Please tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
I am a music therapist working with adults with learning disabilities, a piano teacher, pianist, accompanist and, as of recently, part-time PhD student. I study the piano with Heli Ignatius-Fleet and singing with Julia Caddick. I also sing with the Cambridge University Music Society Chorus and am a beginner cellist.
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 was fortunate enough to have a very inspirational first piano teacher who encouraged me to memorise music from very early on. It is something I try to encourage in my own pupils from beginners upwards too. If it becomes a natural part of performing I think it becomes less anxiety-provoking, and not an impossible obstacle to be overcome. For me, playing without music offers greater spontaneity and a more intimate and immediate emotional connection to the music. I have a regular duet partner and we have experimented with performing both with and without the score. It is very liberating to perform a duet without a score but is not without additional anxieties. It relies on a good deal of trust in the musicality (and memory) of the other player, but can also be very exciting and enriching. It is interesting that accompanists rarely play without a score, although I think one has a different level of engagement as you are constantly attending to the soloist as well as your own playing.
Have you ever had a major memory lapse during a performance and, if so, what happened?
I recall a fateful wrong turn during a performance of the Rachmaninoff D major Prelude during an end of year recital whilst at college. I had struggled with the last section of this piece (which I still can’t reliably do from memory) and went round the same passage several times before bringing it to some sort of approximate conclusion. I think I had relied too much upon muscular memory only, and had not sufficiently applied myself to a detailed understanding of the structure of the piece, which might have stood me in greater stead.
Are there any particular types of music – pieces, composers or genres – that you find particularly easy or difficult to memorise, and why?
I think the pieces that present the greatest challenges in memorisation are those that have dangerously similar repeated material but with very subtle differences occurring at different points within a piece. The secondo part of the 2nd movement of the Poulenc Sonata for Four Hands is a good example of this. It is, in many ways, not a complex part, but the material has very similar patterns in the right hand with subtle changes that can take the piece in an altogether different direction if misremembered. Bach Fugues are also a mighty challenge owing to their contrapuntal nature and the immense difficulty of trying to visualise the music on the page and mentalise the structure. I find that I can get so far by relying on muscular memory and trying to let my fingers play without really mentally engaging and thinking about what I am doing, but the moment I start to think about what comes next I risk collapse. I think that a thorough sense of the structure, the different appearances of the subject, countersubject etc, and being able to bring out (or sing) one part whilst playing the others are likely to result in a more successful memorisation.
How do you memorise music? Are there particular techniques you use? Do you use visual memory, and if so, what do you visualise?
I find that a certain amount of memorising happens quite naturally, as a result of the repetitive practicing involved in learning a new piece. If there are similar passages or developments within a piece that could easily become confused, I will often practice these simultaneously in an effort to ingrain the differences rather than the similarities. I find I do try to visualise the music on the page as I like to have a visual sense of the score in my mind. This means that I can work on memorising away from the piano too which I think is very valuable.
At what point during learning a piece do you work on memorisation?
From the beginning of learning a piece. I find that even quite early on I will hopefully have internalised enough of it that the memorisation is taking shape. It’s a fluid process, I think, and sometimes passages that have hitherto been secure can suddenly become unstable, alerting me to the need to practice it in a different way: sometimes it may need repetition; sometimes a different fingering can assist in the memorising by making a passage suddenly feel more fluent and therefore easier to remember.
How do you deal with memory lapses? What tricks do you use to prevent it happening during a performance?
I think anxiety and memorisation are intrinsically linked for me. I am far more likely to have a memory lapse when playing in front of an audience than when playing at home. I think if I feel well prepared then I try to focus on what I can do to feel as relaxed and comfortable about the performing as possible. I tend not to play the piece on the day that I will be performing it, but try to visualise it and conduct it in my head instead.
Are there particular techniques you use for maintaining your memory of specific music over a long period of time (i.e. years)?
I think this is a really interesting question. I am surprised by how much can stay in the memory often years after a piece has been worked on. It seems that the fingers and brain are capable of remembering patterns in particular contexts for a very long time, although I cannot claim to have any scientific understanding of why this is so. I think if I know a piece well enough to start at any given point in the piece and continue from memory then it is likely to hold in my memory for some considerable time.
What do you think is the role of musical memory in creating new music, either through improvisation or composition?
As a music therapist, improvising is a large part of my work. Almost all musical encounters between patient and therapist involve improvised music, during which the therapist seeks to understand and interpret the patient’s music as an expression of his/her inner emotional world. This then determines the musical response the therapist offers to the patient. If we consider that a non-verbal or mentally disordered patient may not have had a positive experience of feeling validated or acknowledged, as music therapists we may try to offer some kind of musical acknowledgement, something that supports and strengthens the patient’s sense of worth. This could mean listening for patterns in the patient’s music and using their material as a basis for our music response. In doing this I am conscious of using a great number of memorised, stored and familiar musical structures alongside musical material generated by the patient in the moment. That is not to say that I am playing actual known pieces but there is a sort of musical library in my head from where different ideas come.
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?
I always encourage pupils to memorise music from the very beginning and generally find that children, especially, enjoy it and are largely uninhibited about making mistakes or having lapses. Depending on the age and stage of student I may only give them a few bars or a line to memorise whilst continuing to work on the whole piece (with score) alongside the memorising. Often they find that by the time I ask them to memorise the next few bars they can already do it. More recently, I have found myself teaching some older people (up to and including beginner pianists in their 80’s!) for whom day-to-day memory is becoming challenging. It is interesting to note that some of those that have played before can still remember pieces learnt in childhood yet may struggle to memorise a current piece.