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...I don't remember the Bach he started with but I do remember he missed some bars in the middle of it....

 

David Briggs tells the story of him playing from memory and mananging to make the Bach B minor Prelude last 17 minutes by jumping back a few pages at a certain point and repeating what he'd already played, and worse still, not being able to get off the merry-go-round each time he got to that particular point again!!

Frightening!

:blink:

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On the DVD that comes with his recording of the Art of Fugue, George Ritichie talks about the way in which Helmut Walcha would learn polyphonic music. Walcha would listen to someone playing through each part separately. He would learn each part individually and then join them together. I haven’t tried this myself and I seriously doubt that I could do it!

 

I have never been able to play from memory. Sometimes a piece has accidentally found its way into my memory through repetition, but I have never found an effective way of consciously setting out to learn something from memory.

 

Has anyone come across any exercises or drills that they consider worthwhile in developing the facility to play from memory (in addition to the suggestions in this thread from a couple of years ago)?

 

And I’d be interested to know how Holz Gedeckt got on playing the Widor blindfolded!

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David Briggs tells the story of him playing from memory and mananging to make the Bach B minor Prelude last 17 minutes by jumping back a few pages at a certain point and repeating what he'd already played, and worse still, not being able to get off the merry-go-round each time he got to that particular point again!!

Frightening!

:o

 

One of the first pieces I tried to play in public from memory was the Finale from Vierne's Symphonie 1. Those that know it well can probably guess where this post is going from the quote above. Yes, the bottom of the second page, having modulated to b minor, where Vierne uses a little link passage to move to the second subject - the one Vierne introduces in canon between RH and pedal - has to be differentiate from the bottom of the 3rd last page where the identical passage work then moves to the second subject in octaves in the hands with chords. Forget how to play the second one, and you are stuck in an endless loop, repeating most of the work!!! :o

 

I spend some time each practice session playing music from memory. Part of my requirements to have a work solidly from memory is to have multiple 'start' points within a work, where if something goes wrong, I can work to the next reset spot and be sure that everything is correct from that point again. I'll spot check several places in the Vierne from time to time, but I always make sure I spot check those two, related spots. NEVER AGAIN WILL I MAKE THAT MISTAKE!!!!

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The story is told, in Viennese circles, that Guido Meyer was once asked to dep when Planyavsky was sick and so learned the Heiller organ concerto from memory in a couple of days. But that was Guido. There are some with that kind of ability. Some of us simply have to work very hard to have music solidly from memory.

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One of the first pieces I tried to play in public from memory was the Finale from Vierne's Symphonie 1. Those that know it well can probably guess where this post is going from the quote above.

 

========================

 

 

I've done the loopy B-Minor thing, but I've never even tried to play the Vierne. If I therefore feel a last minute life-urge to go "Aux Francais," I am grateful for the warning.

 

However, (looks in vain for "smug" emoticon), I do play the entire Reubke Sonata from memory, for the reason that firstly, it requires a bit of interpretation and control, and secondly there are a lots of registration changes and some awkward moments, which on a strange organ, take up a fair bit of available time. Depending on how "on the ball" I am, (ie: I've practised hard), I sometimes like to have the music there "just in case," but I usually don't look at the dots at all.

 

I suspect that there is more liklehood of organists learning the more difficult works from memory, because they require much more detailed practise and much more careful fingering. In time, the motor reflexes are learned, and it's exactly the same as when I pursue my hobby of driving very large trucks, when without even looking, I can place the rear wheels of a trailer within half an inch of the kerb, or work out a difficult trajectory down a crowded street, with obstacles here, there and everywhere. I can even do this while talking on a hands-free phone. I suppose I'm wired up for the task, and it never seems difficult.

 

I don't see anything remarkable about memorising pieces. After all, concert pianists/violinists/cellists amd other soloists do it all the time, and I was quite shocked to discover that I could sing the bass part of the complete Handel "Messiah" without any reference to either the words or the notes!

 

I suspect that we are all under the pressure of having to fulfill many roles, such as accompaniment, voluntaries, fill-in music and whatever is thrown at us, and that detracts from the total dedication of a concert soloist. I don't expect concert pianists play many concertii from memory, but they play the ones they do know superbly. I expect that being a concert soloist of any kind can become repetitive and even a little tedious after a while.

