Please tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
My musical journey started with the piano when I was about 7 or 8. At that time, I did not like piano and was forced by my parents to learn it. When I was 13, I joined the school military band playing the flute, and about a year later, I became serious with learning the flute. It was also around this time that I started really picking up interest in piano as well, and music in general. I listened not just to flute music, but also piano and orchestral works. However, I decided that I should focus on one main instrument, and so I just played the piano occasionally for leisure. While in the school symphonic band, I competed and performed in many music festivals. I held the section leader appointment where I led the flute section. I also attained my DipABRSM in Flute Performance when I was about 18, and I was a finalist (junior category) in the 1st Singapore Flute Festival.
When I turned about 21, I started gradually playing more and more piano, as its repertoire spoke to me at a much deeper level. It also allowed me to have greater freedom of expression. I have recently started making piano videos and uploading them to YouTube. Right now I’m 23 and I consider myself an amateur pianist.
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?
Memorising begins as soon as I start learning a piece of music. Almost every single work I learn is memorised automatically. For flute, it just happens naturally from all the hours put into practising. Or just simply from playing them over and over again, because I enjoyed the pieces I learnt. I don’t have to put in an extra session dedicated just for memorisation. I still perform with the score, but it’s used only as a safety net. Very often, I’m playing for fun at home, an entire work without any score.
For piano, it is the same in that memorisation begins as soon as I start learning a piece. But there is more to it. When I found interest in the piano when I was about 13, I didn’t have a teacher any more, and was free to learn whatever I like. It so happened that all the piano repertoire I loved were actually way out of my reading capabilities, so a lot my “practice” was actually really more of memorising work. I was way too slow at reading music, and never thought of exercising my sight-reading abilities. I regretted that, because today, my sight-reading is horrendous.
It’s only recently that I started to become more conscious of the way I memorise. The reason for making this decision is because, while I became good at memorising, I was fast to forget as well.
Have you ever had a major memory lapse during a performance and, if so, what happened?
It’s never happened to me. And I think it’s very unlikely to happen for flute, because you don’t play chords, just single notes. It’s too easy. However, I can easily see this happening if I were to perform a solo piano recital. I’ve only performed publicly once in my life on the piano, and there wasn’t any major memory lapse for that one. There was a slight blank-out moment though, but I was fortunate enough to get back on track quickly.
Are there any particular types of music – pieces, composers or genres – that you find particularly easy or difficult to memorise, and why?
No, they are all pretty much the same for me. Or at least I haven’t noticed any difference if there is. I get lost in time very often while at the piano, so there might be a possibility that I do take a little longer to memorise certain types of music without even knowing it.
How do you memorise music? Are there particular techniques you use? Do you use visual memory, and if so, what do you visualise?
Now that I’m more conscious of my memorising, I do not just rely on the muscle memory I acquire from practising, or from playing a work from start to finish several times out of leisure. At least that’s the case for music that I intend to have memorised for a long period of time.
One of the most important methods I use right now is to ensure I’m able to start from as many different places as possible in the music. Sometimes, even in the middle of awkward passages. Like many amateurs, I used to be able to only play from start to finish. The second method is to make sure I can play with either RH or LH separately. I also often do this in the middle of practising even if the particular passage is easy enough for me to play with hands together immediately. It’s important that I actually see all the keys I’m hitting, and practising hands separately achieves that. The third method I use is to visualise my hands playing the music. I can either do this at the piano, or away from it. I make sure I can visualise my fingers pressing every single key clearly.
At what point during learning a piece do you work on memorisation?
As mentioned above, memorisation begins as soon as I begin practising a new work. But conscious effort at memorising only begins after I’ve mastered a piece.
How do you deal with memory lapses? What tricks do you use to prevent it happening during a performance?
I guess prevention starts right in the practice room! If I master the 3 methods mentioned above well enough, I should be comfortable enough to get back on track in the event that I still encounter a memory lapse. Also, I might do some improvisation on the fly!
Are there particular techniques you use for maintaining your memory of specific music over a long period of time (i.e. years)?
The same as the 3 methods above. Nothing really specific. If I had to maintain memory for years, I would simply revisit the piece every few months and repeat the process of the 3 methods. I think this is preferable to playing the piece over and over again every single day, just to ensure you don’t lose memory. This is because every time you lose memory and regain it back, you actually strengthen the memory.
What do you think is the role of musical memory in creating new music, either through improvisation or composition?
I don’t think I’m experienced enough to answer this. For me, improvisation / composition is inspired simply from listening to lots of music and analyzing lots of scores, but not necessarily having musical ideas specifically memorised. I guess it’s something like writers. When writers read widely, particularly books by great authors, their writing will inevitably improve.