Stephen Hough: On the Question “Is Memorizing Music Really All That Important?”

Every month, The Juilliard Journal publishes a short mini-interview with faculty, where in addition to sharing thoughtful answers about life, music, and the arts, they also often reveal little-known tidbits about their lives.

Like their most embarrassing moment. What they they think they’d be doing if they weren’t a musician. How they were on their university’s water polo team, or biked across the country (here’s a directory of all of the interviews through 2017; the more recent ones are sprinkled in throughout the list of articles here).

In any case, the latest profile was with pianist Stephen Hough, who shared the three things he hoped students would remember from his teaching, provided his “elevator answer” to the question “What is music theory?”, and revealed that he eats chocolate for breakfast.

However, what intrigued me most (ok, fine, he eats chocolate with breakfast, not for breakfast), was his saying that while he is often asked the question “How do you remember all that music?”, he wishes he would instead be asked “Is memorizing music all that important?”

That seemed like the perfect excuse to reach out and see if he would allow me to ask him that question. So I did, and that’s where we’ll begin today’s chat.

Meet Stephen Hough

Pianist Stephen Hough has performed with most of the major European and American orchestras, given recitals in major concert halls all around the world, and recorded over 60 albums, since winning the Naumburg Competition in 1983.

The first classical performer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship, he is also a composer, having been commissioned by various ensembles and organizations ranging from the Indianapolis Symphony to Le Musée do Louvre. He’s also a prolific writer, having authored several books (linked below), as well as over 600 blog posts for The Telegraph.

Hough is of course also a thoughtful teacher, and serves on the faculty of the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal Northern College, and The Juilliard School.

In this episode, we’ll explore:

  • Is memorizing really all that important? 0:54
  • How is his internal experience of playing the piano different when he’s playing from memory vs. when the score is in front of him? 5:34
  • The memory slip experience he had that still makes his heart beat faster just thinking about it. 10:27
  • I ask Stephen if he thinks there’s a difference in how you learn a piece, if you know you’re never going to play it form memory vs. if you know someday you will have to play it from memory? 14:04
  • Stephen describes how making recordings is a more flexible and improvisational process than you might think. And even references The Shining (?!). 16:33
  • I ask a question about the role of fingering in memory, and we wander off on an interesting tangent about fingerings for a bit, where he shares some fingering principles, notes that some fingerings work in the practice room but not on stage, and more. 20:24
  • Stephen describes what sort of markings and thoughts he writes into his scores. 36:10
  • And shares a story about a prank Steven Isserlis pulled on him, that he admits is funny after the fact, but was very distracting during the performance. 40:58
  • Stephen wraps up the chat by summarizing the take-home message regarding memorization. 42:04
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I was reading the recent Q&A you did with The Juilliard Journal. And all of it was, of course, you know, the little nuggets were interesting. But the one part that really struck me was right at the end, where you mentioned that the question you always get asked is, of course, “how do you remember all that music?” But the question that you wish you’d get asked more often was a different one, specifically, “is memorizing music, all that important?” And I know this is something you’ve thought about and you’ve written about a fair bit over the years. But I do think that we tend to focus an awful lot on the “how” question and not so much on the “why” question. So that’s why I’d love to start really. So if a student or a fellow musician came up to you one day and asked, ‘Is memorizing music, all that important,’ What would you say to them?

Well, I’d say yes and no. Because I think it’s a very complicated question. I think there’s no doubt for me that it’s a skill that you need to learn as when you’re young, along with learning your instrument. I don’t think just reading from the score until you can sort of play it. And then ah that piece is done. What’s the next one is quite what we’re talking about when we’re talking about learning music to a deep way, just as as in learning a role for a play, you know, you need to get absolutely inside the character. And I think, for us as musicians, part of that process is memorizing, it’s being able to put the music aside and inhabit that music. I think the question comes is, is memorizing, in a concert situation, always what we need to keep doing? I think we need to learn the skill. But do we need to display that skill every time we play in concert? And I think in recent years, it’s become less required to do that. I think it started probably in the post-war period with very complicated contemporary scores. Boulez Sonata, Stockhausen Klavierstücke for pianists anyway, do we really need to memorize 30 pages of the most absolutely complex, atonal, all over the keyboard, thousand different times signatures, mean, what is that really proving? Is it proving that you’re a great musician? Is it giving something to the performance? And I think almost all of us would say, Well, no. You know, some people have that skill, just as some people are left handed and some people are right handed. I don’t think there’s any qualitative difference between the two. I think that began to break down this idea that we always have to play from memory because for pianists really for 100 years from the mid 19th century to the mid 20th century, it was simply impossible to have a career if you played from the score you had to play from memory, it was absolutely a requirement, and pretty much everything you did. And so now it’s breaking down a bit. Some artists actually do play entirely from iPads, which, of course has changed the question again, because visually, an iPad is not such a distraction if you’re in an audience at a concert hall. You don’t even see the iPad so that’s changed. We don’t have to have a page turner up there anymore. But I was thinking about especially if I’d even since you mentioned us talking about this and I think there are certain pieces certain repertoire were playing from memory is still part of the theatrical experience of hearing the performance. I think if you’re playing the Berg, to change it to your own area, the Berg Violin Concerto, I think from the score is a very different thing than the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto from the score not only because so many people play it and learn it and everything else but I think there’s just something visually about the theater of it. And and concerts to me are theater, in which I think it’s more important to play from from memory than it is from the score. I was watching just the other night Horowitz playing from Carnegie Hall, the F sharp minor Polonaise. It’s a wonderful performance. I think it’s from the mid 1960s. And I was imagining him with an iPad inside the piano, whether it would be a different experience, and I have to admit it would. Now whether this is is a bad thing, whether we’re entering here into the whole business of what it is to be a star, to be famous, to be thought better than other people, and all of the hierarchical stuff that maybe we’re also beginning to unpack and say, Is this what being a musician is about? But nevertheless, in 1968, with Horovitz, on that stage of Carnegie Hall, I can’t imagine him either with a score and page turner, or with an iPad. So the answer is a very long answer to your question. Yes and no.

