Monday, October 14, 2013

Dr. Bell asks a question

All around nice-guy composer Larry Bell left this comment on this blog some time ago:
There is something that I would like to see you explore in a future post: how do we keep pieces alive (and memorized) that we have played from memory in concert. Most conservatory musicians learn to play the same pieces again and again and then the few who become professional are encouraged, I believe, to play that same safe set of pieces repeatedly. (Management assumes that the public wishes to hear the music that they already know.) In addition, there is a common complaint among music teachers that playing in competitions where one is expected to play it safe is not a good thing for music; technique being valued over substance, etc. Any thoughts about keeping pieces in one's memory for months or years would be most interesting to hear.
I already addressed part of Larry's question in my previous post, but I'll expand on it a little bit. If you've memorized well, then it shouldn't take much effort at all to bring back pieces. If you've memorized impatiently, then it's going to be a longer road. (Remember my story about the colleague who worked so fast that he memorized wrong notes?) Obviously, it's hard to memorize patiently when under the gun of the conservatory. 

With proper documentation of landmarks, metronome markings, and more in your practice log, it shouldn't take too long to bring back a program. More to the point, if you've been documenting well, then you already have a strong foundation. To that end, I don't think one has to keep pieces in memory for months or years. Besides, why would one want to? I'd be more concerned with getting bored with the repertoire. For that reason, I always recommend time away. Even if management is asking for the same pieces over and over again, you'd be better off letting them sleep for a bit and then bringing them out when needed, as detailed in my previous post.

Larry's comment makes me think of the great pianist Shura Cherkassky. I had the pleasure of meeting him several times in the years before his death in 1995. (One encounter involved a rather strange weekend in New York, where I spent the night with a friend at Stephen Hough's apartment after attending Shura's Carnegie Hall recital with, among others, composer Lowell Liebermann. Somewhere along the way, I teased Shura too much about something or other, and he punched me in the leg so hard that I can still feel it. Don't ask. It was a strange weekend.)
Shura Cherkassky, long before he punched me in the leg.

The first time I met Shura, my friends and I drove him back to his hotel after he played at Ravinia. On his hotel room practice piano was a score for some just-published Ligeti Ă‰tudes. Shura continued to learn new music well into his final years. Not only did this keep him young, I'm sure, but it also contributed to his extensive repertoire. 

That all said, we can chose to be musicians who only know a limited repertoire, or we can be lifelong learners. What will make you a more interesting person and musician?