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Do many of you play organ pieces in public from memory? Apart from the obvious answers of knowing a piece incredibly well, forwards, backwards, sideways and upside down and learning it from the end backwards are there any less obvious tips that members can offer. Is it an age thing? (I notice that teenaged students seem to take to it quite naturally.) Do different people's brains operate differently, ie being more or less adept at, for example, kinetic or photographic memory?

 

A number of pieces I can play more or less from memory in that I can play them with the score open in front of me but without looking at it except very occasionally and briefly but, generally speaking, if you take the score away (a sort pf psychological crutch, perhaps) the mind goes blank.

 

Should I be worried about this or should I be like the rest of you, wandering round Amsterdam or fitting sequencers on 400-year old historic instruments? Is it best not to worry about it at all and just let it happen?

 

Malcolm

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No, can't play from memory any more.

 

I have a feeling that it goes in an inverse relationship with sight-reading. (Or do I mean playing by ear?)

 

Still, wouldn't dream now of playing anything from memory.

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There are only a few pieces which I could play from memory - or just about from memory!

 

However, I've accepted a challenge of doing the Widor Toccata blindfolded at a concert in two weeks time. I'm wondering exactly how to go about trying to commit this all to memory, and wondering why I found myself saying yes! :lol:

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There are only a few pieces which I could play from memory - or just about from memory!

 

However, I've accepted a challenge of doing the Widor Toccata blindfolded at a concert in two weeks time. I'm wondering exactly to go about trying to commit this all to memory, and wondering why I found myself saying yes! :lol:

One big difference between being an organist and virtually any other instrumentalist (apart from the piano) is that you don't take your own instrument around with you. When I'm playing away from home I like to mark in the registration changes etc. in my copy, so to play without a copy would mean not only remembering the notes, which should (although in my case may well not) always be the same, but the "organ management" which is bound to be specific to the instrument.

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One big difference between being an organist and virtually any other instrumentalist (apart from the piano) is that you don't take your own instrument around with you. When I'm playing away from home I like to mark in the registration changes etc. in my copy, so to play without a copy would mean not only remembering the notes, which should (although in my case may well not) always be the same, but the "organ management" which is bound to be specific to the instrument.

As a fluent sight-reader I have consistently shied away from playing from memory all my life, the only two pieces I can play from memory being pieces I learned for Grade VIII piano and a teaching diploma. OTOH I suspect that having an organ piece learned thoroughly from memory would make registering much simpler. All that mental space used in converting the marks on the page into muscle movements would be freed up and available for making spontaneous decisions about stops and couplers (or merely remembering which pistons have to be pushed when).

 

I remember being hugely impressed that Simon Preston played La Nativité from copies with no markings on them, no fingering, phrasing, registration. And they were old copies with David Willcock's name on the front!

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Do many of you play organ pieces in public from memory? Apart from the obvious answers of knowing a piece incredibly well, forwards, backwards, sideways and upside down and learning it from the end backwards are there any less obvious tips that members can offer. Is it an age thing? (I notice that teenaged students seem to take to it quite naturally.) Do different people's brains operate differently, ie being more or less adept at, for example, kinetic or photographic memory?

 

A number of pieces I can play more or less from memory in that I can play them with the score open in front of me but without looking at it except very occasionally and briefly but, generally speaking, if you take the score away (a sort pf psychological crutch, perhaps) the mind goes blank.

 

Should I be worried about this or should I be like the rest of you, wandering round Amsterdam or fitting sequencers on 400-year old historic instruments? Is it best not to worry about it at all and just let it happen?

 

Malcolm

 

I used to be able to memorise music when I was a teenager. In fact, I didn't have to try - it just happened. I can still get about half way through Sinding's Rustle of Spring, which I learned as a teenager, though I haven't seen the score for decades. It is a memory of what the piece feels like in the fingers.

 

These days, although I can easily memorise the sound of pieces just as easily as when I was younger, I can no longer memorise how even the simplest of pieces is played.