Right. Well, one of the things that I was really curious about too is, in your recent book, you went into some interesting details about how different types of recording sessions feel different in our approach differently, you know, if you’re doing a, “live recording” or if you’re doing one, with an orchestra or with a small ensemble like it changes based on the different parameters and so forth. And so I wondered if you could not speak to that per se, but kind of go into the kind of nuances and differences of your own internal experience of playing from memory versus playing from not because my understanding, if I’m remembering correctly is that when it’s a composition of your own, you do use the music. But if it’s not one of your own, then you don’t and so I wondered if there were differences that the audience may not necessarily perceive, but that you internally, your experience of performing the piece or your experience in the performance itself are different when you have the music versus not.

I think that’s definitely true. I think playing my own music from the score has an additional layer though, because it enables me to separate myself, the performer for myself, the composer, I think if I come out from the wings to play a sonata of mine and I play from memory, Somehow, I don’t want it to seem like I’m just making it up as I go along. You know? Because it is mine. And in a sense, at one point I did make it up. But now it has its existence apart from me and I think having the score there helps me and maybe the audience too to make that distinction. But the last piece, I think contemporary piece that I memorized was probably the John Corigliano Etude Fantasy quite a while ago. And I have to say that I mean, I memorize it, and I played it for a whole season. I don’t think I’ve ever felt 100% comfortable playing it from memory I always thought as well as wanting to play the piece and convey the spirit of the piece at the back of my mind was always Oh dear, now is this passage going to go wrong because of forgetting not because of not playing the notes. And so when I the next big contemporary piece I learned was George Tsontakis Ghosts Variations, which is 69 pages. It’s a long piece, and I never even tried with that to memorize it. I thought no, this is a sort of crossroads for me. And I’m going to go down that path which is playing unashamedly, from my great big paper score with a page turner and the whole thing. And I must say, I never felt that it detracted from what the piece had to say. And then other pieces that I played after that, you know, I also played from the score. But if I’m playing a piece, like the Liszt Sonata, all the Chopin works. Even Beethoven, actually even Beethoven would almost certainly have played for the score at his time, I somehow find it gives me a greater sense of freedom. I mean, that might be a contradiction, because you’d think that having the score there would give you more free because it would take one worry away from you. But there’s something about the Liszt Sonata you know, 30 minutes. It’s such a theatrical piece, Liszt as the guy who started us all on this journey of playing from memory anyway. I can’t imagine having the same feeling of drama. If I had the score in front of me as I do, because I know the piece very well. And I, when I walk out to play that piece, and I know that it begins in silence the first note, if you like is a rest, and there’s something about that whole world, it’s such a vast piece in spirit more than anything else. I think it would, for me, it would take away something from the piece to play that from the score.

I was just curious, while you were thinking about some of these specific pieces, do you have a sense of there being a different internal mental experience when you’re playing something? You talked about feeling more freedom? In a way when you’re playing from memory? Does it mean that you’re thinking about different things, perhaps when you don’t have the score? Not worrying about it, of course, but like, do you? Do you have other music related thoughts, perhaps that you have the bandwidth to engage in when the music isn’t there, perhaps than when it is?

