Interview with… Jenni Parkinson (percussionist)

JenniParkinsonPlease tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
I am a creative music leader, performer and teacher, specialising in marimba and percussion. My work centres on music as a means of communication, self-expression and escapism. I am co-founder and Director of Soundcastle, a London-based arts collective who create new music through diverse collaborations. I also perform classical and contemporary repertoire as part of percussion duo Meridian, and play regularly with Joy to Filth Ratio, a collective that writes and performs dance music on orchestral acoustic instruments, blending typically electronic genres with virtuoso classical performance.

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?
There was a point a few years ago when I made a decision to only perform without a score, which was when I first started playing professionally in a percussion duo. We had both memorised a few things before, but not as a matter of course. We decided to start performing only from memory for a few different reasons. Firstly, when playing marimba, you simply cannot turn pages as your hands are full of beaters! I went through a phase of photocopying reams of music, but that’s a complete hassle. Secondly, there is a visual aspect to performing – people like to see your hands moving, and the music stand gets in the way. I think memorising helps with communication too, both between performers and with the audience.

I actually find reading from music quite uncomfortable now. As a musician, I don’t want to have music in front of me. Ever. It’s about communication and the level of engagement you have with the music. The score feels like a third wheel – it should be just you and the instrument. The music should come from inside. It feels more personal to me to play from memory.

Have you ever had a major memory lapse during a performance and, if so, what happened?
I don’t think I’ve ever had any major memory lapses during solo performances, but I used to get very nervous so didn’t play from memory for fear of forgetting. Now it doesn’t worry me. My percussion duo partner and I had a simultaneous memory lapse once when one of us took a wrong turn playing Bach, and couldn’t get back to where we supposed to be. Fortunately we were playing background music so we faded out and tried again, but still couldn’t get past that point. In the end we had to try something different!

Are there any particular types of music – pieces, composers or genres – that you find particularly easy or difficult to memorise, and why?
I think it is more about style that particular composers. Minimalism is really hard to memorise (and we play a lot of it on marimba!) and I find rhythm sticks less well than melody. Take Steve Reich’s Nagoya Marimba for marimba duo, for example. Every bar is the same but slightly different, and is repeated a different number of times. It’s a nightmare! You are chasing each other throughout, so we learnt it together. Somehow I’ve memorised how may times to play each repeat – I think this must have been using visual memory, as I colour-coded all the bars depending on how many times they had to be repeated before I tried to memorise it. That piece was really hard to memorise, but I think it’s stuck forever now!

I find music with functional harmony relatively easy to learn, although there isn’t much for percussion. Take Schubert, for example; the chords are well known and the progression is predictable. It’s the same with pop music. Bach is an interesting case though – I have to be careful not to memorise it wrong, and have to pay particular attention to repeats with different endings so as not to take a wrong turning and miss out a few pages! The phrases don’t end neatly in Bach because of the counterpoint, so it’s harder to break into chunks for memorising. Sometimes the melodies switch between different people too, which makes it hard to memorise alone.

How do you memorise music? Are there particular techniques you use? Do you use visual memory, and if so, what do you visualise?
I have quite a good memory for music and don’t find memorising things too difficult, particularly at an advanced level – by the time you’ve mastered something technically, you’ve played it so many times it is memorised. When I was a student, I practiced my final recital so much that I knew the pieces by memory, but I still played with the music just so I knew it was there. Just in case. Now I use a variety of methods for memorising. I have quite a strong visual memory – I know where I am on the score when I’m playing. I also analyse the harmony and structure. When there are tricky bits that aren’t going well, I break it down and repeat small chunks over and over again. Learning drumming pieces can be hard due to the lack of harmony. In theses cases, I take 4 bar chunks and play them over and over again, first with the score, then without, until that chunk is memorised. Muscle memory and memory for shapes are really important too, so drums always have to be in the same place.

At what point during learning a piece do you work on memorisation?
There was a phase, when my duo first started, when we had to try and memorise lots of things we already knew, which we had learnt to play previously with the music. This was a case of playing without the music and seeing what had stuck, then working on memorising the bits that hadn’t. However, once we decided to perform only without the score, I started learning new pieces in a different way – memorising and learning at the same time. I would look at 8 bars, work out how to play it, then play without the music and repeat until I knew it. I think this method is faster and you get used to not staring at a piece of music all the time.

How do you deal with memory lapses? What tricks do you use to prevent it happening during a performance?
I don’t do much solo playing anymore, and I usually played with the score when I did! When playing in an ensemble, you can rely on other players to some extent to get you back on track if you get lost. I know memory lapses will happen if you think and worry about them.

Are there particular techniques you use for maintaining your memory of specific music over a long period of time (i.e. years)?
Not consciously. Normally I find it is possible to resurrect a piece with some practice. The gist of the piece is usually there, and how it should sound, but specific notes, harmonies and hand movements fade.

What do you think is the role of musical memory in creating new music, either through improvisation or composition?
I tend to compose music with a strong skeleton, but with an element of freedom. I have the general shape of the piece in my mind, and idea of the harmony and rhythmic texture I want, and then improvise around this.

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 teach beginner piano, mainly to children, and I do teach memorisation as I think it is really important early on. However, it’s an interesting balance, because often I have to teach them not to memorise as some children memorise too soon and cannot read music! At the very beginning I don’t teach notation until a few months in, but work on shapes, note patterns and playing by ear. In the creative projects I do with Soundcastle, we usually don’t write anything down. We record everything instead, to capture improvised ideas, many of which are never notated. Then we have to learn from recordings instead of from a score. This works well when composing as a group, and the ideas stick easily in the memory because you’ve created them.

Forthcoming events:

Websites: soundcastle.co.uk, www.meridianduo.co.uk, www.joytofilthratio.com

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About Caroline Wright

pianist, composer, scientist
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