Letting things slip…

doh-homer-simpson-dohIt’s been a while since I blogged about music. And a while since I thought actively about memorising. So perhaps it’s no surprise that I suffered an epic memory collapse over the weekend! Time to start blogging again… and what better to place to start than with a bit of post-game analysis…

Thankfully, I was playing at a very friendly and informal gathering. There was no need to be nervous, though of course performing solo classical music in front of people is always a little scary. Importantly, it is categorically different from just playing alone in the comfort of your own home. For starters, the acoustic of the room was different from home, and the piano – a beautiful Steinway D –  was surprisingly quiet from my position at the piano stool with the music stand raised. Plus I managed to sit too low. Such minor things can be quite discombobulating, and pressing on without trying to fix anything predictably meant that my mind kept dwelling on these issues as I played, distracting me from the task at hand.

Despite this, everything was going well, at first. I was playing the first movement of a Haydn Sonata in D major (Hob XVI:24), which is well within my ability and I have been playing from memory since the start of the year. I’ve workshopped it and played it at another informal concert earlier in the year. So it should all have been fine, right? But suddenly, from no where, catastrophe struck! About three-quarters of the way through the exposition section, I had a complete memory blank! I managed (with limited success) to improvise my way through to the development section, only to have the same thing happen again – in exactly the same place – in the recapitulation! Improvising Haydn is obviously rather tricky, though at least I managed to end back in the tonic… But it was a mess.

So what went wrong? Clearly, I did not prepare sufficiently. In fact, I broke the golden rule of how NOT to memorise – just playing through with the score! I find Haydn fairly easy to memorise, and committed the Sonata to memory quickly and easily just through playing. As a result, I didn’t bother to analyse the piece in detail, nor did I ensure that there were plenty of safe starting places throughout (the ultimate safety net for memory slips!). I hadn’t practiced hands separately, or used any of the tricks and tools that the pros suggest. I hadn’t spent time away from the piano mentally rehearsing the piece, I just played it over and over again until motor memory (commonly known as muscle memory) could get me through. The problem with motor memory is that it is notoriously unreliable under stress and, when it fails, there’s nothing your brain can do to help! You need to build other layers of memory – additional musical representations – to rely on, which I have done meticulously in the past, for exams and important concerts, but conspicuously neglected to do in this case.

This was definitely a learning experience for me, and a wake-up call not to get complacent. It also highlights the value of low risk practice performances – as it turns out, life goes on even after a memory lapse, and now I know not to let things slip again…

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About Caroline Wright

pianist, composer, scientist
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