I do find that really, I find that it’s like I have a blank canvas. When I come out and… I can take it any direction I want. You know, I have a great box of paints. I have an idea of what I want to do. But I can go in all sorts of directions. If I’m playing from the score. It’s more like I have the shapes of on the canvas traced out in very light pencil and I’m then going to work with them. But I just don’t feel that same sense of abandon of recklessness, almost, if you like, that I do when I don’t have the score that it’s somehow holding me in or maybe it’s like a brace on the leg after an injury. I’m still walking perfectly well, but the brace is the safety net, if you like that’s holding that leg in shape. And I feel like leaving the score in the wings is like casting that brace off. And yeah, maybe I’m going to fall down, but somehow it’s worth that risk. It doesn’t always feel a good sense of risk, of course. And I think when you’re playing with orchestra, that’s another additional worry. Because a big memory lapse in a solo recital actually doesn’t really matter very much. I can stop, I can go back, I can make up I can do all sorts of things. If the orchestra is playing along with me all of us have to stop. And then it really registers with the audience in a major way. And it’s only happened to me once right at the beginning of my career in the 80s. And I had a big, I took a completely wrong turn in the Mozart concerto and I ended up in the recap. So the music was the same, but the keys were all wrong and they were still playing the exposition. And and it sounded just awful, of course. So I stopped, though the orchestra stopped and I carried on sort of playing and I got to the cadenza which was near where I was and finished the cadenza and then then you went to come in and then it was sort of okay but that I can still make myself my heart beat faster when I think about that moment. It was just so awful. But somehow it boils down to and this is your area now, isn’t it of the mental stuff of the pride involved of not wanting to seem silly in front of your peers and colleagues and audience of being afraid of failure of all that area that we work with as musicians from being kids And you know, the idea of winning a competition or not, or playing wrong notes or not all that stuff, that baggage, which comes, I think, to its sharpest point in this area of memory. And certainly colleagues that I’ve spoken to, I think this is the one thing that I’m not even gonna say who it is, I’m seeing a colleague tonight, a famous musician, we’re going to meet in someone’s garden, so we’re very safe distance from each other. But he told me once, he’s only ever nervous when he’s playing from memory. And I thought that was interesting. And it’s made me think of a lot of artists who don’t play as much as they might want to or don’t play as much repertoires they might want. A lot of it has to do with this. I think, especially as you get older, I think once you get into your 30s, the memory is not as secure. That’s just how human beings are and certainly learning new things as you get into your 30s your 40s or 50s. The brain just can’t take in as much new material and you hope that you compensate In other ways by more profound use of the material, maybe it’s a bit like learning a language. You know, you learn language very, very quickly when you’re, you know, a kid. And then gradually as you get into teens and later teens and early 20s, the language skills change. And it’s said, I think that very few people can learn a language without having an accent. Once they get past a certain point. However brilliantly they learn it and how the vocabulary can be better than any native speaker somehow, the brain just isn’t able to make that transition. I think the same is very true in learning new pieces. But I’d say that I think there is a compensation because I think some people who learn a foreign language later in life actually do and think of someone like Nabokov is that example that springs to mind who know that learned language better than most people who spoke it from birth and, and maybe how interesting yours are. Joseph Conrad is another example interesting nuances and depths And quirky ways of looking at ideas and words which natives don’t have.

I wonder if you could speak to, and there may not be much of a difference. But I think you had mentioned that Tsontakis has peace being something that from day one you approached, knowing that it would be something that you would not play from memory. And do you feel like there’s a difference in how you approach the learning process when you know, it’s not gonna have to be played from memory? Or, is it kind of the same, perhaps?

That’s a very interesting question. I think it’s if you know, the safety net is never going to be taken away. Perhaps, yeah, you do walk across that tightrope a little differently than then when you think, well, one day, you know, I may fall off this and I won’t be alive anymore. It’ll be the end. You know, that’s not the case. When you’re playing with music. I think it also calls into question just contemporary music generally, and how much It requires interpretation and how much you’re required simply to play what’s on the page. And I think this, of course, depends on the composer some composers even say in a footnote, you know, do not interpret this piece, I have written exactly what I want to hear. And your job is to reproduce that as closely as you can and, and the composer might write metronome marks and every single thing put out, absolutely. And then there are other composers who actually do feel that their music will sound different with every different interpreter. And that maybe is also a little bit of a clue. If our job as interpreters or as performers is just to play what’s on the page, then I think having the score there is pretty essential. If it’s, the score is was our guidebook, but we no longer need it, then maybe we can toss the guidebook aside. You know, it’s like any machine I mean, the computers we’re speaking on now came with manuals of instruction, but you know, we don’t have them in front of us the whole time, we’ve, we’ve learned what to do and and we use them in different ways and sometimes they break down. But still, I think that sense of freedom is very important in how we use those machines. So there may be some correlation with learning music as well.

Yeah, it sounds like it depends, as you said earlier on the piece… because it sounds from your description that there’s quite a bit of spontaneity, obviously, in performance, but even in the recording sessions that you described, I was surprised at how, I don’t know that you ever used the word improvisational, but it seemed like a much more creative and spontaneous and improvisational process of getting to that final released version than I might have imagined.

