Interview with… Paul Roberts (pianist)

PaulRobertsPlease tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
I am a concert pianist, writer and teacher, and I have made a speciality of the lecture-recital. This means I have had to learn to switch to different parts of my brain several times during the course of a presentation, the part which speaks and the part that makes music, which has interesting consequences for memorisation. Sometimes I perform from memory, sometimes I don’t. I have never found playing from memory easy – it takes me a long time with a piece to feel assured. I have mostly learnt to cope with the added pressure of memorisation. I find speaking to an audience quite the reverse, no pressure at all.

Do you actively memorise music and perform without a score? If not, why not? If so, why? When in your musical development did you start to memorise?
Yes I memorise from the start. For me the process of learning a new score is the same process as memorisation, though this is certainly not to say that once the memorisation is complete – safe to play in public – I believe the score is ‘learnt’. It takes many, many public performances for me to feel I am in total control physically and imaginatively, and the learning process never ceases. So I see memorisation as one stage of learning, and performance another. For me public performance is the most concentrated and exhilarating learning process of all: if one can attain the necessary relaxation and confidence this is where the imaginative insights truly happen. And every performance of the same piece is a fresh start. (But public performance is also where the limitations of one’s physical and mental powers are exposed, so in no time one’s sense of exhilaration can be replaced by fright.)

I don’t feel, however, that once memorisation is complete one need divest oneself of the score in public. I understand all the arguments about how playing without the score can be liberating. But in my experience the score can be liberating too, if the inside preparation, both technical and imaginative, is complete. The eye can be a superb partner of the ear – while the ear listens and responds to the present moment (simultaneously providing reassuring information about what has just past), the eye divines what lies ahead. It is extraordinary how the brain deals with these different processes, which are of course the fundamental ingredients of performance, of making music in real time.

Have you ever had a major memory lapse during a performance and, if so, what happened?
Yes. I lived. It was at the end of an arduous tour in America. We can usually get out of memory scrapes – it’s uncomfortable for a while, but one settles down again – but this time, early on in Liszt’s sublime Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, I simply threw in the towel. I knew I had no choice. I stopped. I explained my dilemma to the startled audience. I said my experience, and above all theirs, would be so much more pleasurable if I began again with the score in front of me. The audience, large and attentive, clapped not out of politeness but with immense sympathy. I went off to fetch the score. The stage manager brought on the music desk. A page turner appeared. We all started again. My fear and exhaustion gave way to complete relaxation and I found Liszt again. It’s now a central piece in my repertoire and I always play it from the score. I use the score nowadays if I fear this kind of stress. In some repertoire I have no memory fear. In other repertoire I do, so I use the score – but not if I haven’t memorised the piece first.

Are there any particular types of music – pieces, composers or genres – that you find particularly easy or difficult to memorise, and why?
My brain will not cope with fugues unless I have my eye there too. My eye sees the counterpoint in all its complexity and translates it into sound for my brain. This causes a logistical problem when I am performing Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin – five of the pieces give me no memory problems, the fugue screws me up. The French pianist Marguerite Long, who gave the first performance in 1919, had the same difficulty with this fugue and thereafter refused to perform Le Tombeau in public (I believe Myra Hess dreaded this fugue too). This seems to me to be a foolish sacrifice at the shrine of memorisation. If it’s too much to sort out all the paraphernalia of music desks and page turners for one short piece, then use the score for the lot. What is the audience there for, to listen to sublime music or to marvel at a feat of memory?

How do you memorise music? Are there particular techniques you use? Do you use visual memory, and if so, what do you visualise?
Harmonically, muscularly, photographically, writing it down, recalling it away from the instrument – all these methods in different proportions depending on the particular piece being memorised. I don’t use visualisation very much, although there are two aspects: photographic memory of the score – which I don’t have at all but which I know many pianists do – and visualisation of the keyboard, which I do sometimes use and have found enormously useful. So I visualise where I’m putting my fingers while trying to hear as much as possible in my head. It is a difficult process to concentrate on but the more one does it the easier it becomes. But in the final issue, as I have been saying, if memorisation becomes the main hurdle, then forget it, as it were. In the end memory is to do with confidence, so in the end the problem with memory, when there is one, is psychological. And when it gets to that stage and fear sets in, then in the name of all the gods of music use the score.

Upcoming presentations (2013):

  • May 4, Wigmore Hall, ‘Capturing the Elusive Image’, a lecture-recital on musical Impressionism
  • May 31, Guildhall School of Music & Drama, ‘Liszt’s Petrarch Sonnets‘, a workshop with post-graduate pianists
  • July 8-10, Portland, Oregon, USA, ‘Paul Roberts in Portland – Performance and Communication‘, a festival of master classes and a lecture recital ‘Liszt, Love and Petrarch – the pianist as narrator

Full details of these, as well as recordings, books and various piano courses at:

About Caroline Wright

artist, scientist, musician
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2 Responses to Interview with… Paul Roberts (pianist)

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