Playing from memory

Chenyin Li is a concert pianist and academic with a specialisation in memorisation techniques. She tells IAM how she became interested in this subject, and how simple mnemonics can be very effective

Performing music in public from memory is one of the biggest challenges for any classically trained pianist. The complexity (and length) of the repertoire makes this task an onerous one, causing anxiety for the majority of both professional and amateur pianists.

The approaches taken to memorising piano music are incredibly varied and personal, ranging from transcribing an entire score note by note with every dynamic and articulation marking, to simply letting the fingers float across the keyboard and hoping they eventually find their way.

Memorisation often takes a low priority in piano lessons, relegated behind the exploration of musical ideas and the development of technique. Because the act of memorising is so intimate and personal – and has no physical manifestation – it subsequently becomes a troublesome subject to teach or learn. There are no single solutions and certainly nothing that can be easily transferred from master to pupil in the traditional context of a piano lesson.

My original impetus for considering carefully the way I memorise music, and more importantly how I make that act reliable under pressure in a concert, came at the beginning of my professional career. In my early twenties I was entering piano competitions that had extensive repertoire demands, while at the same time I was starting to perform at paid engagements that required specific commissioned works. At the peak of this period I was required to prepare three hours of solo and concerto repertoire for a major competition in addition to a completely different programme for a concert society that featured several new contemporary works with complex harmonic language and elaborate rhythms.

Although this might not be too challenging for a seasoned professional, I recognised at the time that if I was going to successfully negotiate it I needed to secure the way that I memorised music. I started to work immediately on a system that would allow me to memorise all the new works and also to secure the items of repertoire that I had learnt in the past. Thankfully, this determined and concentrated effort paid off and I was able to win the competition and successfully fulfil my engagements.

After this initial success I decided that I needed to find out more. I headed to the library and quickly discovered that there is not a lot of material on the subject of memorisation – and whatever secrets great piano masters hold, they are not very keen to share them.

There is certainly an element of bravado amongst the pianist community that prevents us from openly discussing the challenges of memorisation, as doing so would portray us as vulnerable. At the same time, a great proportion of our daily practice is dedicated to committing notes to memory, and with very rare exceptions most pianists, even the greatest, have experienced memory problems when performing in public.

I therefore saw this a great subject for my doctoral thesis, as it provided me with the perfect opportunity to explore and develop all the new ideas from my recent experience. It also meant I could investigate how my colleges approach this subject, creating a dialogue and exploring different ideas and techniques.

There are prodigious pianists who can effortlessly retain vast amounts of music, or commit new music to memory almost instantly. The French-German pianist Walter Giessekin, for example, demanded that his pupils memorise their piano works before they even played a note. He himself was able to learn completely new pieces on his way to the concert hall. However, this is far from being the norm, and by looking at the data provided by my pianist friends I quickly confirmed my initial suspicion: every pianist has a distinct and individual method that works on different levels according to their strengths and weaknesses.

I decided to focus my research at the professional level as I felt that this was where my work could be most useful. My findings focus on tools that I call mnemonics, which help to retrieve music from our memory in real-time. Some of these are analytical and harmony based, but others can take different forms, like a number, a name, a fingering, a hand or arm gesture or even a specific cluster or white or black notes on the keyboard.

By using these mnemonics as important signposts across the music, the pianist is guided towards the successful completion of the performance. It is very important that they relate closely to the pianist that uses them and that they are very personal, as certain mnemonics can be perfect for certain players and completely useless to others. They also need to be effective in real-time and deployed very quickly – a mental cue that is hard to retrieve becomes completely infective in the middle of a performance.

Writing the dissertation and subsequently the book that derived from it – Memorisation: Essential Guide for Pianists – was a great source of satisfaction and I hope it has helped some other pianists in a small or a big way. I can’t claim to be infallible or have a perfect musical memory, but this process has certainly helped me to be more secure and prepare in a more methodical way for my concerts. It also helps greatly to free up some intellectual capacity to engage with the most important thing, which is to create music and communicate with the audience!

Chenyin Li is a concert pianist and author. She is performing as part of the Blüthner Piano Series, presenting a programme of Beethoven and Stravinsky at St John’s Smith Square on 23 May, with tickets available here

chenyinli.com | sjss.org.uk/events/chenyin-li

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