Yeah, well, I think it’s a learning process. You know, it’s obviously we’re hoping that we’re always learning and always changing and every time you know, I play a piece one night by night, it’s something new is happening unless it becomes stale and so on. But I find that whole process is truncated in a recording session so that actually the learning is happening as you’re listening back to a playback. So you do something that you’ve always believed in you listen on the headphones, and you think well actually, I’m not sure that works. Let me try a different way. And then that gives you a new idea or you hear a different voice, perhaps that you never quite realized before. And so that takes you in an in a different direction. I was… these Brahms sonatas over the weekend with Michael. Michael, I think he recorded… this is now his third recording of the sonatas. And the first one was, you know, way back in the 80s. And, but, you know, he was also discovering new things as we were talking and as we were listening back, and that’s what makes it very exciting. And I think in the in the book, I speak about Kubrick and seeing that documentary about him filming The Shining. And I also thought with a film that it would, you know, the script was there and and everything was there. But to see Kubrick actually changing things literally as the cameras were moving around and whole scripts being every morning, people getting a new script, that’s I had never thought about that. And that also encouraged me in a way, thinking in the studio. I think this is also how Gould worked from what we can tell. And one of the reasons why he gave up concepts to go to recordings is he found recording a more creative process than he did playing in public. But I think with Gould, because he’s no longer alive to correct me. But I think one of the reasons he stopped playing in public in his early 30s, or whenever the exact time was, was exactly what we’re talking about. I think he started to get scared of forgetting. And this is someone of course, who played complicated contrapuntal music, obviously, Bach but also Hindemith and a lot of music with a lot of voices and a lot of places you could go wrong. And I’m pretty sure that that’s one of the reasons maybe the main reason why he said, Oh, I don’t want to play constantly, while he made this whole philosophical thing about audiences being a distraction and the concert being a thing of the past and so on and so on, and recording is the way of the future, I think a lot of it was an excuse for the fact that he actually got scared. And why not? You know, it’s comes to all of us.

Yeah, it would seem to be an unfortunate side effect of this cultural pressure to play from memory that A we wouldn’t. Like you said in your book, you get the breadth of repertoire performed nearly as often as we otherwise could. And, and even there to be a limit on the number of people who would feel comfortable playing a certain set of repertoire. Without the music. Yes, that does seem like it would be a detriment to the musical options that as an audience, we have to hear from overall, this might be kind of a tangent, but it seems to me that you brought up fingerings multiple times, both in the book and other things you had written. And it just might just be my own sort of projection of it because I thought fingerings were always kind of fun and not just a challenge but just fun to play around with and I think he would quoted somebody who had talked about the importance of making fingerings not just easier, but also musical and that I think it’s sort of like how violinists would talk about bowings, you know, try to arrange bowings so that it helps you shape the phrase more naturally based on the body mechanics. And then you also shared the story about the passage in the Bartok that you had to play with the Chicago Symphony on a day’s notice, back in the day, and so I got this impression that fingerings would play a role in memory as well. And I don’t know if I’m just reading into that or not, but does fingerings have some sort of role and memory and your experience?

It’s certainly for me, yeah. Because you know, when people say, how do you remember, it’s many different ways, I think, isn’t it? Obviously, you remember the music, the actual vibrations in the air, but you also remember physically how it is certainly on the keyboard where, in a sense that it’s a much more mechanical thing. I mean, the thing is, are in exactly to the same place every time you play that note, I guess on a string instrument, it’s kind of looser because there are no frets on the violin so it you know, it’s it’s not quite so much of a grid as it is on a keyboard instrument but I certainly find that fingerings it means that I’m when I play a passage, I’m playing it again and again, with exactly the same motor memories. So I’m building that in somehow as I’m doing it. And it’s not… once a piece is learned, sometimes I will change a finger but not in a passage like the one I was describing in the the Bartok you know, something is very, very complicated. I think it’s good to find a fingering that really is solid, is tight , is musical, that works. And yeah, I’m really obsessive. And I love working on fingerings with students because so often a student will come in and a passage doesn’t sound very good, and it can really be fixed with a good fingering. Whether sometimes it’s taking a note in the left hand, rather than the right, or it’s just thinking of a different pattern, thinking laterally, because sometimes what seems like a pattern on the page actually in the hand comes out in a different way and you can articulate something better that way or fingering for sound for a melodic line. Very often, I think students will come in and they just take the first thing that comes to hand but sometimes, you know, if we’re trying to imitate like in the Chopin Nocturnes imitate a coloratura soprano, then we’re thinking of where she might breathe and therefore, where do your fingers breathe? Where would you take a breath before you put the next hand down onto the keyboard? So I find that really exciting and I love someone coming and saying I just can’t play this passage because I’m convinced every passage can be played with the right fingering. Because I’ve been doing these, not at Juilliard but at other colleges, when I go or what they call clinics, actually. We take in a three hour session rather than three hours, one per student, I’ll set maybe take 12 students or 15 students, so they each bring one problem they’re having with a piece. And very often it can it can spoil a whole piece or a whole passage, just one little area that goes wrong every time. And can we fix this and I love trying to get into the nuts and bolts. Much like last night I was very happy with the Mac doctor in Pennsylvania that I phoned, my computer I couldn’t get I was trying to do an upgrade and then it just wouldn’t start and it kept saying you have no ability to make this download and and it took half an hour but eventually we got the thing working again, it’s very much like that I think in master classes. Sometimes master classes can be very esoteric and oh think about this, some you know open and this and all about very open things and sometimes it’s what you need is well you want your third finger on that C sharp Then it will be fine.

