Interview with… Kazu Suwa (guitarist)

KazuSuwaPlease tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
My name is Kazu Suwa, I am a Japanese classical guitarist and teacher based in London, UK. I studied classical guitar in both Japan and Spain. I have performed in Japan, Spain and the UK. I am currently preparing to release a CD featuring Spanish and Latin American composers, including Frederic Mompou, Fernando Sor, Francisco Tárrega, Moreno Torroba, Agustín Barrios, and Heitor Villa-Lobos.

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 have always performed from memory for solo works and concertos with a chamber orchestra. I have played with scores for ensemble works (duet, trio, and quartet; with a voice, choir, cello, and piano).

Classical music has preserved its culture via visual means (notation) from almost the beginning of its history. This visual representation of music also enables composers to organise more complex works with the expectation that the composition will be played exactly as represented on paper. It is inevitable that performers refer to the score due to the high emphasis in classical music on complexity. In fact, I personally don’t see anything wrong with referring to the score, if this prevents a memory lapse and increases the chances of a better performance.

I play with the score for ensemble works because referring to the score gives me a more holistic view of the music, whereby I can observe the role and interaction of each of the parts. As a soloist, I choose to always perform by memory, as it brings me closer to the artistic quality of the composition. Further, the process of memorising the music involves an incredibly intense analysis of each of the details and constituent parts in the music, which would not otherwise happen if I were playing straight from the score. With all this effort of study behind me, I am able, when performing, to concentrate more on bringing out the spontaneous quality in the music. As a student, I was required to play solo and concerto works from memory, so memorising music has always been a habit for me from the very early moments of my musical instruction.

Have you ever had a major memory lapse during a performance and, if so, what happened?
I never forget a note, but have trouble remembering names and faces! That aside, sometimes I’ve experienced some difficulties keeping my concentration very tight during a performance because there are always so many distractions (e.g. the instability of the tuning, the venue’s acoustic, the condition of my guitar and fingernails, even my disposition at the time). These kinds of distractions make me conscious of my environment and what is happening around me. If I can’t bring my attention back to the music, then these distractions can interfere with my procedural memory and result in slips.

It seems as if the more conscious you are the more you are at risk of inhibiting your procedural memory. This leads me to think that it is important to know everything in the pieces I play (e.g. keys, time, notes, harmony, rhythm, repetition, and structure), as it gives me greater confidence in the pieces and lessens any disruption to procedural memory.

Traditionally, soloists used to take quite long time to start to play at a recital. I can imagine a scene where a soloist picks up his/her handkerchief slowly and wipes his/her fingers, his/her face and then the instrument with it. He/She closes his/her eyes and meditates for a while and then; eventually, he/she decides to play the first note. Nowadays, soloists fly onto the stage and begin to play straight away. I’ve seen many pianists starting to play almost before sitting down; this may be in order to block out their consciousness and make the most of their procedural memory.

Are there any particular types of music – pieces, composers or genres – that you find particularly easy or difficult to memorise, and why?
Generally, I find it difficult to memorise music that I dislike! That said, I find all the pieces where I have a level of personal engagement with the creative process (whether that be through composition or arrangement) a lot easier to memorise.

How do you memorise music? Are there particular techniques you use? Do you use visual memory, and if so, what do you visualise?
I use a mixture of different methods to memorise: auditory, visual, procedural memorisation techniques and theoretical analysis. For some reason, I discovered that memorising the exact position of notes on a particular score (on the paper itself) improves my level of confidence. The negative side to this is that you have to stick to the same score (the same layout)!

At what point during learning a piece do you work on memorisation?
Usually, I start to work on memorisation after having spent some time practising with the score. Occasionally, I start to memorise straight away as soon as I pick up a new piece.

How do you deal with memory lapses? What tricks do you use to prevent it happening during a performance?
I’m convinced that it’s very important to train psychological skills, as concentration is the key for successful performances. I think the skill of keeping your concentration on the music is in fact, the same time as the skill of being able to intentionally distract your consciousness. If a memory lapse actually happens, the only thing that occurs to me is to carry on.

Are there particular techniques you use for maintaining your memory of specific music over a long period of time (i.e. years)?
I’m not aware of any technique to maintain my memory for long time apart from studying constantly.

What do you think is the role of musical memory in creating new music, either through improvisation or composition?
I have never seen anything that is born out of nothing. Looking back at history, anything new has always been a re-interpretation or new combination of existing materials. I think musical memory is the essential foundation for not only both improvisation and composition but also any kind of creative process within music.

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 have. Unfortunately, I may have used up my quota of words on this occasion, so maybe next time! Separately, I’d like to take this opportunity to raise a few related questions on this blog:

  • Are you aware of any study that deals with the differences between left-handed and  right handed in the memorisation of music? If so, how?
  • Do you name notes while playing? If so, is there any difference in quality of memorisation depending on the languages (English, Italian, and German) used to name notes?



About Caroline Wright

artist, scientist, musician
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