Interview with… Genevieve Lang (harpist)

GenLangPlease tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
Freelance harpist, mostly in the orchestral world, but increasingly less so with the desire to pursue more autonomous means of performing.

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?
Very rarely. It’s not often required of me these days, though I used to memorise everything for my performance exams at university.

Have you ever had a major memory lapse during a performance and, if so, what happened?
No, not really. Little lapses would happen but were easily surmountable by just keeping on going!

Are there any particular types of music – pieces, composers or genres – that you find particularly easy or difficult to memorise, and why?
I find slow music harder to memorise. I think it’s because the connection between notes can sometimes allow for a lot of space and time for the mind to wander. I also find certain musical structures more taxing to memorise – rondo, for example, because oftentimes the differences between repeated sections are tiny but important.

How do you memorise music? Are there particular techniques you use? Do you use visual memory, and if so, what do you visualise?
I primarily use a visual memory, with a combination of picturing my fingers on the strings, the shapes of my hands, and then actually ‘seeing’ the notes on the page. I have a very strong photographic memory which can be troublesome sometimes if the music I’m playing from looks different from the music with which I learnt the piece.

At what point during learning a piece do you work on memorisation?
Usually once I’ve got a handle on the patterns and dynamics. It’s not a process that I try to incorporate from the beginning because I view it quite separately to technique, which is more important to pay attention to in the beginning.

How do you deal with memory lapses? What tricks do you use to prevent it happening during a performance?
Keep calm and carry on! In preparation for any recital, I would always perform the program several times over to different audiences and find out at what point something might go wrong. That would allow me to develop a contingency plan for every tricky corner.

Are there particular techniques you use for maintaining your memory of specific music over a long period of time (i.e. years)?
Not really. Sadly, I pretty much have to re-memorise anything that I’ve ever had from memory previously. It doesn’t stick that long!

What do you think is the role of musical memory in creating new music, either through improvisation or composition?
Hmm… Interesting question. I guess memory would allow one to pay homage to another composer if one were improvising or composing. I’m not proficient in either creative outlet!

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?
Everybody’s brains work differently, and I’m sure there are tricks to it. Perhaps my teachers weren’t able to work out how to teach me, and thus I’m not sure now how to help a student towards being able to memorise. I have students who are able to commit things to memory, but never actually taught them how to! I think of it as a very personal thing which people can, and must, find their way to.



About Caroline Wright

artist, scientist, musician
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