Ossip Gabrilowitsch - Memorizing Music Successfully
Etude Magazine. May, 1914
AN INTERVIEW WITH THE DISTINGUISHED PIANIST
SECURED ESPECIALLY FOR THE ETUDE BY EDWIN HUGHES
[Editor's Note.—Interviews with Mr. Gabrilowitsch have appeared in previous issues of The Etude and have always pleased our readers greatly. His interest in American musical matters has been augmented by many successful American tours and by the fact that he married a daughter of our own "Mark Twain" (Samuel S. Clemmens). The subject is an especially interesting one in this case, since Mr. Gabrilowitsch is noted for his exceptional memory. Last year in Munich he played nineteen of the most noted concertos from memory at six concerts. These concertos illustrated the development of this form of composition and in order that our readers may appreciate the extent of this work when merely considered from the memory standpoint we give the entire list.
J. S. Bach Konzert in G minor. No. 15
Mozart Concerto in D minor (K. V. 4G6)
Beethoven Concerto in C minor
Beethoven Concerto in G major
Beethoven Concerto in E flat
Chopin Concerto in E minor
Mendelssohn Cappriccio Brillant
Schumann Concerto in A minor
Liszt Concerto in E flat
Rubinstein Concerto in D minor
Tchaikowsky Concerto in B flat minor
Brahms Concerto in D minor
Brahms Concerto in B flat major
Franck Variations Symphoniques
Saint-Saëns Concerto in C minor
R. Strauss Burleske
Rachmaninoff Concerto in C minor
Statisticians might be foolish enough to point out that a pianist in performing a series like this in a little over a month and a half retains something like a million notes in the memory, but as a matter of fact when it is remembered that the virtuoso must bear in mind not merely the notes but the serious interpretation of an art work and the orchestral accompaniment as well it will be realized that he does something vastly more taxing to the intellectual powers than the mere repetition of a prodigious number of notes. Mr. Gabrilowitsch's accomplishment places him in a class with von Bülow, Toscanini, Weingartner and others with remarkable musical memories and unquestionably makes the following interview much more interesting.]
MEMORIZING AND THE PIANIST.
Musical memory from the pianist's point of view is a much more complicated and extensive matter than for any of his other musical brethren. In the first place more is expected of the pianist in this respect nowadays than of the player on any other instrument or the singer, and in the second the memorizing of piano compositions is a far more difficult matter than learning by heart pieces for the voice or the other instruments. A song may contain, let us say, eighty notes, while a piano piece of the same length will average perhaps four hundred, or ten times as many.
THE EASIEST WAY TO MEMORIZE.
I find that the easiest and quickest way of memorizing at the piano is to practice a composition in the morning without any thought of learning it by heart at the time, then in the afternoon to attempt to go over it mentally, away from the instrument. Before beginning to memorize one must have somewhat of a grasp of the piece as a whole, must realize what it is all about, know its subdivisions, and so forth. Difficult passages must be gone over thoroughly until the fingers are perfectly familiar with them. Then one can study the piece from the notes, away from the piano, endeavoring to have it impress itself thoroughly upon the mind. When one goes for a walk this mental exercise may be continued, until one is perfectly familiar with the composition without any contact with the instrument at all.
Another means of memorizing is to take a composition to pieces, after one has first played it through to get an idea of it as a whole, dividing it up into its phrases and periods and learning slowly step by step. This means of learning by heart I would not recommend when it comes to a question of getting a piece memorized in a short time, just before a concert engagement, for example. The first method is by far the quicker, and also I think, the surer of the two.
In the matter of memorizing at the piano finger memory and visual memory play the most important part. Very much must always be left to the fingers, for in playing more rapid compositions, as for example, some of the Chopin Etudes, it is quite impossible for the mind to follow each individual note. Among the different ways of memorizing, I should give to visual memory the first place. One must be able to bring the printed page before the mind's eye at any point in the composition. I cannot emphasize the importance of visual memory enough in the learning of musical compositions, I have never pushed the matter of memorizing to the extent of trying to say over to myself every single note in a composition, for, as I have said, the mind cannot follow the fingers quickly enough in rapid passage work, so that this method would not be so practical as the others I have mentioned.
THINKING AHEAD OF THE FINGERS.
When I play I hear and think the piece ahead of my fingers, but I do not try to find the notes by ear on the keyboard, although I think I could do so if necessary. There come times in public performance when one suddenly becomes nervous and wonders perhaps what comes eight bars ahead. In such a predicament one cannot depend with any safety on his finger memory alone, but must also have that surety which comes from being able to go over a piece mentally without either the piano or the notes.
