I am re-committing to memory my old piano repertoire which, 25 years ago, comprised somewhat over an hour of music.
Playing complex piano pieces from memory amazes me. Any form of memorised material is impressive, but piano seems weirdest because one doesn’t have to just memorise a melody, but all the chords and counterpointal parts as well. There are usually three to eight notes being played at once, so superficially it sounds as though one has to memorise three to eight separate parts and play them simultaneously. It’s not really that hard (unless it’s a five-part fugue by JS Bach, and I haven’t memorised any fugues yet) because while there may be three notes in an A major triad in second inversion, they are not just any old three notes. They are three notes that nearly always go together. So one can just remember that there’s a triad there, rather than remembering three separate notes.
But still, there’s an awful lot of stuff to remember. I think concert pianists and Shakespearean actors are the most impressive to me in terms of memory feats.
I find it astounding to what extent the fingers – after a fair bit of effort at memorising – just know which notes to play. If you asked me what the next chord was, I could play it, but I couldn’t tell you beforehand what it was. I might even need a run-up to play it, because it seems that playing the chords leading up to it set the context that enables my fingers to ‘know’ what comes next. I know this because if I get lost and have to get re-started, there are only certain points in the piece from which I can start cold.
I have read that it’s really the Cerebellum that ‘remembers’ what to play, not the fingers. But it feels like it’s the fingers.
One can commit a piece to memory either consciously, so that one can say out loud what comes next – what chord it is, which notes and perhaps which of passages A, B, C or D it is in a Rondo structure – or unconsciously, by just playing it over and over from sheet music until it gets programmed into one’s subconscious.
I think it is safest to learn both ways.
Committing the piece to conscious memory is a safeguard against a crisis of faith or a sudden disorientation. Playing unconsciously relies on context to know what comes next and it needs faith so that one trusts one’s fingers to do the right thing. As soon as one loses context or faith – easy to do when under pressure in a performance – one can lose the ability to let one’s fingers do the work.
It is like the art of flying in the fourth HitchHiker book (‘So long and thanks for all the fish‘) or a Roadrunner cartoon where Wile E Coyote accidentally runs over a cliff but only falls when he looks down and realises where he is. You only lose the ability to fly when you remember that it is impossible. Then you suddenly plummet.
There is a very long trill in a Chopin Nocturne that mixes me up because it covers three notes and is more complex than an ordinary trill. I can play it fine, and very fast, as long as I don’t think about it. But because it’s long, I usually end up inadvertently thinking about what my fingers are doing about halfway through and then getting muddled. The last few times I have succeeded in playing it right through without mistake by looking around the room as I play it, focusing on things I see – keeping my mind occupied by anything except what my fingers are doing.
My fingers playing music are like me doing maths. They are very good at it as long as nobody is watching. But as soon as somebody is watching it turns to mud. Young children enjoy tormenting me by sidling up to me and asking me something embarrassingly easy like ‘differentiate x squared!‘ and then staring at me intently so that my brain won’t work (like a watched pot).
But if one also knows consciously what comes next, one can silently tell oneself to play an E flat diminished chord in the second inversion, or to reprise theme B, one octave higher. One knows how to do that, so one does it – no faith required. The conscious brain acts as scab labour to supplant the striking union of the unconscious fingers.
Although both conscious and unconscious memory always have a role to play, I feel that this time I am learning a lot more unconsciously than I did 25 years ago. I can see how much conscious involvement there was in 1991 because some of the scores still have the pencilled notes I wrote on them to help me categorise and memorise the thematic and harmonic structure of each piece. It’s more enjoyable learning subconsciously. But it’s higher risk to do only that, if one has to perform.
I have been finding that, once one has committed a piece thoroughly to memory, it is quite peaceful and meditative to play without thinking about the notes one is playing. One thinks about the music, because one puts the feeling into the piece by variations in loudness and pace, but not about the microstructure of the notes. That is beyond one’s gaze, being taken care of by the fingers/cerebellum.
It is important to keep one’s mind on the music though, otherwise the relentless, angst-ridden chatter of the modern monkey mind comes in to disturb the peace. I can remember occasions of playing pieces in the past, whether from sheet music or from memory, with my mind completely oblivious to the music and instead working philistinically though every grievance, anxiety and obsession it could find, re-running past conversations and projecting future ones at a rate that would make a Boddhisattva wince and that could generate material for at least three psychology PhD theses.
I wonder what concert performers do – whether they do both, or just one and if so which one? Or does it vary between performers?
In case anyone is interested, here are the pieces from the 1991 repertoire, showing which ones have so far been re-learned:
- Beethoven Pathetique Sonata, all three movements (2nd and 3rd re-learned so far)
- Mozart C major sonata, all three movements
- Beethoven Moonlight Sonata First movement (the famous one)
- Beethoven Fur Elise (re-learned)
- Debussy First Arabesque (re-learned)
- Debussy Clair de Lune
- Chopin Nocturne in E flat major (re-learned)
Mr Beebe would say ‘Too much Beethoven‘.
But I will never be able to competently play the fiendishly difficult Opus 111 sonata whose crashing rendition by the troubled Miss Honeychurch prompted those immortal words.
I have vague aspirations to extend the list if I manage to re-learn all of it. I have in mind to do one of Faure’s three lovely impromptus. Given my comment above, I am tempted to also take up the challenge of attempting to memorise a Bach fugue. I probably shall. Sadly, nobody in my circle of friends and family seems to really like Bach fugues. Perhaps he really wrote them for the enjoyment of the performer rather than for the listener.
Bondi Junction, July 2016