Please tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
I have been a concert pianist for many years giving recitals and chamber music concerts everywhere and anywhere. I have taught extensively, examined for the ABRSM and I also adjudicate too. My first book, So You Want To Play The Piano? will be published on April 1st 2013.
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?
Yes, I have always played solo piano music from memory. I was fortunate in that I was encouraged to memorise from the beginning, I don’t ever remember not playing from memory except in chamber music. It was considered unacceptable by my piano teacher not to memorise so I just learnt how to play without the score.
Have you ever had a major memory lapse during a performance and, if so, what happened?
Yes, I have had memory lapses but probably not any major ones. I have never walked off-stage to get the score or been unable to finish a piece! I’m quite good at covering slips and I think this has to do with knowing a work backwards so you are completely immersed in the music.
Are there any particular types of music – pieces, composers or genres – that you find particularly easy or difficult to memorise, and why?
I find works by J.S. Bach very challenging to play from memory, and I don’t play his music at all. I think it’s the counterpoint that makes memorising awkward. I don’t mind memorising contemporary music which I know some find difficult, and I don’t have many problems with other composers.
How do you memorise music? Are there particular techniques you use? Do you use visual memory, and if so, what do you visualise?
Over the years I have developed strategies but at first I think I memorised by rote as many young pianists do. This can lead to problems so it’s a much better plan to have several methods in place. I mostly rely on my emotional senses or the way I want the piece to sound and let this guide me. My professor always advised to ‘play from the heart and then you will never forget’. This is so true although it can be difficult to implement if the work you are studying isn’t a favourite. I also use all the other methods such as muscular, auditory, intellectual, and visual memory of the score as it’s written out, which are the usual ways of remembering.
At what point during learning a piece do you work on memorisation?
I memorise from the very beginning and I always encourage this in my memorisation classes. It’s far better to start off learning a piece from memory rather than negotiating all the notes and then going back to memorise later. I think this just wastes time.
How do you deal with memory lapses? What tricks do you use to prevent it happening during a performance?
No-one likes to have memory lapses but they do occur even by eminent pianists. I try not to let them bother me (although they do of course!) and if you’re playing a long recital then the slip must be banished from your mind so that it doesn’t affect the rest of the concert. Concentration plays a large part in playing successfully from memory and confidence is another vital tool too. If you feel uneasy about playing a work from memory then a lapse is much more likely – in fact it probably will happen. I think playing from memory needs lots of practice. It also helps to be able to ‘pick-up’ at any point in the music too.
Are there particular techniques you use for maintaining your memory of specific music over a long period of time (i.e. years)?
I practice playing pieces through from start to finish, making sure works stay in my head. Doing ‘run-throughs’, whether just to myself or others, helps too. Playing music through in your head away from the piano is useful as well although concentration is paramount here because it’s surprisingly easy to lose your place!
What do you think is the role of musical memory in creating new music, either through improvisation or composition?
I don’t really compose or improvise but I’m sure memory helps with this aspect too.
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?
Yes, I do teach memorisation both in classes and individual lessons. I love teaching it to classes because students generally react favourably when they all try this challenging aspect together. I use different strategies and encourage each student to try them out in front of the class so they are, in effect, memorising instantly on the spot. I find most pupils enjoy playing from memory as it allows greater freedom ultimately. Some students do find memorisation more difficult than others, but I think it’s all about conditioning and if it’s encouraged from the beginning then most students become competent.
Melanie is a concert pianist, author, teacher, presenter, blogger and adjudicator. She studied at the Royal College of Music in London, where she won many prizes and graduated with a Masters degree. She has performed at all the major UK concert halls as well as many around the world, has made two solo recordings and has broadcast on Classic FM, BBC Radio 2, CBC Radio, Swedish and Spanish Television. Highlights include performances for the Queen Mother and Danish Royal family. Melanie has taught the piano at Reading University and the Royal College of Music Junior Department. She has also examined for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music and currently adjudicates for the British and International Federation of Music Festivals.