Interview with… Graham Fitch (pianist)

GrahamFitchPlease tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
I am a pianist and teacher, also an adjudicator and writer. I teach privately in London, my studio comprising gifted youngsters, tertiary level piano students and adult amateurs. I give workshops and classes in the UK and overseas, and also write a blog on practicing piano.

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?
Absolutely, yes. I’ve been memorising music and playing from memory for my entire career, and will continue to do so even though there is now a trend to relax this obligation. I think any serious pianist starting out wouldn’t last 5 minutes if they took the score on-stage! Once you’re established, it’s another story, but even great pianists like Richter and Myra Hess, who famously played from the score towards the end of their careers, played from memory when they were younger.

Have you ever had a major memory lapse during a performance and, if so, what happened?
Nothing too major, but every pianist, including the greats, has had some sort of memory lapse. I know people who have and who had to leave the stage to fetch the score, which must be a very traumatic experience. I think anyone who has ever played piano from memory in public has had moments when they are afraid they will forget the notes, which causes a brief panic and momentary lapse from which they can usually recover.

I think the single biggest fear when performing from memory is having a sudden memory loss. As a result, memorising is also the biggest single expenditure of energy during practice and preparing for a concert – enormous amounts of time and energy need to be devoted to memorising or bolstering memory, so that one can be as confident as possible in the performance. Although you might well ask why people bother performing from memory in that case, with some pieces you have no choice. For some of the big virtuoso works, like the Liszt piano sonata for example, you really need all eyes on deck! In such cases, I would find it more cumbersome to use the score, even with a page turner, than to go through the process of memorising.

Are there any particular types of music – pieces, composers or genres – that you find easy or difficult to memorise, and why?
Any music that’s written in a different language from what you’re comfortable with is tricky to memorise. I’m very happy memorising Bach and contrapuntal music, for example, as I’m very familiar with them. I learn each line individually; I play them separately, sometimes transposed into different keys, or with one finger, and then play all the possible combinations of two voices. That way you really know the notes! I find contemporary, atonal or very multi-layered music hard to memorise though, as I don’t really play this genre much. However, I don’t think this is an intrinsic problem with the music, just one of familiarity.

How do you memorise music? Are there particular techniques you use? Do you use visual memory, and if so, what do you memorise?
I think the most important thing is to use active memorisation rather than passive remembering. A lot of time people don’t take active steps to memorise, but just try to remember as they go along. Simply playing with the score over and over, until eventually you find you can play without it, is not the best way to memorise and won’t stand up in a stressful performance situation!

When I learn a new piece, I go through it with a fine tooth-comb at the very start and analyse it to find elements of structure to memorise. The analysis doesn’t necessarily have to be formal, but it’s important to understand and learn both the small-scale patterns of phrases and harmonies, and the large-scale structure and form of a piece. Memorising is like having a map that you know very well. You should be able to retrieve the mental map of a piece of music, and know where you are in a piece, very quickly. Glenn Gould once wrote that “the only really successful way of learning a work, regardless of its period, is to do so quite away from the instrument – in other words, to study it in purely analytical terms first.”

Muscular memory, which is easily and quickly formed at the keyboard, needs to be backed up by other forms of memory – particularly aural and analytic. It’s best if all these forms of memory are built in to the initial learning processes for greater security in performance, and not left until after the notes are learned by drilling the fingers from the score for several weeks. I have developed several tools for memorising piano music to achieve this:

  • single finger practice;
  • playing just a skeleton (a few select parts) of the music;
  • swapping hands, e.g. playing the left hand part with the right hand and vice versa;
  • transposing into different keys;
  • stopping and starting anywhere in the score;
  • dividing the music into tracks (or chunks) and practice starting at any track;
  • visualisation and imagining yourself actually playing the piece.

You can read more about my views on the ‘Analytic Memory’ and some of the ‘Tools for Memorising’ on my blog.

At what point during learning a piece do you work on memorisation?
Right from the start, even before I start really practising. When memorising, I remove the score from the piano desk as soon as possible and place it on a chair behind me. The reflexes for performance need to be established and having the score on the desk gives false comfort (plus one can peek without even realising it)!

How do you deal with memory lapses? What tricks do you use to prevent it happening during a performance?
I’ve written quite a bit about this on my blog – have a look at ‘Cavaliers and Roundheads: Developing Performance Skills’. I think the analogy with tightrope walking is useful here. The tightrope is on the ground during practice, but about half a mile above the ground in front of an audience! So the mind tells you to panic, as there is no security net. Everything feels different – your muscles, your pulse, your hormones. Sometimes even a little stumble can lead to huge crisis in confidence, and if the performer can’t manage to regain confidence, they will wobble and fall off.

When this happens to me, I try to get my mind onto something else completely unrelated. It happened once on a piece I knew back-to-front, when I had to execute a big jump in the right hand that I have never really consciously thought about before. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a thought flashed through my brain: “What’s the next note?”. When this happened, I remember looking at the floor and picturing an elephant, which allowed me to execute the jump with no problem at all! You have to do anything to stop your conscious, judgmental mind interfering with the automatic pilot during a performance. When performing, one must fully live the music, not think about the exact details of each note. I think this is a left-brain, right-brain difference. During practice, the left brain is primarily involved – judging, thinking, evaluating, analysing. But when performing, you need to use the right brain –  visceral emotion, intuition, imagination. You need to get into a state of flow, where you can react almost unconsciously. Entertaining doubt is the biggest problem, so the conscious judging mind has to go somewhere else.

Are there particular techniques you use for maintaining your memory of specific music over a long period of time (i.e. years)?
I go through exactly the same processes I used originally to memorise the music, e.g. transposition, playing each voice alone and in combination, etc. But keeping any piece in the memory requires regular work and constant practice for maintenance. Any serious pianist is never going to say I’ve learnt than now and can take it off the shelf.

What do you think is the role of musical memory in creating new music, either through improvisation or composition?
I’ve no idea really, as I don’t compose or improvise (other than improvising embellishments and ornaments in Baroque music, where there is already a framework in place). I would imagine everyone who has ever written anything must draw on a vast archive of music from the past.

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, though most people aren’t taught to memorise and don’t know how to. I always work on this with my students. For example, I ask them to play just the left hand from memory – which they usually can’t do! – then ask them to play the left hand part using two hands, or just one finger. Sometimes I ask students to start with just one hand, and when I give a signal, they have to come in with other hand, or both hands. Most of this is aimed at removing reliance on muscle memory, which in my experience is a false friend; it comes quickly but it deserts us quickly too. Any form of brain work is essential to bolster muscle memory of the notes. I also teach students to learn by analysing the pattern of a short passage of music. For example, in Bach’s F major Invention, we might talk about skipping up (jumping a third, a fifth, then an octave), then stepping back down (via a series of repeating loops). The details can be refined later, but this approach introduces imagery as well as an understanding of the structure. The student can then remember the pattern of music as well as the visual pattern on the keyboard.

Websites: www.grahamfitch.com, www.practisingthepiano.com

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About Caroline Wright

pianist, composer, scientist
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