Please tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
My name is Madelaine Jones, and I am a pianist and writer based in London. I am currently studying piano and improvisation at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London with Penelope Roskell and Douglas Finch respectively, and I write regularly for Bachtrack and frequently guest post on The Cross-Eyed Pianist Blog and Zeitschichten.
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 make a concerted effort to try and memorise all solo repertoire, and to a large degree I perform from memory, though not always. I think it’s a very useful skill to have, because the process of memorisation in itself means getting inside the score in an intensive way that can sometimes be neglected if we’re still looking at dots on a page. Also, playing from memory allows a visual and artistic freedom that having the score in front of you can sometimes restrict. However, I do think it’s important to remember that the most important thing about performance is rendering the intentions within the music itself, and if you feel you will play something better with a score, you should do so and not be restricted by pride or tradition. I started memorising fairly late in my musical development – I had passed my Grade 8 before I ever memorised my first piece, so it’s not a skill I took to naturally, but it’s definitely a useful one to acquire and I’m glad I persevered with it despite some struggles along the way.
Have you ever had a major memory lapse during a performance and, if so, what happened?
The most terrifying memory lapse I can recall was during a performance of the famous Rachmaninoff C# Minor Prelude: I reached the fff passage at the end, lifted my hands to play the chords and my mind went completely, hopelessly blank. There’s nothing you can do but keep going in those situations, so I hazarded a guess at the chords for a couple of bars in what I knew to be the correct rhythm (some very interesting reharmonisations appeared as a result…!) and managed to get the thread of it again by three bars later. It’s the most incapacitating feeling to know that something you’ve played hundreds of times has simply flown out of your fingers when you need it most, but these things do occasionally happen and the best you can do is prepare yourself for them and keep going at all costs.
Are there any particular types of music – pieces, composers or genres – that you find particularly easy or difficult to memorise, and why?
I find Classical (meaning the era as opposed to the sweeping term) music the most easy to memorise, as the harmonies are conventional but the textures are fairly uncomplicated. Baroque music may be just as harmonically conventional, but it tends to be more difficult to get a grip on at times given the independent nature of the lines in contrapuntal music. And given that Romantic music is a little harmonically richer, it can be trickier at times to unpick what is going on, but it really does depend on the piece.
How do you memorise music? Are there particular techniques you use?
I memorise using a wide range of techniques, because I personally believe that the key to memorising something successfully is knowing it inside-out and back-to-front in every possible way: the more different types of knowledge you can accumulate about the piece, the better. So I tend to like learning separate voices and practising hands separately from memory (particularly useful in contrapuntal music), analysing the harmony and structure of the piece, and slow deliberate placing of chords to avoid relying solely on muscle memory. It’s important that the brain is always engaged during memory practice – while the fingers will do all the automatic work, it’s your mind that will save you when the slips happen by piecing the puzzle back together and finding where you should be.
At what point during learning a piece do you work on memorisation?
From the beginning, of course! There’s absolutely no point in learning a piece and then memorising it, because it becomes an ‘added extra’ as opposed to an inherent part of the process and feels unnatural as a result. By starting the memorisation process from the first time you play, you turn the sounds you produce into a piece of music instead of simply the reproduction of a set of instructions. Of course, I don’t mean that I necessarily know the music by heart right away, but it’s important to consider how you’re approaching the learning process from the start. If a piece is well-memorised, you should feel comfortable and secure in knowing everything you possibly could about it (no one person’s memory is completely safe, but you can explore every facet of a piece in an attempt to bridge any momentary gaps that occur during performance). So by learning small snippets of the music from memory right away, or picking apart the harmony as you go to aid memorisation from the beginning, you build a secure knowledge of the piece over a longer period of time and feel much more comfortable in performing it eventually.
How do you deal with memory lapses? What tricks do you use to prevent it happening during a performance?
The only way to deal with a memory lapse is to learn to fake your way out of it, simply put. We can optimise the memorisation process to a great degree, but beyond a certain point, what you are actually doing is ensuring you know enough about the piece to keep a handle on things if the odd note does slip from under you under pressure. Memorisation is the musical equivalent of ice-skating: you may be able to minimise slipping, but ultimately, it’s not completely unavoidable, and you’re far better learning to fall gracefully and pick yourself right back up again smoothly rather than just standing stock still in fear of going over in the first place!
Are there particular techniques you use for maintaining your memory of specific music over a long period of time (i.e. years)?
I will admit this is not something in which I have a great amount of experience. Being such a late-starter in the memory stakes, I haven’t actually played and re-played many pieces of repertoire over a long period of time, but those that I have, I have found it most useful to treat as if I were learning a new piece from scratch when I return to it. The learning process needs to be just as thorough the second time and complacency is not an option to keep memory at its peak – but obviously it’s quicker the second time you learn something because you’ve already done it before.
What do you think is the role of musical memory in creating new music, either through improvisation or composition?
Creativity is merely presenting pre-existing ideas in a new light or rearranging and combining them. There is no such thing as conjuring music out of thin air, and everything we improvise or compose, we draw on other sources to do so. So the more music we can digest, absorb into our minds and our fingers, the more tools we have at our disposal. It could be something harmonic like a particularly arresting chord sequence, a melodic fragment or interval we find intriguing perhaps, or even a structural framework, but everything we take in, we can rearrange and output again. Why do writers read so much? Because it improves their writing. The same can be said for musicians and their exposure to others’ music.
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 have tried to teach memorisation before, and on the whole, I’ve found that children/beginners are actually very keen to memorise, but need teaching how to do it in a thorough way in order to not to grow scared of it as they progress. Most younger players will happily bumble through every piece they’ve ever played off the top of their head, but they are relying solely on finger memory, which is never a good thing. I try to encourage understanding about the music in terms of analysis – while a beginner certainly isn’t going to sit and label dominant sevenths, knowing that this particular bit is the scale we learnt earlier, or this is an arpeggio, or this is a sequence and so there’s a pattern to it etc. helps to engage the mind as well as the fingers, and as they progress, this can be stepped up to include all the musical understanding they have acquired over time.