Please tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
As a scientist at the University of Cambridge, I am involved in both research in theoretical astrophysics and teaching in mathematics. Music is also a very important part of my life. I have studied the piano with Heli Ignatius-Fleet for many years, have participated in various masterclasses and summer schools, and am currently preparing for a diploma recital. I also enjoy piano duets as well as choral and solo singing, at a more modest level.
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?
Although I am not a natural performer, I do play to small audiences from time to time, and usually do so from memory. In most cases I would regard memorisation as an integral part of learning a piece thoroughly for performance. It has the obvious practical advantages of eliminating page turns and freeing the performer’s gaze from being tied to the score. As I usually practise on an upright piano, I find that reading the score from the differently placed music desk on a grand piano can be slightly disturbing. On the other hand there are pieces that are impractical for me to memorise securely, and for those I would play from the score.
Have you ever had a major memory lapse during a performance and, if so, what happened?
Thankfully not a complete breakdown, but I find that minor lapses occur quite frequently when performing. They seem to involve a sense of disorientation, brought about by a heightened psychological and physiological state or an unfamiliar instrument, and typically lead to a fumbling through a bar or two before the track is regained.
Are there any particular types of music – pieces, composers or genres – that you find particularly easy or difficult to memorise, and why?
I find Bach’s fugues particularly difficult to memorise, for several reasons. Even if the parts have been studied separately, it is difficult to attend simultaneously to three or more independent voices, and I probably rely too heavily on muscular memory. In a dense contrapuntal texture there may be few points of safety, as a subject entry in one voice might be accompanied by three other voices in full flow. The imitative style may also lead to confusion between similar passages. On the other hand, music of the classical and romantic periods is usually much 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 expect there are many layers at work at a subconscious level, including a visual memory of a particular edition. I find that a basic memorisation usually emerges from repetitive practice, initially with and later without the score, and it can be tested by playing to other people or on different instruments. An analytical understanding of the score, especially of its harmonic and formal structure, is invaluable for greater security in memorisation, as well as for interpretation. Trying to recall the music without reference to the score or keyboard can be a useful and challenging exercise. Lately I have experimented with entering pieces into a music notation programme and perhaps rearranging the music, to gain greater familiarity with the score.
At what point during learning a piece do you work on memorisation?
I don’t usually take active steps to memorise a piece until I have established a secure fingering and basic technical control. In some cases, though, memorising a difficult passage is essential to overcoming its technical demands.
How do you deal with memory lapses? What tricks do you use to prevent it happening during a performance?
I try to maintain an appropriate mental focus and counteract the effects of adrenalin. Some ability to improvise seems to be necessary to cope with memory lapses. Believing that the audience want you to play well can be helpful, although this may not apply to all performances!
Are there particular techniques you use for maintaining your memory of specific music over a long period of time (i.e. years)?
I don’t think I could play many pieces reliably from memory that I had not practiced within the last month or so. Even after a week without practice, I find that the muscular memory decays and things are more likely to go wrong. This may be partly because musical performance requires fluent recall at a certain minimum speed. On the other hand, I think I can retain for several years a fairly detailed aural image of pieces I have previously performed.
What do you think is the role of musical memory in creating new music, either through improvisation or composition?
I imagine that those gifted in improvisation have an excellent musical memory.
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?
No; I don’t have any experience of teaching music. The scientific research that occupies me daily requires an interesting mixture of mathematical precision and physical intuition that may have a parallel in the world of classical music, where extreme accuracy and attention to detail must be combined with a broad musical understanding. However, there is nothing in my work quite like the act of musical performance. Although mathematics ultimately requires perfect accuracy, it can be done at whatever pace the brain can work at; errors can be recognized and corrected, and memory is much less important than technique.