We can trace the tradition of playing solo piano music from memory back to Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann. Before that, it was inappropriate to play without a score in front of you. Chopin even got angry at the prospect of a student playing one of his pieces from memory, since, according to the traditions of the day, it would have looked like it was not from Chopin’s pen at all but being improvised or embellished by the performer. Indeed Liszt, when he played his own works, used the score to show to his audience these were not improvisations but composed pieces.
Thanks to the many recordings freely available, today’s audiences are generally very familiar with the mainstream works. To add insult to injury, these recordings are often made under artificial conditions with retake after retake, each clip spliced together to make one “perfect” whole. This adds to the pressure in a live performance, since anything untoward is immediately noticeable. Pianist and writer Susan Tomes writes eloquently and persuasively about her own feelings and experiences on the subject of memorisation, and ends her article with this pertinent question:
Must musicians waste so much of their time and emotional energy on memorisation? If we’ve prepared the music thoroughly, does playing it from memory really add an extra dimension that is worth all the pain?
Pianist Gilbert Kalish has long played his entire solo repertoire using scores, even standard works. As a faculty member of the music department at Stony Brook University, Mr. Kalish helped change the degree requirements. For the past few decades, piano students have been able to play any work in their official recitals from memory or not. They needed to decide which resulted in the best, most confident performance.
There is no doubt that we end up knowing a work on much deeper levels once it is memorised, even if we decide we are going to use the score in performance. For this reason, I advocate spending some time on memory work and committing certain works to memory. Memory is like a muscle – use it and it gets stronger.
Memory Rule No. 1: If you are going to perform a piece from memory, start the memorisation process before you begin learning the notes – away from the piano!
Muscle Memory – Easy Come, Easy Go
The worst thing you can do if you’re after peace of mind on stage is to learn a work with the score until eventually you find you can play it without. Playing a piece over and over again eventually makes the muscular movements automatic, so that you don’t have to think about the notes or the fingers at all. While this method may suffice for amateurs who play for their own enjoyment at home, it is extremely unreliable for serious students or professional performers. Why? Firstly, muscular memory tends to be easy come, easy go. Under the stress of performance, muscles tighten and the mind plays tricks that can cause memory cues to break down, sometimes irretrievably and always to the detriment of self-confidence. One small slip can set off a chain reaction of mishaps that can lead to disaster – it doesn’t even have to start with a slip, it might be just a moment of doubt about what is coming next.
I am beginning a series of posts on memory techniques, presenting them one at a time. Today I am going to explore how analysing a piece away from the piano helps us to learn it on a much deeper level. When we analyse music, we attempt to understand better how the music itself works. There are many ways of analysing, but I would encourage you to do this in a way that is meaningful to you. Whatever you notice about the patterns, shapes and directions in the music is fine.
Please see Part 4 of my eBook Series (click here) for a list of resources.
Beethoven Appassionata Sonata
Let’s jump in at the advanced level and imagine we are planning to learn and memorise the Appassionata Sonata of Beethoven. Tackling a work of this size and stature demands familiarity with many of Beethoven’s other sonatas, as well as his orchestral music. This assumes a basic musical literacy and an understanding of the place of this sonata in the context of musical history. In other words, it is not really possible to learn this type of piece in a vacuum. We won’t get very far without knowledge of sonata form (from having played or studied other sonatas) or without a working knowledge of harmony and theory. It’s not enough to have good fingers, loads of time to practise and to love the piece – we are going to need a bit of background.
One of the highlights of my year at Peabody in 1982 was Leon Fleisher’s weekly class for pianists – I learned as much if not more from listening to others play for him as I did from his comments to me. There was one particular class where we went round the room, each one of us stating a fact or an observation about the opening of this Beethoven Sonata (just the first 8 bars). Those who hadn’t studied the work in any great depth before would have been able to go up to the piano after the class and play this opening just from these accumulated observations.
- The hands are in unison, two octaves apart.
- The opening is pianissimo, mysterious and ominous in mood.
- The time signature is 12/8 and the movement begins on the last beat of the bar.
- The main motive is made up of the notes of the tonic (F minor chord), descending from the dominant note to the tonic note and then ascending two octaves.
- On the last beat of the first phrase, parallel motion gives way to contrary motion (the LH rises to the third of the chord rather than descend the octave as the pattern would suggest).
- The crotchet tied to the first of the semiquaver pair creates a rhythmical sharpness – Beethoven’s rhythmic precision will need to be carefully observed in performance.
- Bars 3 and 4 are based on and around the dominant. The RH is an embellished rising and falling major 2nd; the LH plays solid triads in inversion.
- The first chord in bar 4 is a crotchet followed by rests – Beethoven could have opted for a dotted crotchet but clearly wants the prompt release of the chord. Again, rhythmic precision is crucial.
- Bars 5 to 8 replicate the first phrase on the flattened supertonic – the neapolitan harmony
- And so on… (carry on an generate as many observations as you can)