 

MM

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========================

...when I pursue my hobby of driving very large trucks, when without even looking, I can place the rear wheels of a trailer within half an inch of the kerb, or work out a difficult trajectory down a crowded street, with obstacles here, there and everywhere. I can even do this while talking on a hands-free phone. I suppose I'm wired up for the task, and it never seems difficult.

 

MM

 

Please do let me know when you are planning to come and visit my neck of the woods so I can make sure that my bike and I are the opposite end of the country!

 

Back on topic, I tend to learn toccatas by heart (I tend to miss fewer notes that way than if I'm lifting my hands every few seconds to turn pages). I'm glad to know I'm not the only who gets stuck in endless loops with some pieces though. Any tips for "emergency escape routes"?

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Back on topic, I tend to learn toccatas by heart (I tend to miss fewer notes that way than if I'm lifting my hands every few seconds to turn pages). I'm glad to know I'm not the only who gets stuck in endless loops with some pieces though. Any tips for "emergency escape routes"?

 

Switch off the blower and blame the trip switch? It used to happen at least once a month for real on one instrument that I used to play - the first choirboy to the pumping handle got an extra 1/- in his pay which was quite a bonus when the quarterly envelope contained 10/- for full attendance.

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Please do let me know when you are planning to come and visit my neck of the woods so I can make sure that my bike and I are the opposite end of the country!

 

Back on topic, I tend to learn toccatas by heart (I tend to miss fewer notes that way than if I'm lifting my hands every few seconds to turn pages). I'm glad to know I'm not the only who gets stuck in endless loops with some pieces though. Any tips for "emergency escape routes"?

 

==========================

 

I wouldn't dream of "not looking" for cyclists on the public roads. I always look, then squash them flat; laughing hysterically!

 

:angry:

 

MM

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Switch off the blower and blame the trip switch? It used to happen at least once a month for real on one instrument that I used to play - the first choirboy to the pumping handle got an extra 1/- in his pay which was quite a bonus when the quarterly envelope contained 10/- for full attendance.

 

===========================

 

 

That's the advantage of computerised organ control systems, with instant replay. You can blame ANYTHING on them, and even walk away from the scene to prove it.

 

MM

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==========================

 

I wouldn't dream of "not looking" for cyclists on the public roads. I always look, then squash them flat; laughing hysterically!

 

:angry:

 

MM

 

In fact speaking from personal experience, if you drive a lorry over a bike it will squash it flat. Thankfully I wasn't on it at the time (I saw the lorry heading my way and jumped off just in time) but the look on the driver's face after he came to a stop and peeled the bike up off the road was priceless.

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Nathan Laube played an entire recital at Truro last week from memory (as seen on the video feed).

 

Die Fledermaus - Johann Strauss II (arr Laube)

Passacaglia BWV 582 - Johann Sebastian Bach

Andante from Symphonie Gothique pour Grand Orgue Op 70 - Charles-Marie Widor

Suite pour Orgue Op. 5 - Maurice Duruflé

Overture to 'William Tell' - Gioachino Rossini (arr Laube)

 

Edge-of-the-seat excellence. Standing ovation.

We were so staggered, we felt like giving up the instrument.

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I prepared my University Final Recital (including the Liszt BACH) from memory, but used the scores on the day as a safety net. Another of my pieces was the Bach/Ernst Concerto movement in C, which I got through without the score in front of my tutor who then told me that Carlo Curley had fallen foul of that one in a recital. (Kept cycling round and round because of the similarity between exposition and recapitulation; apparently, he ended up throwing his hands over his head and yelling, "you'll just have to imagine the ending, folks!" or words to that effect.)

 

There are odd bits and scraps I can do - I find that there's plenty of Bach I can recall quite easily, and it doesn't matter what organ I'm on because registration is a lot more straightforward than it would be in later music.

 

Two names I've encountered who play (or played) routinely from memory are Jean Langlais (for obvious reasons) and Jean Guillou, the latter of whom always plays his own compositions from score just in case he ends up revising them on the spot! His playing is so idiomatic, of course, that it doesn't matter if something goes wrong - he can usually improvise his way out of it, or make it sound like Bach / Vierne / Widor / Dupre / Whoever always intended things to sound a certain way. Langlais was similar; for him the distinction between composition, improvisation and performance was so very blurred that recordings of his own material sometimes depart considerably from the published score - and they're all the more exciting and intriguing for it.