 

What I do find, however, is that memorising the odd few bars I am having difficulty playing helps enormously in getting my fingers on the right notes. This tends to be a photographic memory of both the score and what it looks like on the keys.

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However, I've accepted a challenge of doing the Widor Toccata blindfolded at a concert in two weeks time. I'm wondering exactly how to go about trying to commit this all to memory, and wondering why I found myself saying yes! :lol:

 

As am I

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Playing from memory is something only very gifted musicians could do. I am able to play some of the Mendelsohn Organ Sonats from memory and a few pieces by Widor. Everything else would require the score if not only to trust my fingering footing and registration changes. I heard Darius Battiwalla this week at Birmingham Townhall and what a first rate player he is too. He played all his programme from memory which consisted of the introduction passagalia & fuge by Healey Wilan. Most organist's would run a mile when they see the score with all those flats in it lol he also played the Clair de lune naiades and Toccata by Vierne from memory too. I was just taken back by his sheer consumate skill including organ management and direction of knowing his score like it was programmed into him. A uttterly convincing performance and fine player.

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Tis not as hard as it looks. The theory goes that there are three types of memory - muscle memory, visual memory (of the printed page and the shapes thereon), and aural memory. If you learn a piece consciously using a combination of all three, it stays. For instance, learning runs as note clusters and moving to a 'fistful of notes' at a time to initially get the arm used to the movement needed BEFORE adding the individual fingers, and meanwhile acclimatising the ear to the direction of the blocks of music before introducing each seperate element. Whilst this is going on the eye gets used (in conjunction with the ear) to the shapes before it. These three things make all kinds of recalls years down the line possible - whole trio sonatas have lived in my head for years, as well as more obscure and seemingly random pieces. Throw the metronomes out! As David Owen Norris often says, they work about as well as most easy solutions to complicated problems.

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Tis not as hard as it looks. The theory goes that there are three types of memory - muscle memory, visual memory (of the printed page and the shapes thereon), and aural memory. If you learn a piece consciously using a combination of all three, it stays. For instance, learning runs as note clusters and moving to a 'fistful of notes' at a time to initially get the arm used to the movement needed BEFORE adding the individual fingers, and meanwhile acclimatising the ear to the direction of the blocks of music before introducing each seperate element. Whilst this is going on the eye gets used (in conjunction with the ear) to the shapes before it. These three things make all kinds of recalls years down the line possible - whole trio sonatas have lived in my head for years, as well as more obscure and seemingly random pieces. Throw the metronomes out! As David Owen Norris often says, they work about as well as most easy solutions to complicated problems.

 

I seem to have a fourth type of memory which might be termed harmonic memory - i.e. being able to remember music in terms of chord sequences with inversions and spacings. In fact, I seem to read music in these terms to some extent.

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I seem to have a fourth type of memory which might be termed harmonic memory - i.e. being able to remember music in terms of chord sequences with inversions and spacings. In fact, I seem to read music in these terms to some extent.

 

Yes, I know what you mean - a sort of audible picture of how far apart your thumbs are and which way the spiders are creeping. I put that down to a combination of ear and muscle.

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In St Paul's, Olivier Latry last night played Bach P & F in in G Major (BWV 541), César Franck Chorale No. 2 in B Minor, Vierne Carillon de Westminster, Widor's Andante Sostenuto (Symphonie Gothique) and Dupré P & F in G Minor Op 7 without the scores.

 

He did use paper for Messiaen Apparition du Christ..... and Thierry Escaiche - Deuxieme Évocation. The latter of these was new to me and absolutely stunning. I look forward to hearing M. Escaiche playing in Symphony Hall next Spring.

 

More of the organ and concert later in the weekend, but those who condemned the new work, especially the Tubas, without the benefit of hearing it should go along and be prepared to eat their words. What a superbly revitalised instrument it is. The new mobile console is absolutely beautiful and must be a great boon to the cathedral and any recitalist fortunate enough to play there.

