Compiled by Linda Noyle, “Pianists on Playing” is a collection of interviews from the 1980’s with twelve international concert pianists. The pianists, who are all giants of the classical piano world, include household names like Vladimir Ashkenazy and Jorge Bolet. Each pianist was asked the same series of questions about the “craft of the pianist”, including how they memorise music. Although the book organises the interviews into separate chapters, I’ll take a different approach and give an overview of what was said specifically in relation to memorising.
Perhaps the most unifying concept mentioned by all twelve pianists is the importance of mental practice. Rudolf Firkušný talks of practising away from the keyboard, sometimes even before the learning the score. John Browning recalls a particularly demanding former teacher who advocated being able to call out every note away from the keyboard – “to call out every note… every dynamic, every phrasing, and every finger, so that I can go away from the keyboard and in my mind I can do through the entire work as if I were writing it down from memory.” Leon Fleisher advises “with a new piece, one should sit down, probably in a chair away from the piano, and learn it, look at it, take it apart, try to understand all its elements as much as possible. Sing to yourself. Sing the various components.” The importance of analysing the harmonic structure is also highlighted by the majority of interviewees and Misha Dichter talks about “break[ing] a piece up into its smallest components… that fit into a larger structure”.
However, memorising is clearly also very individual. Some pianists learn at the piano, and some away from it; some use mostly visual memory, and some use entirely aural memory. Dichter says that “I don’t trust myself playing anything in public unless there are certain discernable layers of understanding that I’ve done through with the piece”. Mechanical motor memory is obviously important but most describe it as unreliable. Interestingly, Fleisher suggests looking away from the keyboard to help with memorising – not only to hear more clearly, but also to separate oneself from the “sensory activity” of the fingers moving.
Perhaps surprisingly, although all twelve pianists perform from memory, several confess that they have no idea how they memorise music – and that they don’t want to know! There are also a few references to memory slips, and John Browning reassuringly says that “every performer, no matter how secure, always thinks about memory slips!” Janina Fialkowska describes the “terror of forgetting”, which sounds rather familiar to me! But all of them emphasise that musicality should never become a slave to accuracy.
Although several of the pianists describe themselves as fast learners, Bolet’s tale of memorising Liszt’s notorious Mephisto Waltz in just an hour and fifteen minutes is perhaps the most astonishing. The speed of the process clearly surprised even him, and when asked how long it would take him to learn the piece he originally estimated a luxurious six hours! It’s clear from Bolet’s description that intense concentration is the key: “I sat down and really concentrated on every single note. I went slowly and methodically repeating a lot of passages.”
Outside of the specific arena of memorising, the book is brimming with sage advice on piano playing and music making. One quote in particular from Dichter speaks volumes about the intensity and devotion with which these piano legends approach everything about their craft: “In practising, never daydream. Never use the piano as a vehicle for simply moving the fingers and passing time. If you have only one moment when you’re not aware of what you’re doing, mysically or technically (and usually both), you’re wasting your time.”