I did something amazing this weekend – I memorised a new piece. And I did it mostly at my kitchen table.
The new piece in question is a short three-movement work by contemporary Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. Originally written in the mid-1950’s for solo guitar, Partita has two rather frenetic outer movements and a slow, more ethereal inner movement. I would hesitate to describe the piece as atonal, but it’s certainly not tonal either! (Which is one of the reasons I wanted to learn it – to expand and modernise my piano repertoire.) Familiar harmonic fingerprints are regularly disrupted by unexpected modulations, giving the piece a slightly haunting quality. The catchy chromatic motif that unifies the piece provides a clear anchor point for the listener, but has numerous rhythmic incarnations across the three movements as well as several transient key centres.
I’ve heard numerous stories of performers learning music away from their instrument – Angela Hewitt memorises Bach on planes and trains, for example. Various people have also talked about the importance of analysis and mental rehearsal in their interviews on this blog. So I decided to try learning an unfamiliar piece primarily away from the keyboard. Usually, I’m guilty of essentially reading a piece over and over again until somehow I seem to know it. This is both an inefficient and ineffective way of memorising music. Instead, I sat away from the piano and analysed each short movement of the Partita before taking it to the keyboard to try. Sitting at my kitchen table, I was rapidly able to identify repeated patterns and learn how the piece was constructed – something that would take me a long time to discover just playing the piece. Some of the writing is not particularly pianistic, and I suspect it’s easier for guitar! I did a little pretend playing with my fingers on the table, and quite a lot of singing of the melody. But mostly this was just detailed cognitive work, actively trying to understand and learn each note, each chord, every interval and every phrase.
I memorised a movement a day for three days, spending just under an hour per movement. And today (day 4) I can play the whole of it from memory. Not up to speed mind you – I have no motor memory for this piece yet. But my brain knows what the notes are and, more importantly, how they’re connected. Amazingly, I’m already able to manage extremely vivid mental rehearsal of the piece – knowing, seeing and hearing the notes in my mind – and hence can practice in secret on the bus or in a particularly tiresome meeting. I’m quite certain I couldn’t have made such fast progress without really analysing the work before learning to play it. Granted this is just a short piece, so it’s hardly an earth-shattering feat of memorisation. But nonetheless it has been somewhat of a revelation to me, and I have to say I’m well chuffed!
Have a listen to the piece on Spotify…