I have just returned from an amazing week at Chetham’s International Piano Summer School in Manchester, UK. This year was my third visit and, as usual, it didn’t disappoint. The summer school is full of hundreds of piano-maniacs, ranging from individuals who only started playing post-retirement, to international concert pianists, and everything in between. The week includes lessons, workshops, lectures and concerts and everyday is packed with musical activity. We all worked hard and played hard, exploring new ideas and forging new friendships through a shared musical passion. To the aspiring amateur, it provides both a heavy dose of inspiration and a lesson in humility.
The role of musical memory came up in various ways throughout the course, most obviously through the relative aptitudes and desires of pianists to play without a score. Amongst the participants, it was hard not to notice that most of the (jaw-droppingly talented) children played from memory, while most of the (heart-poundingly enthusiastic) adults played from scores. Of the dozen or so wonderful professional concerts I attended over the week, the majority were played completely from memory, including a staggering 90-minute recital of all of Brahms’ late piano works (Op.116-119) from Graham Caskie, and an utterly spell-binding all-Chopin programme from Eugen Indjic. Interestingly, two pianists decided to use scores for their entire concerts – Philippe Cassard, comical star of the final Cabaret show, and Artur Pizarro (who actually used an iPad with a foot operated page-turner!). Despite my personal prejudice towards playing from memory, I have to admit that the use of scores did not detract from the music at all; both recitals were full of drama and passion, and both artists produced a quality of sound and lightness of touch that was simply magical. Unusually, there was also a short play by writer Jessica Duchen about Messaien’s haunting Quartet for the End of Time (following by a fabulous concert of the same work) in which, rather surprisingly, both actors read their parts. Although the play was very moving and well acted, I felt this did somewhat detract from the work.
In my own piano lessons with José Feghali, a master of tone quality and atmospheric playing, we specifically discussed memorising strategies. He emphasised the need for memorising entire sections hands separately, and practising them at speed starting from anywhere, before putting the hands together. This method allows a meticulously detailed approach to both learning and practising, which should substantially strengthen memory and the ability to perform under pressure. Although I’ve never been a great fan of learning hands separately, I suspect this might simply be laziness! When asked to play just the left hand of the Scarlatti G major Sonata K.427, which I know very well and regularly play from memory, I was surprised to find myself stumped after just a few bars. In this case, my lack of detailed work on each hand separately showed in a lack of control in busier sections, leading to notes being clipped or missed altogether, something I failed to really notice playing hands together. The situation was much worse in the Chopin Gm Ballade, where I discovered that I didn’t really know many of the notes in sufficient detail to stand up to thorough scrutiny. I was definitely persuaded, and will certainly be incorporating hands separately practise into my piano regime from now on.
The final lecture of the week was given by the indefatigable Murray McLachlan, a formidable pianist and Head of Keyboard Studies at Chetham’s itself, who started the summer school back in 2001. He focused on banishing the inner demons that so often threaten to derail a performance. Sadly, a lack of self-belief and fear of forgetting often contribute to severe performance anxiety in musicians, especially soloists who chose to perform from memory. But as Murray pointed out, nervous energy can also be viewed as an enjoyable and important part of creating an exciting, stimulating and memorable performance. On the topic of memory lapses, and silencing the chatter of internal monologues (typically saying unhelpful things like “You’ve left the oven on!” or, worse still, “You’ve forgotten the next note!”), he was quite adamant that concentration was the key – being in the moment and focusing on the music, singing the line and dancing the rhythm. He suggests saturating the music with creativity, colours and voicings so that every moment contains a wealth of musical ideas in which the nervous performer can immerse themselves. Both mental and physical preparation are of course essential, including mental practice and visualisation of the performance itself, and a thorough knowledge of the chords and underlying harmonic structure will help any hapless performer get back on track should a complete memory lapse occur. Sage advice indeed.
There were simply too many wonderful moments and individuals to mention all of them here. As always, I learnt an enormous amount, enjoyed myself immensely and have returned full of enthusiasm and musical energy.