It is utterly impossible to say, or solfeggio the notes of a rapid composition in either English or German. In French, using the method of solfeggio in which la, for example, answers for either a, a-flat or a-sharp, it is possible for practiced persons to solfeggio quite rapidly, for here we have a series of short syllables, always a consonant followed by a vowel, with the exception of sol, where there is a second Consonant at the end. But even with the French solfeggio I doubt if anyone could say very fast passages up to tempo and correctly. I also doubt whether this ability would be of much real use in the memorizing of pianoforte music.
PICTURING THE NOTES.
As an example of the importance of visual memory, let us imagine that one is hearing a new opera for the first time. A phrase or a succession of chords comes which is of striking beauty. The next day at the piano one tries to reproduce the phrase, and if one has only trusted to the ear to remember it, often the attempt is a failure. But, if at the time of hearing the phrase one has tried to visualize it also, to picture to one's self how the notes would look on the printed page, the effort to reproduce the music later is quite sure to turn out successfully.
A good knowledge of harmony is absolutely necessary for intelligent memorizing. It is remarkable how many piano pupils are completely deficient in this respect, even when they are so advanced as to be able to play quite difficult compositions. Nothing is more common than to meet with piano students who stare at you blankly when you speak of a chord of the sixth. I always advise piano students to pursue the study of harmony diligently.
The study of the design of a composition is of great importance in memorizing, particularly the design of phrases and periods. Two phrases may for example be repeated, the second containing a variant in the repetition; or there may be four measures based on a certain figure in the left hand, followed by two measures in which a slight change is made in the figure, and then again two measures with a further change. Such analytical work as this helps to impress the composition on the mind and is of great importance in memorizing.
Mental concentration plays of course a most important role in learning by heart, as does also the state of one's physical health and the fact of whether or .not one suffers from nervousness, general fatigue or insomnia. Age has also much to do with the matter of memorizing. The compositions learned early in life always show much more readiness to stick by one than those acquired later on, when one forgets more easily. For this reason one should seek to acquire as large a repertory as possible during younger years.
For one who plays much in public, journeys on the train from one city to another offer an excellent opportunity for the mental practice of one's repertoire.
TALENT IN MEMORIZING.
When a pupil does not memorize easily it is a sure sign that he has little or no talent in this direction, and I am not at all in favor of the idea of requiring such pupils to play without their notes. This idea of forcing the memory is unfortunately quite a general one among most piano teachers. How much better it is to hear a piece played well with the music than badly without it by a pupil who has little talent for' learning by heart.
In order to keep a repertory of pieces all going at the same time the pianist should have a weekly practice schedule, working at certain compositions on certain days and "brushing up" those which need it. This is my plan during the summer months, but during the season I find it impossible to work so systematically on account of my many engagements. At this time the important question is that of always being thoroughly prepared with what one has to play at the next concert, and I find little extra time for work on repertory.
Of the nineteen concertos which I played last season during my series of concerts illustrating the development of the piano concerto I find that I keep those most easily in mind which I learned early in life. If I were to repeat the series now I should probably have to do very little work in the way of memorizing with most of them, except with those which I have recently added to my repertory. This season, for example, I played the Weber Concertstück once again, a piece which, strange to say, I had never studied in my earlier years. I found that I had to do quite a bit of re-memorizing before I felt perfectly sure that I could go through the piece without any slips.
MEMORIZING ORCHESTRAL SCORES.
The custom of performing everything by heart I have carried over also into my work as orchestral conductor, where I rarely ever use a score. In my opinion the conductor who directs without his score has an immense advantage over one who uses his music, for the most important thing in successful orchestral conducting is that one should have his eye on the men every moment of the time. The conductor who has his eyes on the score most of the time has not half the control over his men that one has who knows his score well by heart. Toscanini, of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, has even carried the matter so far as to conduct not only whole operas without referring to the notes but even to conduct all rehearsals without a score.
In the study of scores I find again that visual memory, the ability to recollect how the notes look on the printed page, is of the very first importance. Without the aid of visual memory it would be quite impossible for me to commit to memory works for orchestra.
AN EXPANSIVE FACULTY.
The faculty of memory is not at all limited by the amount one has memorized; on the contrary it is an expansive faculty. The more one has memorized and the more one utilizes his faculty for memory the more can one retain in his mental grasp. The idea that one loses part of the material memorized on account of the addition of much new material is an incorrect one.
Etude Magazine. May, 1914
<< Why Not A Practical Piano Chair
The World of Music >>