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I prepared my University Final Recital (including the Liszt BACH) from memory, but used the scores on the day as a safety net. Another of my pieces was the Bach/Ernst Concerto movement in C, which I got through without the score in front of my tutor who then told me that Carlo Curley had fallen foul of that one in a recital. (Kept cycling round and round because of the similarity between exposition and recapitulation; apparently, he ended up throwing his hands over his head and yelling, "you'll just have to imagine the ending, folks!" or words to that effect.)

 

There are odd bits and scraps I can do - I find that there's plenty of Bach I can recall quite easily, and it doesn't matter what organ I'm on because registration is a lot more straightforward than it would be in later music.

 

Two names I've encountered who play (or played) routinely from memory are Jean Langlais (for obvious reasons) and Jean Guillou, the latter of whom always plays his own compositions from score just in case he ends up revising them on the spot! His playing is so idiomatic, of course, that it doesn't matter if something goes wrong - he can usually improvise his way out of it, or make it sound like Bach / Vierne / Widor / Dupre / Whoever always intended things to sound a certain way. Langlais was similar; for him the distinction between composition, improvisation and performance was so very blurred that recordings of his own material sometimes depart considerably from the published score - and they're all the more exciting and intriguing for it.

 

=====================

 

 

For some peculiar reason, I found that memorising the Liszt BACH was fairly straightforward: not that I've ever played it in recital without the score or anything.

 

However, when organists play Messaien from memory, I am impressed; possibly because I have little empathy with the music.

 

Many years ago, I turned the pages for the late Eric Chadwick (RNCM) at a recital in Bradford Cathedral, and being quite young at the time, I struggled to follow the score at one point, because it was all rushing around without pedals.

 

"Yes!" Came the command.

 

I dived at the copy and promptly turned two pages.

 

Trying to rectify the problem, Eric Chadwick said, "It doesn't matter. I know it."

 

From thereon in, (as the Americans say), he played the rest of "L'Ascension" entirely from memory; never once wanting to refer to the copy even as new movements unfolded.

 

Carlo Curley plays everything from memory of course, as do other notable American organists.....Jacobs, Laube etc.

 

In fact, I think it is Ted Jacobs who plays the Reger BACH from memory on a YouTube clip, which is quite a feat.

 

I recall holding a lengthy conversation with Carlo Curley about memorising music, and as he aptly pointed out, the concert organist, (like an athlete), needs to practise each and every day to keep in peak form. They also play many of the same works again and again at different venues. He went on to say that the skills of the professional or semi-professional church musician are very different, with many conflicting demands upon the amount of time available. In this situation, solid technique and good music-reading skills count for a lot more.

 

With so few out and out concert organists in the world, it is probably not surprising that playing entirely from memory is still quite rare.

 

MM

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=====================

 

 

For some peculiar reason, I found that memorising the Liszt BACH was fairly straightforward: not that I've ever played it in recital without the score or anything.

 

However, when organists play Messaien from memory, I am impressed; possibly because I have little empathy with the music.

 

Many years ago, I turned the pages for the late Eric Chadwick (RNCM) at a recital in Bradford Cathedral, and being quite young at the time, I struggled to follow the score at one point, because it was all rushing around without pedals.

 

"Yes!" Came the command.

 

I dived at the copy and promptly turned two pages.

 

Trying to rectify the problem, Eric Chadwick said, "It doesn't matter. I know it."

 

From thereon in, (as the Americans say), he played the rest of "L'Ascension" entirely from memory; never once wanting to refer to the copy even as new movements unfolded.

 

Carlo Curley plays everything from memory of course, as do other notable American organists.....Jacobs, Laube etc.

 

In fact, I think it is Ted Jacobs who plays the Reger BACH from memory on a YouTube clip, which is quite a feat.