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Yes, I know what you mean - a sort of audible picture of how far apart your thumbs are and which way the spiders are creeping. I put that down to a combination of ear and muscle.

 

Don't forget 'analytic' memory: knowing in detail how the composition is constructed (take for instance the right hand figure of Vierne's final symf.V - not much to 'understand', yet a lot of notes) , and 'absolute' memory: knowing every little detail as an absolute fact (my teacher in Cologne used to try me on that: which note is written in the alto on the third quarter in measure x, mein Herr?).

 

Also, learning a very (very) difficult piece by heart may be easier to play than playing it from score; once it's in memory, one can focus on the music (if you're relaxed enough that the piece is in your memory (which it is, just take care to 'get it back').

 

But one can sometimes be jealous on those pianists who learn a Rach.3 in a week ...

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Don't forget 'analytic' memory: knowing in detail how the composition is constructed (take for instance the right hand figure of Vierne's final symf.V - not much to 'understand', yet a lot of notes) , and 'absolute' memory: knowing every little detail as an absolute fact

 

That's true. My favourite 'party pieces' have an easy-to-spot construction - Guilmant Scherzo Symphonique, e.g., which is basically 3 sections and a coda. Same for Guilmant Scherzo. Same for the Bach Allein Gott trio which basically goes round; once it's developed, next it modulates lots, next it passes the tune around the parts, then it stops. All of which, incidentally, are featured on the CD currently advertised in Organists' Review (an advert which has yet to yield any results)!

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Thank you for all your comments and suggestions. One point I take particularly is that it is helpful to have the registration &c., marked on the score although, clearly from what has been said, the really gifted performer does not need this.

 

Yesterday in the post I got two DVDs from Alfred Publishing Co Inc in the USA. One was about performance practice in romantic piano music. More to the point, the other was of a very interesting lecture by Dr Stewart Gordon (that's the right way round, not to be confused with anyone else!) on memorisation in piano performance. He makes the point made particularly above by David that memorisation is only reliable if you combine motor, visual, aural, analytical and spatial memory. One on its own won't do. I haven't yet tried any of the exercise he suggests but hope to do so quite soon. Ordered via Amazon and you need a multi-region DVD player.

 

Malcolm

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Tis not as hard as it looks. The theory goes that there are three types of memory - muscle memory, visual memory (of the printed page and the shapes thereon), and aural memory. If you learn a piece consciously using a combination of all three, it stays. For instance, learning runs as note clusters and moving to a 'fistful of notes' at a time to initially get the arm used to the movement needed BEFORE adding the individual fingers, and meanwhile acclimatising the ear to the direction of the blocks of music before introducing each seperate element. Whilst this is going on the eye gets used (in conjunction with the ear) to the shapes before it. These three things make all kinds of recalls years down the line possible - whole trio sonatas have lived in my head for years, as well as more obscure and seemingly random pieces. Throw the metronomes out! As David Owen Norris often says, they work about as well as most easy solutions to complicated problems.

In my 20's (1950-60) I could play a few pieces from memory: Bach B minor Prelude & Fugue, Widor Toccata and a Pastorale from a Rheinberger sonata. I believe this was because it took me so long to learn to play them that by the time they were secure I had unconsciously memorised them. I did not set out to remember them. My piano repertoire was also learnt in this way. Now I learn pieces more quickly and cannot memorise them except for the difficult passages: the same reason: repetition. My memory was muscle memory; I remembered how the fingers fell and I knew that if I found myself playing a right note with the wrong finger disaster was just round the corner.

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Rather like innate, I have a firm grip on Grade VIII and Diploma piano pieces, but little else, and I don't think things are getting easier! It is a commonplace among concert pianists that they can remember everything learnt before the age of thirty, but after that, forget it. Although they customarily play from memory, it is curious that they often get lost, even at the highest level, especially in Beethoven. I suppose this is because Herr B. constantly messes about with tiny melodic or rhythmic fragments, as does Monteverdi. Just try learning the inner parts of the Monteverdi Vespers for public performance - quite hard!

