I’m pleased to have another fellow blogger and guitarist Nicole Rogers as my third interviewee and the first non-pianist to be part of the project.
Please tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
I am a classical guitar teacher and classical guitar performer based in Melbourne, Australia. I have held a life-long, profoundly deep passion for music and this has manifested itself through playing piano, clarinet and my biggest passion of them all, the classical guitar. I am a Committee Member of the Classical Guitar Society of Victoria (CGSV), a solo performer, a performer in the CGSV Guitar Orchestra and conductor for the CGSV Training Orchestra for the 2013/14 season. I started studying the guitar in the UK at the relatively ripe old age of 13 or 14 (after having first studied piano and clarinet), with the great British guitar pedagogue Peter Nutall. Moving to Australia, and after a bit of a hiatus from the guitar, I continued guitar performance and pedagogy studies with the well-respected (and one time teacher of Slava Grigoryan) Ron Payne. I then continued on my higher level studies with the inspirational Ben Dix of the Melbourne Guitar Quartet. I am currently preparing to do my AMusA performance diploma on the classical guitar.
I am somewhat of a butterfly flitting about between the various other passions in my life also – I’m somewhat of a Scanner. I love to look at and understand how the world works and the connections between seemingly unconnected things. I’m also a keen advocate of the idea of constant and never-ending improvement. As such I’m also an environmental and sustainability consultant (I have a BSc (Joint Hons) in Geology & Geography and an MSc in Air Pollution Management & Control), currently working within an organization but about to launch freelance. I am also a life coach (for want of a better term), assisting people with their own personal development and helping others with their own constant and never-ending improvement.
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?
The answer to this is both yes and no. Sometimes I like to play with score, sometimes without. If a piece is particularly involved and complex, like a Bach lute suite for example, I like to use the score. If a piece if something that speaks to my most natural passions and inclinations, and is very guitaristic, for example a lot of Albeniz music or Latin-American music, I will tend to go with the flow and play without a score – that helps me explore a little even whilst performing and go with what I’m feeling a given moment. I sometimes actively say “yes, I’d like to memorise this and play without the score”. If I’m honest this is partly an ego thing as it looks like you really know your stuff if you’re playing without score. I’m coming to the belief recently, however, that this isn’t necessarily true, as having the score there with you when performing can really help keep you on track and help concentration, especially if performing a multi-movement work or many pieces within a recital.
Have you ever had a major memory lapse during a performance and, if so, what happened?
It depends on what you define as “major” – what’s major, or disastrous to one person could be just really a wee minor thing to another. But I’ve certainly had memory lapses, and I’d call them minor (just a two bar phrase or a chord or something) and I manage those by just making something up in the right key – a few little flourishes, a scale run, a different chord – until I get to my next “signpost” point in a piece. And most importantly I pretend to myself and the audience that it was absolutely supposed to sound like that! The audience, I believe, really only cares about the big picture and if you’re getting that across that’s all that counts. No one really cares about a fluffed bar or two out of 200!
Are there any particular types of music – pieces, composers or genres – that you find particularly easy or difficult to memorise, and why?
I feel a natural affinity to the music of Spain and Latin-America, and as such, I find I memorise music in these styles very easily. So music by the likes of Albeniz, Sor, Tarrega, Villa-Lobos, Barrios I find I can memorise without much active effort. I find Bach quite challenging to memorise, I think because (yes, what I’m about to say is controversial!) I never used to “feel” his music, either listening to or playing. However, getting to grips with his music and making better sense of the structure and what’s really going has helped with that. So, I definitely me “feeling” or having a particular passion for the music I’m playing plays a massive role in the ease or otherwise of memorization.
How do you memorise music? Are there particular techniques you use? Do you use visual memory, and if so, what do you visualise?
Once I start to really get under the skin of a piece of music; really analysing its form, its structure, the larger architecture of a piece and the constituent parts making it up – larger phrases, micro phrases and rhythmic, harmonic and melodic cells and so on – it starts to take on a life of its own through me. The physicality of actually playing helps with this, as does hearing the melody and harmonies and the whole piece in my head. I pretty much with all of my pieces get to a point where I can “play” it all in my head – I hear the music and can actively visualise how my left hand in particular moves to create the music. Not so much with the right hand though. This ability has definitely occurred more vividly over the last couple of years as I’ve become more and more proficient on the instrument. It just started happening, and I became more aware of it, to the point now where I actively cultivate it.
At what point during learning a piece do you work on memorisation?
It depends what it is I’m learning and the reason for learning it. But mostly I’d say it starts from the get-go. Really getting to know a piece rather than playing dots on a page.
How do you deal with memory lapses? What tricks do you use to prevent it happening during a performance?
I believe it’s your job as the performer to create that illusion of control and creation in a performance situation. Make the audience feel “safe” in your hands.Really, really knowing your music inside out and upside down helps with this. Practicing starting in the middle of a phrase, not just the starting point. Identifying key signposts in the music, such as starts of phrases, so you can pick up from somewhere. I think it would be unrealistic to say that memory lapses will never occur. It’s going to happen at some point. And that’s just fine. So long as you recognize that and don’t get caught up in it. When these things happen we just need to get on with and get over ourselves! It’s happened it’s passed. It’s gone. It’s done. No use ruminating on it, especially in the moment of performance!
When we’re performing for others it’s not about us, it’s about the audience I believe. It’s our job as the performer to create that illusion of control and creation and a little bit of spontaneity and excitement. The audience appreciate a little bit of edginess and risk taking, it’s enthralling. We appreciate the efforts and emotions that the performer has laid out for us. However, when we’re back in the practice room we must pay attention and address that particular issue and ask ourselves a few questions – why did that memory lapse occur just there? What is that bit? Do I really know how it sounds? Do I really know what the left hand is doing? Do I really know what the right hand is doing? What is the harmonic landscape doing? What is that chord? What is the key there? And so on… Some musicians look on memory lapses as failure. I like to believe instead that there is no such thing as failure. It’s pure and simply feedback. It’s a gift that’s telling us we just don’t know that bit quite as well as we might. So we just need to tweak our learning strategy for that particular element. Job done!
Are there particular techniques you use for maintaining your memory of specific music over a long period of time (i.e. years)?
I think once it’s in there, it’s in there. It’s just a matter of exercising the recall muscle. For example, I learnt Good King Wenceslas on the recorder when I was 8 years old for a school concert – I can still play that bloody thing on the recorder! I like to crack out pieces every now and then and see how the recall stacks up. Sometimes there are a few patchy holes in there – this then just means (as with the performance time memory lapses) that we don’t know that particular bit as well as we might. I then go through the same kind of line of questioning as above and filling in the gap and cementing it in there.
What do you think is the role of musical memory in creating new music, either through improvisation or composition?
Probably quite important, although I would suspect it’s much easier to remember your own musical compositions as you go through the process of building it from the ground up. There may also be a fair amount of emotional investment in it also.
Have you ever tried to teach others to memorise music? If so, how do people differ in their ability to memorise music, and what tips do you offer them to improve?
My advice is to use all the useful senses available to you and get to know the piece really inside out. I use the advice I’ve outlined above pretty much! Also, importantly, I advice that persistence and consistency are key. Most people are not instantly awesome at something they try out for the first few times, but doing it, keeping on doing it, again, again, and then some more, you’ll get there. Persistence is the mother of skill. Feel free to check out a post of mine on why we memorise music.