 

I recall holding a lengthy conversation with Carlo Curley about memorising music, and as he aptly pointed out, the concert organist, (like an athlete), needs to practise each and every day to keep in peak form. They also play many of the same works again and again at different venues. He went on to say that the skills of the professional or semi-professional church musician are very different, with many conflicting demands upon the amount of time available. In this situation, solid technique and good music-reading skills count for a lot more.

 

With so few out and out concert organists in the world, it is probably not surprising that playing entirely from memory is still quite rare.

 

MM

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I think it's true to say that the greater the player the more - and better quality - practice they do. Not only does Carlo Curley have a reputation for doing constant practice but stories about Simon Preston practicing for hours on end - even psalm chants - are well known.

 

I have never been able to balance on a bicyle but, if only organplaying were that easy!

 

Malcolm

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I am not an organist but I was rather surprised that Carlo Curley maintained that it was necessary to rehearse each day, as a concert organist.

Isn't it like riding a bike, ie that when you have learnt you never ever forget ?

Colin Richell.

 

==========================

 

A good question Colin, but the truth of the matter is that a concert organist, who may push the boundaries of technique, is first and foremost an athlete. Let me explain as best I can.

 

No matter how well a keybpard player knows a work, (which means ANY keyboard instrument), the muscles of the hands can only respond properly of they are in good physical condition and up to the task. I'm not a concert organist, but I am an occasional recitalist who takes it seriously when invited to perform anywhere. I suppose my most beloved organ-work is the Reubke Sonata, on which I have spent a lot of time getting right and commiting to memory. Now if I lay off playing the organ, I don't actually forget how to play this work, but when I try to do so, it is like playing the keys through sponges and the hands soon tire; especially on a mechanical action instruments.

 

The knock on effect is a lack of co-ordination; not at the brain end of the process, but at the muscle response end of the process. So no matter what I may "think" when I am out of practice, it does not come out that way at the keys.

 

Now when I have to play a recital, I enter into something of a disciplined daily regime well beforehand, and it probably takes two to three weeks of fairly extended practice to get the hands up to strength, at which point real musical control becomes possible. Believe it or not, it is quite a painful process, and many is the time when I've had to stop and rest my hands; such is the aching sensation at the early stages. When the hands are truly up to strength, I am once more the athlete; able to co-ordinate and able to absolutely control the musical result.

 

To give you some idea of the difference in hand strength before and after, I can just about squash and fold a Coca-Cola can with one hand normally, but when I am in practice I can not only crush it at the sides, I can fold it downwards on itself into the palm of my hand. That's a staggering increase in muscle strength!

 

It's really as simple as that, and as any athlete knows, keeping any part of the body in perfect fettle requires a daily routine without lay-offs. In terms of time, I think this would probably be a minimum of two hours practice per day, and possibly a lot more.

 

When it comes to ankles and feet, I know that in his younger days, Sir George Thalben-Ball used to go dancing of an evening, simply to keep his feet and ankles supple and strong.

 

A word of warning to anyone......NEVER SHAKE HANDS WITH A CONCERT ORGANIST!

 

Giant clams are probably a safer and less damaging option.

 

MM

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I can absolutely echo what MM said above. I haven't played much at all in the last 30 years or so, apart from a bit of "tootling" over the last 18 months just to amuse myself. I must have mentioned this to someone because I've been asked to play for a service, just 5 hymns and 2 voluntaries, in a couple of weeks and have been practising a lot for the last 2 weeks.

 

My word! My fingers have really ached, my shoulders hurt and my left leg goes dead because the organ on which I have practised is quite uncomfortable with a fixed bench that is too high and too close to the keyboards. (Funny, but I never thought that when I was organist there when I was 17!).

 

I am determined to do a good job at the service and have been playing one line of a hymn over and over until it's right then adding the next line and so. The technique and strength is beginning to come back but it has been hard work. I can't imagine the sort of work that must be necessary to learn something really hard, even if one has talent; something that I lack in bucketloads...

 

Lesson learned - keep mouth firmly shut when in "church" company!

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I have never been able to balance on a bicyle but, if only organplaying were that easy!

 

Malcolm

 

 

=========================

 

Yes you can Malcolm. You sit on the bike, fix your eyes on a distant point and forget how the bike wobbles beneath you.

 

Just aim for where you want to go rather than where you think the bike may be taking you.