That actually sounds like a lot of fun. I mean, I always enjoyed watching master classes, but like for it to be like a problem solving masterclass where you take a series of problems and you find solutions to it. That sounds like it would be a lot of fun, actually. And it seems like that would be the sort of thing that would work really well streaming online even as well.

Yeah, I haven’t done it online. But it is. And it’s interesting for an audience because I think, an hour with a student – well, it can be fascinating, but sometimes an hour is too much in a public class because there’s too much obsessing over certain things, which is fine in a private lesson. But I think sometimes you just want to get through different rep on different ideas. And also solving a problem in one person’s piece can help another person in that piece.

Yeah, to that and not to put you on the spot but and this would maybe be over my head anyway. But are there certain like guidelines or fingering principles that because I imagine this might be something that you’ve found naturally interesting for many years going back to when you were a child maybe but, have there been some sort of crystallizing guiding principles that help you problem solve fingerings or used to kind of guide your choices?

It’s hard to be gentle. Well, very occasionally, if you’re playing a passage, that’s, let’s say, 16th notes in both hands. It can be quite helpful to note when you’re playing the same finger in both hands, like when there are two thumbs meet, and certainly if it’s fours, groups of four sixteenths, and you can have them starting on the same finger in both hands, it can help. They’re like sort of goalposts, if you like along the way, and even if one gets messed up, you know, by the next one, you’re going to be together on the thumb or on the second finger or something like that. So that’s one thing that comes to mind. I’m just trying to think What else? Well, it depends. Sometimes if you want something that’s very strong, you might want to use more of one, two and three fingers just because they are stronger fingers. But I’m always experimenting. I think one thing that I really think is quite important and that I didn’t realize so much when I was a student was obviously the piano is not a legato instrument by its very design, you know, the minute a note is struck, the sound is decaying. So everything is about faking that legato. So the next note to the one before you match, not to how you struck it, but to the sound of the decay so that it sounds like it’s smooth, but it of course, it’s all an approximation. And I think therefore sometimes with fingering, people want to use legato fingerings. When actually what’s important is that it sounds legato, not that it is on the keyboard physically together, not always in every case, but there are certain cases, particularly when you’re playing very, very softly, that what’s important is that the hand is relaxed, because sometimes with legato fingerings if your hand is stretched out, well, actually on the podcast you can’t see anyway. But if the hand is actually stretched, the muscles are tight, and you don’t have as much control over the muscles when they’re tight, they have more control when they’re relaxed. So sometimes people try to play something very, very softly. And they it’s not speaking because they’re not relaxed. And that can sometimes be an issue of fingering too, that they’re trying to do what on the page is a legato fingering but in practice actually doesn’t in the end sound as legato and sometimes you’ll find with editions that editors who’ve written in fingerings are not performers. And so they’ve not actually been on the stage working out those passages in the heat of of the performance. And what looks like a very sensible fingering on the page just doesn’t work in a concert. And I’ve actually found this quite a lot with (redacted) if I could name, shame.

Bad fingerings in (redacted) just because the poor guy who’s doing them just hasn’t gone to that stage of working it out.

That’s really fascinating to me, actually. Now my head’s kind of going in that direction. Because it sounds like you’re saying that, sure, there’s a fingering that might work perfectly fine when you’re relaxed and calm and the practice room, but as soon as the nerves kick in on stage, or there’s more pressure, the fingering may not work quite so well.

But I think also fingering for for expression. I mean, actually, it’s interesting on the violin, I guess, fingering has changed historically, because people do less portamenti now than they did, and so so many fingerings that people did were for those expressive slides. And so you’ll be using one finger for something or you’d be shifting in a different kind of way. There’s a very interesting moment in the third Rachmaninoff concerto and the last movement. Where on the recording with Ormandy and Philadelphia Orchestra I think it’s 1930 something, 39 maybe they play a D flat, and then they slide up to the same note. So they’re obviously playing the D flat on one string, changing to another string and sliding up to it. And you never hear it’s a very old fashioned sound. And it’s actually quite wonderful. But it sounds like a Hollywood movie or something like that. But then a few pages later, Rachmaninoff writes the same motif for the for the piano. And he writes in the piano, yada, yada. And he writes on the piano, a chromatic scale going up to the note. So that’s a really interesting moment. I think when obviously, he’s so expected string players to do that slide, which they never do now, unless you actually ask… we did it on my recording of that piece. We actually did do that fingering for the strings. And of course, when you first ask an orchestra, they’re shocked because they think, Oh, it’s corny, or it’s in bad taste or… but then they really got into it. And I mean, it’s not quite an equivalent of the piano, but I think that’s something where historical performance practice in the Romantic era has changed the way that we would finger. I can’t really think exactly of an equivalent on the piano, although, in earlier years, I mean, in the early in the 17th century, people loathed to use the thumb on the black notes, because on a smaller keyboard like a harpsichord or clavichord, it was just more clumsy to use the thumb on the black notse. Now that we have a bigger keyboard, it’s actually very practical to use the thumb and sometimes it can… a thumb is a nice fat finger, it can be a very secure way of getting hold of a note. Particularly I often use it in a bass note, if I got to go down to a bass on the black notes, you could almost can’t miss if you go for the thumb, whereas you use the little finger. When you have half the amount of flesh and bone. It’s easy to fall off.

