Please tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
I am a principally a violinist and have performed in various capacities as soloist, chamber and orchestral musician. I studied violin and piano as joint first study at the Royal Academy of Music in London and in recent years have been playing the piano more again and have just made a CD with my wife, the violinist Ani Batikian.
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 always memorise solo repertoire as I am learning, a habit since childhood. My teacher made me learn everything from memory, including Kreutzer studies. I mostly perform with music though as these days as I am mainly performing chamber music, sonatas and directing orchestras. I have performed Vivaldi’s Four Seasons maybe close to a hundred times but always use the music as I feel the solo part is an integral part of the texture.
Have you ever had a major memory lapse during a performance and, if so, what happened?
No thankfully. There again if I wasn’t totally prepared or 100% confident of my memory I would take the music on and have it placed discretely nearby. I don’t think there is so much pressure or expectancy these days to perform from memory. If you are playing solo every week then of course everything is much easier than the occasional moment in the spot light.
As far as memorisation I have never really thought about it until recently when I was trying to teach myself jazz piano. As a child, memory just happened. I played the Schumann Piano Concerto and never thought about memory. As stated somewhere on this blog, jazz musicians have superb memory skills. Here is an excellent resource, a free PDF on visualisation and memory tools for learning jazz.
I have always been aware that there are many elements to memorising music and these must come together in an act of unconscious mastery after the unconscious consciousness stage has been attained.
But how? I think to consciously try to memorise is a non starter, at least for me. It is a process and it is best attained by concentrating on the things that are not memory. The jazz PDF illustrates that mastery of improvisation is linked greatly to how well developed ones ear is. The same applies to classical music, the written down version of jazz. By this I mean, developing pitch sense, hearing harmony and polyphony coupled with ones own ideal internal performance, and linking this with the inner eye.
So the first step is to learn to hear and listen.
The second is embrace the two beliefs below. This is in part achievable by suspending our everyday conscious beliefs of reality.
The first of these is that we are all connected to the hub of a universal consciousness and connecting to this will take us directly to becoming one with what we want to know. In this case, being able to access with ease the piano pieces we are consciously learning. The Chopin Etude in Gb major is already there, we are not having to recreate it everytime we want to play it or play it from memory.
This is something I think good jazz players do naturally, they are recreating from memory. It is a little like driving a car, you are looking behind in the rear view mirror while also checking your speed and looking ahead in the distance anticipating other driver’s moves.
I think some classical musicians have a tendency to get caught up too much in the intellectual side of music instead of letting go and finding the freedom jazzers have. Which leads me to the last prerequisite for masterful memorisation. It is a feel thing. Playing by heart means letting go of left brain consciousness and feeling the music unfold as it goes on its emotional journey.
By way of a curious synchronicity I must relate something which happened recently before I had come across this site. I was trying pianos in a store and unconsciously started playing a Beethoven Sonata, the C major, op.2 no.3 which I have not played since I was 15 years old. I think the trigger was the sound of the Bluthner I was trying, I haven’t played a Bluthner since playing the one I grew up with. After the first page or so my memory got stuck and the harder I tried to consciously remember the chords or notes the more I floundered. I then had a flash back of when I had last performed this piece. Suddenly my mind went to the Arnold Bax room at the Royal Academy of Music circa 1980 and there I was playing for my entrance exam. The emotions of that audition were so strong that they opened the musical memory bank of op.2 no.3 and I proceeded to play the rest of the movement without hesitation. In fact as I was playing part of me was a few bars ahead, a little like the earlier analogy of driving a car. Which reminds me of something that Valentina Lisitsa says on practicing. She says practice to perform as much as possible because performance is where you learn the most. Check out her YouTube channel, she has filmed hours and hours of herself practicing.
How do you memorise music? Are there particular techniques you use? Do you use visual memory, and if so, what do you visualise?
When I was going through a period of conducting orchestras I realised how important it is to be able to conduct without a score. The difference between having a head in a score and being able to engage with the orchestra every moment without a score is huge. So for an exercise I decided to memorise Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherezade and had to work out how to do this. Firstly I broke the piece down into sections within the movements and practiced singing and conducting without the score. This wasn’t so difficult if the music was playing along in the same vein, but some of the movements have a lot of tempo and time changes and you have to see these coming otherwise it’s too late to go from say conducting 6/8 to 3/4 in an instance. Therefore I created a musical mind map with big beat and tempo changes, which helped a lot. I could then see these coming in my mind’s eye, a little like road signs on the motorway preparing you for the next junction. Of course there are those geniuses who conduct everything from memory. I remember playing all the Stravinsky Ballets with Esa Pekka Salonen and the Philhamonia, he never used a score. Or Abbado conducting a Boulez piece with a time change every bar at breakneck speed. Phenomenal! In Bernstein’s biography he tells the story of being in Fritz Reiner’s conducting class and Reiner shouting out to a fellow student, “what note is the second oboe playing in bar 57?” Reiner expected this level of memorisation from all his students. How about opera singers? They not only learn 3 hour roles, sing in a foreign language, but remember stage directions too. The human brain is capable of much much more than many of us believe.
At what point during learning a piece do you work on memorisation?
For solo works, from the beginning. Get away from the dots as soon as possible.
At the moment I am preparing the piano part of the Cesar Franck violin sonata and even though I will use the music for the performance as it is a duo, I am memorising it as I learn. I find it difficult to play complex piano parts looking at the music.
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 find that many of my students have difficulties in memorising due to their own belief that they can’t do it and the fear of performing without music is too great even to bother trying. So much work on confidence building is needed. In the Soviet system you didn’t get your lesson unless you turned up with the piece fully prepared and memorised.
So in conclusion, I think we have to all find our own way to memory mastery by experimenting with all the different techniques available. For those who are newly starting out to memorise just take small steps, a few bars a day. But do it everyday and be persistent and most of all keep the desire strong.