A different perspective on the need to memorise

For musicians who are blind or partially sighted, playing from memory is a necessity not a luxury. Although scores can be obtained in braille, neither solo instrumentalists nor ensemble players can read and play at the same time, so performances must be memorised. Thus, far from being a supererogatory musical skill, memorising is an absolutely fundamental requirement that goes hand-in-hand with playing music.


Rising chromatic scale in quavers from middle C in braille, from the UK Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB)

Astounding blind musicians are everywhere, from the archetypal local piano tuner to internationally acclaimed musicians, such as Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli and iconic American jazz pianists Ray Charles, Art Tatum and Stevie Wonder. I was first introduced to their skill of complete unsighted memorisation by international concert pianist Bernard d’Ascoli, with whom I was fortunate enough to do a masterclass many years ago. Blind from birth, d’Ascoli has never seen either a piano keyboard or a standard musical score. And yet he knew every detail of every piece played in the masterclass. As I recall, he knew my own piece – the first movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata – so well from memory that he could direct me to particular notes and indications at specific locations on my score. At the post-masterclass evening concert – where the maestro traditionally shows their students how it should be done – he impressed again by playing a piano concerto flawlessly, with full orchestra, from memory. In fact, the only indication he was blind was a very brief pause at the start while he located the correct first note on the keyboard.

The idea that blind people possess heightened musical awareness and exceptional skills is borne out both anecdotally and scientifically. In his wonderful book, ‘Musicophilia’ (to which I will no doubt return in future posts), neurologist Oliver Sacks writes that “the image of the blind musician or the blind poet has an almost mythic resonance, as if the gods have given the gifts of music or poetry in compensation for the sense they have taken away”. Sacks notes that around 60% of blind musicians have absolute pitch, versus only around 10% of sighted musicians, and that the functioning of the visual cortex in blind musicians is reallocated to other sensory inputs such as hearing and touch.

The RNIB has a page on their website devoted specifically to the topic of memorising music, which includes fascinating personal insights from a number of blind musicians. Their top ten strategies for memorising contain useful points for anyone trying to memorise:

1.  2 jobs in 1: leave plenty of time to make sure you not only know the notes, but can let them mature into a piece of music for performance.
2.  A little a day: set aside regular blocks of time for learning, playing and re-learning in bite-size chunks.
3.  Go multimedia:  listen to a recording to become familiar with the structure and overall shape and sound of the piece before sitting down to learn.
4.  Known unknowns and unknown unknowns: identify the potential tricky bits early on so that you can allocate sufficient time to learn and play them.
5.  All ears: record your own efforts at playing the piece and follow the music to check what you have learnt.
6.  Phone a friend: rehearse the piece in front of friends, or if there is more than one part, try playing it with others to see where the gaps are.
7.  The fine tooth comb: analysing the music may help you create a visual map of signposts, for example C major to A minor, or first time round is loud and staccato, second time quiet and legato.
8.  You’re not alone: if your piece has an accompaniment, learning the chord progressions, bass line, or the cue before you come in will help familiarise yourself.
9.  Visual learning: perhaps surprisingly, this is not a contradiction for blind musicians, but a very useful tool, and can include a pictorial image of the braille score.
10.  er – um…  I’ve forgotten the last point! Time to go back and check I know what I thought I knew.  Be prepared for the error message “memory could not be found.”


About Caroline Wright

artist, scientist, musician
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