I think there is a part in your book where you ask the question, Well, how do I know when something’s really done? Once something’s really ready, and and I guess the same thoughts occurred to me with fingerings. I mean, how do you have a sense of knowing, okay, this fingering, this is as good as it gets, at least for now. And I can move on or, because I imagine there are times maybe where you’re maybe debating between two different fingerings. And there’s different pros and cons of each. I mean, is it sort of a process where you at some point, it’s like, yeah, this is great. Let me go with this or, is there some uncertainty? Maybe sometimes?

Unknown Speaker
Oh, sometimes uncertainty. I mean, there are some fingerings that you come across, and they’re so good and so secure, that you just you write them in in ink, you know, and you never want to forget them. Others? Yeah. Debatable and there are not you know, there are certain passages which actually it depends on different pianos. Sometimes, you know, if a piano has a very light action, or say it’s a very brilliant piano, then you might want to use less changing of hand position because generally when you change a hand position, there’s a danger of a bump because you’re actually coming down with the arm in a different position. But on a very heavy piano that might actually not matter. So or on a dull piano, you might you might not even notice that but yeah, certain things I’m just coming back to Chopin Nocturnes at the moment I’m just working on them all. And there’s a passage in the big late great B major Nocturne where there’s a whole string of trills and I’ve written in different fingerings over the years of different ways of doing that. And that’s an instance I think, where it depends on the piano. I now like to use a thumb on each of the melody notes and trill with the third and second fingers so that the thumb carries the melody on every note giving me that cantabile so I actually don’t have to sing the note because the finger does it for me, because it automatically will give me a heavier sound. So I play everything as if with no nuance and it gives me a nuance just the finger I’m using. But on some instruments, it’s too much and you get a jangle and the thumb is too heavy. So then I might only use the second and third fingers or sort of combination of that. Because I don’t want the heaviness of that extra flesh. So yeah, these are all things that we pianists are constantly thinking about. But it’s less, I think on string instruments it’s very much more about expression in a well, I don’t know, maybe in some very intricate passage, you would choose where to change strings just because it’s more easy or whatever. I don’t know how that I play the cello to grade five very badly and then never played a string instrument again.

One thing that I wanted to follow up on with that is, I know sometimes, musicians, well violinists, will feel inspired to try out a different fingering spontaneously in the moment of a performance. And sometimes it works out. That’s great. And then other times you kind of work yourself into a corner and you start getting anxious because you’re not sure how you’re going to get yourself out of the place. You put yourself in. The way you’re describing different fingerings for different pianos, maybe wonder do pianists or do you perhaps sometimes spontaneously decide you know, and I’m going to try this other fingering and see how it goes like in a performance

Depends on the passage I have done that and yeah, I mean especially if I’ve had a few fingerings in my history you know that I’ve worked on and thought about and again, if a piano sometimes is very dull, you know, sometimes you’ll get an instrument and maybe you’re playing with orchestra in a big hall and it’s very dull instrument, you need to get more power then I may change a fingering for something there. If it’s a very complicated, fast passage, then I’m I probably wouldn’t risk it in a concert really. Unless it’s a fingering maybe historically I’ve used and so both fingerings are part of my motor memory, but I don’t think I would try something completely new right there in a concert, although I have in a recording. In fact, in this recording, I was doing a Schumann. The one I did a month or so ago, it was a passage just, I got a mental block about it actually. And this can happen in a recording session you for no reason. You can’t even remember the fingering for a C major scale, you know, it’s just like you, you get snow white blind and you can’t do anything. And sometimes that I’ve completely changed a fingering but that would be in a recording session where it doesn’t matter. I can do it a number of times. But sometimes it does make a make you break through something I don’t know, I guess there must be similar situations and maybe in speech therapy where someone’s unable to say a word easily or having a problem with a certain consonant and somehow coming at it from a completely different angle can change that. And I mean, the brain’s weird, isn’t it? I don’t know more than 96% of all the stuff that we do with music is up there not here in the fingers. So sometimes it’s it’s trying to wrong-foot yourself in order to get to break through those barriers.

So I know that the conversation has sort of taken an unexpected turn to fingering. So I apologize if that wasn’t where you were thinking about going. There are a couple things still related to memory that I was curious about sort of random, maybe. But I remember reading that you… when learning a piece would use colored pencils and mark up the score in various ways. Is that the same copy that you would then use in a performance? Or would you use a clean copy? Or are there different versions of the same thing? Perhaps? I’m just curious how, how your your scores end up looking over time?