 

Paul

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Rather like innate, I have a firm grip on Grade VIII and Diploma piano pieces, but little else, and I don't think things are getting easier! It is a commonplace among concert pianists that they can remember everything learnt before the age of thirty, but after that, forget it. Although they customarily play from memory, it is curious that they often get lost, even at the highest level, especially in Beethoven. I suppose this is because Herr B. constantly messes about with tiny melodic or rhythmic fragments, as does Monteverdi. Just try learning the inner parts of the Monteverdi Vespers for public performance - quite hard!

A few random responses:

 

Pinchas Zukerman rarely plays anything except the Beethoven concerto in concerts these day.

 

The article on Memory in the old Oxford Companion To Music (ed. Scholes) is extremely informative and worth checking out; mention is made of the pianist von Bulow giving a recital tour of the USA in which he played the entire Beethoven piano sonatas, the 48 and much else all from memory - apparently he didn't even look at a score during the trip.

 

I was told that Georges Enesco sightread the then-unpublished Ravel violin sonata with Menuhin; a couple of days later they played it again but no one could find the piano part so Enesco played it from memory!

 

Sorry this isn't particularly organ-related.

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Apparently, when W.S. Lloyd-Webber was a student he learnt (in one week) Reger's Fantasy and Fugue on BACH - and played it from memory at the end of the week in a student concert. I do not know if this is true, but if so, this was a fairly amazing feat.

 

How about lapses of memory during concerts ? Does anyone have any anecdotes ?

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Apparently, when W.S. Lloyd-Webber was a student he learnt (in one week) Reger's Fantasy and Fugue on BACH - and played it from memory at the end of the week in a student concert. I do not know if this is true, but if so, this was a fairly amazing feat.

 

How about lapses of memory during concerts ? Does anyone have any anecdotes ?

 

Didn't one of the finalists at the Leeds Piano Competition have a lapse of memory in a Rachmaninov concerto? I seem to remember that, having observeh the exposition repeat, he started on it a third time.

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Apparently, when W.S. Lloyd-Webber was a student he learnt (in one week) Reger's Fantasy and Fugue on BACH - and played it from memory at the end of the week in a student concert. I do not know if this is true, but if so, this was a fairly amazing feat.

 

I was present in St Paul's on that famous occasion forty or so years ago when Daniel Chorzempa substituted for an indisposed Fernando Germani. He played the programme that Germani had planned (which, if memory serves, was the Reger BACH and Vierne No. 3); he'd had three or so days notice, played the programme from memory, and played it superbly.

 

He was asked about it in the interview before his last RFH recital and seemed to make light of it, but wow!

 

Ian

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In St Paul's, Olivier Latry last night played Bach P & F in in G Major (BWV 541), César Franck Chorale No. 2 in B Minor, Vierne Carillon de Westminster, Widor's Andante Sostenuto (Symphonie Gothique) and Dupré P & F in G Minor Op 7 without the scores.

 

He did use paper for Messiaen Apparition du Christ..... and Thierry Escaiche - Deuxieme Évocation. The latter of these was new to me and absolutely stunning. I look forward to hearing M. Escaiche playing in Symphony Hall next Spring.

 

More of the organ and concert later in the weekend, but those who condemned the new work, especially the Tubas, without the benefit of hearing it should go along and be prepared to eat their words. What a superbly revitalised instrument it is. The new mobile console is absolutely beautiful and must be a great boon to the cathedral and any recitalist fortunate enough to play there.

 

I also heard Latry play a whole concert on Dupré's organ in Meudon some years ago. I don't remember the Bach he started with but I do remember he missed some bars in the middle of it :blink: . The rest was good enough as usual, but I don't see the real interest of playing from memory from the listener point of view!

By the way, Marcel Dupré when he was teacher at the Paris Conservatoire used to oblige his pupills to play from memory while reading a newspaper on the music stand...Good exercise?

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