Sunday, October 3, 2010
Music or Memory III - Transcending the Score
“ I think you are onto something.”, my friend Gladys Odegard commented on my last blog entry - she lives in Canada and has been teaching and performing for many years. “ The immense amount of time and energy it takes to commit a score to memory is beyond belief and the older you get the harder it is. Why not be happy to perform with a safety net and know when you are looking and when you are not. Anxiety severs all connections with the music.”
“The score can do that, too,” I want to add. As a child and as a teenager, I never played from memory. I didn’t start it until I was in college, and playing from memory was required. Nobody really told me how to approach the task, so, at some point, I would just put away the music, see how far I got, and the rest was a lot of repeats. I managed (with a few exceptions, Bach among them), and memory slips were not a big issue. Since I didn’t know how it worked, though, I was terrified. I knew one thing: the moment I looked down at the keyboard, I had a good chance to crash.
Seymour Bernstein was the first teacher who invited me to look at the keyboard, e.g. when we changed hand divisions. Then, one day while I was memorizing, I realized that all I needed to do was visually memorize the patterns of black and white keys, and see them pass in my mind’s eye like a movie. The method has proved reliable, and, at this point, even replaces the image of the score which I used to see in my mind. Of course, keyboard patterns do not replace either aural - , or motor-memory, they only support it - but the beautiful thing is: they allow me to be “in the music”, while the score used to bring up a lot of unwelcome “thought” distractions.
My musician friends have often reacted slightly puzzled and confused, when I reported this experience. The first person who understood what I was talking about was my writer friend, Mary Ashcliffe. Like me, Mary is a fan of intricate knitting patterns. She called my attention to the fact that pattern memory or memory of images is a right-brain activity, while, at least for me, decoding a score is a left brain activity, involving a lot of analysis and "thinking" - or that’s how it used to be.
During the summer, when I was practicing Preludes and Fugues, which I don’t usually memorize, I suddenly discovered that I was able to do this without falling back into “thinking” - as if something “clicked” and said : “These are just signs for sounds! Stop thinking, you know the piece, all you have to do is play and listen - or, more precise, listen, and play.”
At about the same time, I noticed that I was finally able to transpose by ear. I memorized one of the Czerny 8-bar exercises op. 821 every day and transposed it into all 12 keys. Of course, it’s not perfect, and I don’t know if I could still do it if someone was watching me, but by myself, I can do it, just listening to the sound in my mind, and imagining what it looks like on the keyboard. I had tried to do this about 5 years ago, and found it almost impossible. It was like pulling teeth, and eventually, I gave up - I simply didn’t have the time.
In order to play successfully with the score and “be in the music”, you have to be able to transcend the score, get past the “decoding” of symbols, the playing instructions. The score becomes nothing but a written representation of the sound. While I’ve always been a good “reader” and sightreader, it has taken me until now to “transcend” the score.
I have the impression that it takes most students a long time to come to the point where they can “transcend” the score - if they get there at all. Once you know the piece, it can be a lot easier to put the score away and trust your keyboard orientation. Black and white keys are what they are, they never change names or places, and in that respect, they are a lot more reliable than musical notation.
Just this week, I had a discussion about that with one of my adult students, who is a very good “ear-player”. She had observed that it is very hard for her to play with the music, and “hear” and “feel” it as intensely as she does when she plays from memory. We simply agreed that she is going to perform from memory for the time being, but if we are going to approach the issue from both ends, and she also practices playing with the music, eventually, the ends will come together.
Having observed many students, I am quite convinced that the people who are more comfortable playing by ear than with the music intuitively “organize” the keyboard visually. They may not even be conscious of that themselves.
When I teach young beginners, we usually start off playing familiar tunes by ear, on the black keys - or in B - major, F-sharp - or is it G-flat major? , at first with one finger. Who cares how it’s written! It is important to me that they hear and find their way around the keyboard before they start to read, in order to prevent the reading from being mechanical, without connection to the ear.
When I started to play the piano, I was not taught that way. My mother had apparently taught me to play songs since a very young age, but once lessons started, I never ever played anything by ear again, or improvised, or played without music. While I have no memory of my very early experiences at the piano, I do remember very well that having to play without looking at the keyboard and my hands felt as if someone had pulled the rug from under my feet. At that time, I started “thinking” while I played, and after a while, I got so used to it that I couldn’t stop it any more.
It seems to me that many adult players have been taught like that as children, in order to develop their feeling for the keyboard early on. While some people have that skill naturally, most have to train it. Since pianists have to read a lot of notes, it is an important skill, but “keyboard” skills have to be developed along with it, if not earlier. Otherwise, chances are that the result is a “deaf reader”, feeling his or her way around the keyboard, but disconnected from the music, sometimes to an extent that makes the music sound as if it were a foreign language a person can read, but not understand.