No, I only ever have one score on the go at a time. And I write everything into that. Sometimes if I come back to a piece after many years, I’ll get a fresh score. And in fact, well with the Beethoven concerto, I just recorded all the Beethoven concertos last year and the new Bärenreiter edition had come out between doing that and before so In fact, I did put all my old, the important marking from my old score into this new score and that’s quite time consuming but sometimes I would do that on a flight and you know, often things I wrote in the past are no longer relevant. I often write in a lot of things about how to practice a passage if I find a way that works. So my score is often absolutely filled with different ideas and many of them I’ve rejected over the years ways I thought were a good way to practice and then I found actually doesn’t help at all. So I scratched that out, but I always write it down. I write everything down in the score. So yeah, the big repertoire pieces that I play all the time, the Rachmaninoff concertos, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Mozart… I mean, they’re, they’re absolutely filled with markings. I know some people have no markings in their scores at all. And I, I can’t imagine doing that. I find it a way of personalizing things. It I love the feeling of that. It’s replaced in a way the old days of the of the written diary, which I used to enjoy the feeling of it being part of my life, this written diary, you know that I usually have a nice one, you know, one that was actually a nice book and I would write in it and there’d be, I jot down poems, and I’d note down things that I saw and thought about, and then the dates and sometimes people I met in different places. And so my scores now have taken they’re the only thing I write in now everything else is done electronically. And I haven’t yet got around to iPads, but I think I probably will, when I’m earning some money again, and I could afford it, you know, I may go to the Apple store and get one of these great big iPads and start downloading my scores because certainly it would be easy for traveling

Right. I assume that you also write into your your own scores and that you’ve composed the same way that you would you know, Beethoven concerto or something like that.

Yeah, I put in the fingerings in In those as well and also ways of practicing, and I use colored pencils, usually my colored pencil thing is either to point out contrapuntal lines or to color chords, because you know, every chord that we play on the piano, there’s a hierarchy of importance in those notes, I mean, a simple major triad, obviously, the top note is likely to be the melody. The third is either major or minor is that is the identity of that chord. And then the bottom note is the base. And so there are certain times when I want to highlight a bass line, I was just thinking very much with Brahms. And Brahms is so much about bass lines so often. And so yeah, I’ve got lots of bass lines highlighted in that in colors, but there’s no significance. It’s just I’ll use red if there’s blue elsewhere in the bar, and I want to make a distinction between them. I don’t sort of have you know red for harmony and blue for counterpoint or things like that. Just whatever’s around.

I’m wondering if… well it occurs to me that, that if you have a long history of different sorts of markings and instructions and so forth in the score, I could see it going both ways. One, almost visually, maybe it being a nice reminder of what’s happening or what you’re trying to do or what’s about to come. But also, on the other side, potentially, maybe distracting, too, and that it makes you think of all sorts of things that may not necessarily be relevant to the performance in that moment, for talking about using music on stage, that’s, I guess why I was curious about whether you said earlier, not having the music frees you up in many ways. And I think there was an anecdote in your book to have some advice, or maybe in the Juilliard column, about a teacher saying to a graduating student, you know, now forget everything that I’ve told you to kind of free them up to not feel constrained. And that’s, I guess, why I was curious whether there was a difference in writing into scores when you perform it and so forth. Yeah,

It could be a distraction if there’s too much, of course, written on the page. I remember playing with Steven Isserlis once I mean, he’s a big practical joke, person. And so he had taken my scores that we were playing the Franck Sonata and he’d written, little jokey… I didn’t know this until the concert. So I’m playing along and I turn the page and it says, “Don’t mess up this next passage” or “look up at the ceiling as if you’re really involved here” and all of this stuff that it was, that was very distracting, but kind of funny after the event, but not at the time.

Yeah, that sounds like a fun experience of a great story, at least, in hindsight, I guess the one last question I thought i’d maybe end with is, do you think that the cultural expectation of memory will continue to change? Or, I guess, really the question I had was, what do you think it will take to change that cultural expectation of needing to play things from memory? Is it something that will just evolve over time? Maybe there’s like a tipping point of enough well known folks taking a stand or what’s your sense of what it might take to to change that? I

