Notes from the Memory Workshop, given by Marilyn Harper on 1st April 2023

Christ’s Chapel Dulwich

Saturday 1 April 2023

This brief account provides no answers to the question of how does one memorise music. It raises a few questions, leaving readers with ideas as to how to think about the process of how music is learned.

Despite expectations of a small number of people, a substantial group of organists, a piano teacher, a retired clergyman and a young pianist gathered for the memory class. Much discussion took place around topics described below.

Two polar opposites of learning styles are familiar. Learning to read music via the eye, playing an instrument at the same time, contrasts aural methods which focus on critical listening to the sound, followed by correct and flowing positioning of fingers, as demonstrated by pianist Mark, son of organ student Aidan. Mark learns piano via the Suzuki method, and his mother teaches violin via Suzuki principles. Mark’s demonstration at the piano of a Sonata movement by Clementi, displayed confidence and ease with no written music in front of him.

This is not to say that pupils who learn in traditional ways play less competently, but overall, the eye – based approach tends to spawn players who sight read, learn from printed scores, backed up by exam assessments. This system contributes to the healthy amateur classical musical world in the UK. A large proportion of other students, however, prepare to perform in a concert and/ or competition when ready to do so, coached by their teacher. This method propels a student towards the conservatoire, especially if becoming a professional musician is a desired aim. In Europe, it is an honour to be given music lessons, and practice will be done, whereas some pupils in the UK find it hard to fit any post- lesson work in at all, given exam and other social pressures from schools, parents and society in general. Despite the ‘music is a hobby’ approach, a particular English obsession is for qualifications, and many amateurs spend small fortunes on trying to achieve them. Observations about the current decline in school music were also discussed later in the meeting.

Participants recognised the snob value of being able to read music from their childhoods. This attitude has changed, and without access to expensive lessons today, many learn as they have always done by ear, nowadays watching u tube demos, picking up tunes by listening and figuring out how a song/piece of music should go. Fortunes have been made from three chords and a good pair of ears! Such musicians experiment getting the right sounds for their work. Read on….

An average organist will probably be able to memorise hymn tunes, psalm chants, worship songs and whatever else is required, if played often enough.This situation was real one week before writing this summary. ‘How Great Thou Art’ was played from memory at a funeral when a particular hymn book was unavailable. After a few attempts, all was well. Two clear examples of memorisable organ pieces are Bach’s Toccata in D minor BWV 565 and Widor’s Toccata from the Symphonie 5. Excitement generated by brilliant performances of these pieces fuels the energy to learn and memorise them. Patterns fall well under the hands, pedal parts are straightforward and the piece rarely fails to impress onlookers.

Aural tests present interesting scenarios. Most tests require instant recall of a 2-4 bar phrase when played twice. Most can cope with 2 bars, 4 are harder. The very fact of them being part of an exam is scary. Candidates may panic, or sail through, if enough practice at tests has been done. Young people who listen to the latest hits in their spare time will remember their favourites for the whole of their lives. Thus, we see how older people relive their youth when their favourite tunes are played. Enjoyment, the feel-good factor, is key. The route to the heart is via the ear. Memorisation has taken place unconsciously with enjoyment a key part of the process.

Andrew demonstrated, using four bars of a Rheinberger movement, that by taking the pedal part first and memorising small sections, that it is possible to begin the process of careful memorisation for short, practical purposes such as page turns. A noticeable feature was to allow the brain to rest for a short time before resuming work.

Although I had invited people to bring something they might wish to memorise, eg a short passage, few people brought anything, so discussions continued.

A few days after the class, our older son and I chatted generally about the differences between his composing, drumming and tech music world, and ours. Music reading has no meaning for him:

“You read notes, I feel my way around a keyboard. Your harmony is several notes stacked on top of each other on a stave. Mine is the shape of my right hand on the keyboard ( never left, that is the bass). I guess my message is, your way is not better than mine, and I’ve only just figured this out. Thus, different ways of thinking affect what is prioritised. A sight reader will throw tempo out of the window in order to get accurate notes. In my world, accurate tempo is king. Therefore, most (pop musicians) stick with rigid, simplistic harmony(or loops or both). That’s why everyone plays to a click, even on stage. The crux of the

message is musical equality”. His experience is direct, meaning, sheer physicality of playing, creating, feeling.

Peter Westerbrink’s programme notes accompanying his Franz Tunder CD describe “searching for the musician behind the notes”. Studying past treatises, he says, can illuminate how to play up to a point, but beyond that, it is getting to the heart of the music via trying different ways of playing a phrase, and how to communicate its essence, that matters most of all. It involves deep listening to what is being practised, and is time consuming. One by- product of such practice is memorisation of the music.

Marilyn Harper

11 April 2023