Interview with… Joy Lisney (cellist)

JoyLisneyPlease tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
My name is Joy Lisney, I am 20 years old and studying Music at Clare College, Cambridge. At the same time, I am sustaining an international career as a cellist performing a wide range of repertoire from Bach, through the 19th and 20th centuries and right up to the most contemporary music. In 2012 I gave the premiere of ‘JOY’, a piece written for me by the Dutch composer Jan Vriend, in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. 2013 will include performances of Vriend’s magnum opus Anatomy of Passion (2001) and a new suite of dances for solo cello which I commissioned earlier this year, programmed alongside Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and more! I spend my spare time cooking, reading and training for triathlon.

Do you actively memorise music and perform without a score? If not, why not? If so, why?
I perform without the score for many different types of repertoire, from concertos to solo and duo recitals. I find that performing from memory removes a potential barrier between myself and the audience, enabling me to communicate the music more directly. Having said that, there are some pieces for which I do have the score on stage, on a low unobtrusive music stand, but even in these cases I rarely look at it for guidance. In longer sonatas the presence of the score can be a point of reference in the overreaching architecture of the music. Furthermore, when one is playing in a duo, the two musicians constantly suggest new ideas to one another and as the composer varies the roles of the two instruments each player has sections which are less memorable than others.

Nevertheless, duo playing can become incredibly liberating if both performers can play from memory. The absence of a pianist’s page-turner, and the purity of two people creating music together with no ‘props’ can have dynamic results! My pianist James Lisney and I are lucky to be able to dedicate plenty of time to rehearsing and moulding every performance together and in the coming few years we are planning a cycle of all five Beethoven sonatas for cello and piano, from memory.

When in your musical development did you start to memorise?
I started the cello aged five under the guidance of the Suzuki Method, which advocates learning music primarily by ear and performing from memory. This separates the challenge of learning to decipher manuscript from the physical and aural act of playing the instrument and thus allows the child to focus on developing a good technique and trust in his or her own ear from an early stage. Therefore, I cannot separate learning the cello from memorising! From my point of view, memorising music for the cello is as natural as a child learning nursery rhymes – they would certainly not be reading from a score!

Have you ever had a major memory lapse during a performance and, if so, what happened?
When I was nine years old, I was performing a piece which had a long repeated section. I was so carried away I accidentally went round three times instead of twice! Luckily, I had a very expert and alert pianist who followed my deviations without missing a beat: my dad!

Are there any particular types of music – pieces, composers or genres – that you find particularly easy or difficult to memorise, and why?
Music that is very repetitive is often much more difficult to memorise than music that is constantly varied and new. This is especially true when there are tiny details which vary during the repetitions as is often found in Schubert. I find that the best way to get this music right is to practise summoning and fixing a strong picture of the whole piece in my mind.

How do you memorise music? Are there particular techniques you use?
As memorization was ingrained in my perception of music at such an early age, it is natural to me to memorise music as I learn to play it. As one practices something over and over again, one cannot help but to remember how it goes! Of course, there are exceptions, especially in complex, contemporary music which may not be appear quite so intuitive. In these cases, once I can play the music I begin to practice sections from a piece without using the score. If the piece is very complex I may start with only a few bars and then gradually I build another small section on top of that until the end. At the early stages of memorisation of this kind, I rely in part on a photographic memory of the score itself, but eventually even the most complex music is ingrained into my brain and body.

How do you deal with memory lapses? What tricks do you use to prevent it happening during a performance?
There are certain ‘danger points’ for memory lapses – primarily in pieces which return to the same or similar material multiple times. To reduce the chances of a memory lapse I spend time very consciously running through the music in my head, often in silence. This makes it feel much easier and more natural when I play the instrument again. There is, however, always the chance for a memory lapse, and often where you least expect it! As with any error you make on stage, the best thing to do is to carry on and most importantly not to dwell on it during the rest of the performance. In chamber music there will always be a moment or two of uncertainty as your colleague(s) register your mistake, but together you must make the necessary adaptations as quickly and subtly as possible.

Are there particular techniques you use for maintaining your memory of specific music over a long period of time (i.e. years)?
When I return to a piece after a long break, it often takes only a short time before my memory for the music returns. If you can internalise the music deeply the first time you learn it, I find that the memory returns much more quickly when you take it out again. A more superficial memory of a piece however will, like hastily learned latin verbs, desert your brain completely!

What do you think is the role of musical memory in creating new music, either through improvisation or composition?
Short-term memory is immediately crucial to improvisation and composition for obvious reasons! Notes exist almost exclusively in relation to what has preceded them. A long-term memory which allows you to ‘look back’ over the entire piece you are improvising is also very important in creating a coherent structure and a teleological sense of momentum which prevents the music from rambling. On a completely different level, the subconscious memory we all have of hours and hours of music we have heard in our lifetimes, which is the fuel from which the imagination is ignited. Throughout the history of music even the most avant garde composers have been unable to avoid influence from their forebears. Many have even quoted existing music accidentally, from the great composers to the seven year old who ‘composed’ a collage of Schubert piano sonatas (me!).

Have you ever tried to teach others to memorise music? If so, what are the techniques and challenges, and how do people differ in their ability to memorise and recall music?
I have given cello lessons to many children from complete beginners to post-grade 8 teenagers. It is always clear with the latter whether they were initially taught to memorise their pieces as they learnt the cello. If a child is always expected to memorise, they will do so, because that is the ‘normal’ protocol when learning a piece. If not, memorisation can seem to be a mysterious phenomenon, out of reach for all but the most talented individuals. I find that people do not differ significantly in their ability to memorise music (although there are of course exceptions in either direction) but rather, they differ in their faith in the value of memorisation.

Website (coming soon):
Management contact:

Upcoming concerts:
19th April – Studio Music (
18th May – Haslemere Music Festival
25th June – Fairfield Hall, Croydon
6th and 13th July – Fenstanton ‘Fringe in the Fen’ Festival

About Caroline Wright

artist, scientist, musician
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1 Response to Interview with… Joy Lisney (cellist)

  1. Joy Lisney says:

    Reblogged this on joylisney and commented:
    Forgot to reblog this interview from a couple of months ago… Whoops! I found the questions very thought-provoking as they made me consider more fully why and how I memorise. What do you think?

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