think probably ideally, it would it needs to everyone needs to make their own decision about this. As I said, I think it’s important as a student that you learn how to play from memory, because it’s a different skill. It’s a different way of inhabiting the score. You know, if Judy Garland comes onto the stage to sing Somewhere Over the Rainbow, and she’s got a piece of paper with the words on in front of it, I don’t think in the end, it’s the same experience. Now, you could say, well, playing a Mozart Sonata is not playing Somewhere Over the Rainbow. And that’s true. And so there’s a very crude example of how different repertoire requires a different approach. But I think there’s always going to be, until we stop having public performances, there’s always going to be a sense of that risk taking, I think, and I said in that article that the thing I wish people didn’t ask was, you know, how do you remember everything? I think this is, it’s only that sometimes after a concert when you feel that something has happened very musically meaningful to you, maybe it’s a very, very emotionally turbulent piece and you feel that something or a very transcendental piece. And you come off and someone says, Wow, how do you remember all that? You think? Well, that’s really the least thing that’s important about what I’ve done. Because, you know, some people remember some people don’t and I think that’s the only thing that really bothers me when that’s what people and it becomes like a circus act. And I think when Judy Garland sings that song, it’s not she’s not. It’s not a circus act, that she’s not saying, hey, look how clever I am. I know this song from memory. She’s singing it from memory because it’s pouring out of her, you know, from some very deep level. And maybe she’ll forget the words. Actually, she spoke that very famous Carnegie Hall concert where she kind of goes to pieces. But it’s really still wonderful because you see the fragility of this person and, and the vulnerability of her and in fact, in a sense, her falling apart, makes you feel well, my falling apart, maybe it’s not so bad after all, you know, you kind of you join with her and that’s one of the reasons it was so captivating. But she speaks in one of her little interludes between about you know, I can’t remember the words of this song, and she actually does prop up the song. I think it’s an old [?] song that she sings, but I don’t know, I just what I wouldn’t like is for students to work less hard because they can sight read from the iPad. And so they come into a lesson and with the slow movement of a Haydn Sonata, you know, anyone can sight read that so they never learn it really thoroughly. And I think that’s the danger of playing with music. So I think there has to be this period when you suffer, and you have to learn and you have to memorize and it’s horrible and all the rest, but I think once you have a career going. And also with with the people who have incredible memories, incredible repertoire, sometimes play from scores. I’ve seen yuja Wang, you know, who’s got this incredible repertoire. She plays more than anyone else I know. But with Bartok Second, there was the iPad. And I don’t think anyone really cares. No one’s saying, Oh, well, you, you know, you don’t know this piece. So, but I think to get to that stage, if you’re a freshman, you know, coming in and you say, well, I never memorize anything. I think this there is an apprentice period when you have to go through the that difficulty actually, I think the key is not to be too worried about it. To be flexible a little bit to feel that if someone has a memory lapse, that’s not the most important thing in the world, and they should certainly feel that when they’re doing it. I’ve listened to some auditions and I don’t think I would reject anyone in an audition just because they had a memory lapse. If they played wonderfully I it wouldn’t bother me particular I mean, if they’re having memory lapses every five seconds, then that’s, there’s an issue there. But if someone takes a terrible turn and goes all over the place and stops, and starts again and plays absolutely wonderfully, I would take them in my studio, and I would pass them in a competition. And I think this is perhaps this is I would really like this to be something for the future that we don’t have a fetish about memory in the way that perhaps we did. I’m going to be on the jury of the Cliburn next year. Maybe I shouldn’t be saying this, but I would not turn anyone down for that reason alone.

That sounds like a great place to wrap up. It sounds like the answer is not a clear black and white one, but it depends on the situation on where they are in the development and the peace perhaps even… a variety of factors that lead an artist to be able to make a choice about what’s right for them at that moment.

But I think risk taking though is part of performance, I can completely understand why someone just doesn’t want to go out and play in public. And there’s no good or bad about that. Some people love being onstage and they only feel alive when they’re in front of an audience. Other people hate it. And actually other great artists, teachers, you know, there are some people who still play wonderful concerts, but you know, apparently backstage I mean, they’re literally feeling like they’re going to throw up because they’re so nervous. And, and there are both types of people who both of which have long careers, but I think if you are on stage this or that, it’s going to be an element of risk. And memory is part of that risk. And so I think you’ll never go to feel 100% comfortable like you are when you’re having a really nice breakfast or holiday sometime when you’re onstage in front of an audience. And that’s part of the deal. It’s just what it’s about maybe a brain surgeon always feels that risk, too. But you just you have to go with it and learn how to work work around it, I suppose.


I start off the interview alluding to Stephen’s Juilliard Journal Q&A. You can read that here if you missed it. 0:54

Stephen mentions a Horowitz performance of the F sharp minor Chopin Polonaise. I think this video is of the performance he was referring to. 4:44

I also mention Stephen’s latest book “Rough Ideas” several times. Here’s a short video of him describing what it’s about, and you can pick up a copy here. 5:34

Stephen brings up this juicy slide in the third movement of Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto. I have to confess that I didn’t take the time to really turn this up to 11 and find that exact location, but if you know where it is (both the orchestra slide, and the associated piano motif), please do let me know! Here’s the exact recording he was referencing, cued up, I believe, to the start of the third movement. 28:20

More Stephen Hough | Writing

We alluded to Stephen’s latest book Rough Ideas multiple times throughout the interview. You can check that out here: Rough Ideas: Reflections on Music and More

Stephen also published his first novel, The Final Retreat, not too long ago. He notes, however, that this is a bit darker and rather explicit, and intended more for the reader who’s 18 or older: The Final Retreat: A Novel

More Stephen Hough | Recordings

Stephen has an extensive discography, which you can check out here. If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed by the array of choices, his recent recordings of the complete Beethoven piano concertos did come up in conversation and he thought that might be a good place to start: Beethoven: The Piano Concertos – Stephen Hough/Finnish Radio Symphony/Hannu Lintu

More Stephen Hough | Compositions

If you’d like to play something he has written (sounds like a fun late-summer project!), you can check out the sheet music of his compositions here: Compositions by Stephen Hough

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