do you think is the role of musical memory in creating new music, either through improvisation or composition?
This is a really interesting question. I would suggest that we can call upon recollections of music heard or played to stimulate the creation of new music. Or sounds heard in our daily lives.
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?
I find children can memorise music easily, and many of my students play from memory. I don’t actively teach memorisation (though I probably should!), but I do encourage students to be thorough in their learning as memorising incorrectly can be dangerous and can cause problems if the student stops mid-piece, due to a memory lapse, and cannot find the point in the score where they stopped.
Frances Wilson holds an Associate Diploma (Distinction) in Piano Peformance from Trinity College of Music, London, and runs a popular private piano teaching practice from her home in SW London. She blogs regularly on music, pianism and piano teaching at www.crosseyedpianist.com and www.franspianostudio.me, and writes music reviews for international concert and opera listings site Bachtrack.com, as well as contributing articles on music and pianism to other classical music websites.