 

This was taught to me by a police cycling proficiency man. He's dead now.......

 

He died of natural causes, I have to say.

 

MM

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==========================

 

A good question Colin, but the truth of the matter is that a concert organist, who may push the boundaries of technique, is first and foremost an athlete. Let me explain as best I can.

 

No matter how well a keybpard player knows a work, (which means ANY keyboard instrument), the muscles of the hands can only respond properly of they are in good physical condition and up to the task. I'm not a concert organist, but I am an occasional recitalist who takes it seriously when invited to perform anywhere. I suppose my most beloved organ-work is the Reubke Sonata, on which I have spent a lot of time getting right and commiting to memory. Now if I lay off playing the organ, I don't actually forget how to play this work, but when I try to do so, it is like playing the keys through sponges and the hands soon tire; especially on a mechanical action instruments.

 

The knock on effect is a lack of co-ordination; not at the brain end of the process, but at the muscle response end of the process. So no matter what I may "think" when I am out of practice, it does not come out that way at the keys.

 

Now when I have to play a recital, I enter into something of a disciplined daily regime well beforehand, and it probably takes two to three weeks of fairly extended practice to get the hands up to strength, at which point real musical control becomes possible. Believe it or not, it is quite a painful process, and many is the time when I've had to stop and rest my hands; such is the aching sensation at the early stages. When the hands are truly up to strength, I am once more the athlete; able to co-ordinate and able to absolutely control the musical result.

 

To give you some idea of the difference in hand strength before and after, I can just about squash and fold a Coca-Cola can with one hand normally, but when I am in practice I can not only crush it at the sides, I can fold it downwards on itself into the palm of my hand. That's a staggering increase in muscle strength!

 

It's really as simple as that, and as any athlete knows, keeping any part of the body in perfect fettle requires a daily routine without lay-offs. In terms of time, I think this would probably be a minimum of two hours practice per day, and possibly a lot more.

 

When it comes to ankles and feet, I know that in his younger days, Sir George Thalben-Ball used to go dancing of an evening, simply to keep his feet and ankles supple and strong.

 

A word of warning to anyone......NEVER SHAKE HANDS WITH A CONCERT ORGANIST!

 

Giant clams are probably a safer and less damaging option.

 

MM

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I was much intrigued by the various responses from forum members; several sub-threads spring to mind.

 

The story about the British organist who forgot to take the music with him to America and played it all from memory reminds me the story of another of our distinguished British recitalists (no names, etc.) who was due to play for a concert somewhere on the continent. He, too, had forgotten his music and was not willing to rely upon his memory. There was no time for him to return and so he phoned his wife who faxed the numerous items over to him; in those days fax machines spewed out very limp sheets and so our hero had to do some thing PDQ. He raided the only stationer’s shop nearby that was open and found an album in which to stick the various pages. Imagine the reaction of the audience when they saw the featured virtuoso walk out on to the stage clutching a Snoopy album.

 

An interesting point is made by drd. If the proverbial gun was pointed at me I would have to say, unwillingly, that sight reading is one of my few stronger points; I have been playing parts of Gregory Murray’s setting of the Mass for over ten years now, but I always have to have the copy in front of me. Drd is probably quite right; the better reader one is the less is committed to memory.

 

The various stories about performers not being to get off the merry-go-round reminds me of the time that I chose to play the Brahms G minor Rhapsody from memory when I was at school. Having just made the repeat (the first time) I realised that my recollection what followed it was completely blank. What went through my mind as I played through again had much to do with bricks and next week’s washing; somehow I made it, but I have never played from memory since, unless I have had several large ones beforehand.

 

David Harrison

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I wonder to what extent being able to play from memory is linked with the ability to "play by ear". Of course an accurate rendition from memory is not the same as an approximation by ear, however perhaps a strong aural ability helps the brain to fill in the gaps which might otherwise be problematic?

 

I also wonder if there is any merit in commiting a piece to memory for the sake of it as opposed to for a specific recital? It's always beneficial to have a piece "up your sleeve", should a playing opportunity arise unexpectedly when exploring unfamiliar churches. But does the time and effort involved produce any other benefits which would make this worthwhile at the expense of say increasing your repertiore by learning another piece?

 

Sq.

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