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To memorize or not to memorize

I have a confession to make: I have a terrible memory. Well, for some things, anyway. I can name at least three movies and TV shows that Mary McDonnell has been in off the top of my head (Evidence of Blood, Donnie Darko, Battlestar Galactica), and rattle off the names of the seven Harry Potter books, but you take away that Beethoven piano score that I’ve been playing from since I was 14, and my fingers freeze on the keyboard. My inability to memorize music was in fact the reason I gave up on my dream of being a concert pianist—though, in retrospect, this was probably the right move for me given how lonely I would get during hours-long practice sessions…

I’ve since come to terms with my memory “deficiency,” but a recent New York Times article by Anthony Tommasini on the hegemonic influence of memorization in certain classical performing traditions brought some old feelings to the fore. Why did I have to memorize the music I was performing, especially considering how gifted I was at reading music notation (if I may say so myself)?

As Tommasini points out (citing this article by Stephen Hough), the tradition of performing from memory as a solo instrumentalist is a relatively young one, introduced by virtuosi like Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann in the 1800s. Before that, it was considered a bit gauche to play from memory, as the assumption was that if you were playing without a score in front of you, you were improvising an original piece.

I should be clear at this point that I have nothing against musicians performing from memory. Indeed some performers have the opposite problem to mine: the sight of music notation during performance is a stressor, not a helper. Nonetheless, I do feel that the stronghold that memorization has on classical soloist performance culture needs to be slackened.

One memory in particular related to memorization haunts me still. After sweating through a Bach organ trio sonata during a master class in the early 00s, the dear late David Craighead gave me some gentle praise and encouraged me to memorize the piece. “Make it your own” were his words. I was devastated. How on earth was I going to memorize such a complex piece?

In spite of my devastated feelings, I heard a nagging voice in the back of my mind telling me Dr. Craighead was right. If only I could memorize the piece, it truly would be my own. I’d heard before from other teachers that the best way to completely “ingest” a piece was to practice it until you didn’t need the score anymore. The lone recital I gave from memory during my college years was admittedly an exhilarating experience; I definitely felt that I had a type of ownership over the pieces, even if I was in constant terror of having a memory lapse. In hindsight, though, I believe my sense of ownership was not a result of score-freedom, but from the hours and hours (and hours) I spent in the practice room preparing for the recital.

Whether or not you are moved by my struggles (being a little facetious here), I think that, in 2013, it is time for us to acknowledge the multiplicity of talents a classical soloist may possess, and stop trying to squeeze everyone into the same box.

Recent Comments

  1. Rebecca Frodsham

    When memorising a piece, all sense of restriction is removed, until you have memorised a piece it’s external, once it’s commited to your memory it is always at your fingertips wherever you go. I’m a classical and jazz singer and as soon as I get a piece, I learn it accurately and commit it to memory within a few days- then the real work starts. Given, with piano this process takes somewhat longer but I go about the process in the same way.

  2. Gerald Klickstein

    Thanks Meghann for sharing your personal issues with memorization. So many aspiring musicians experience similar challenges that I conclude there’s more going on here than an individual’s propensity to memorize. Rather, I believe that our traditions of music education often create memorization difficulties among students due in part to the lack of instruction in deep practice methods that would facilitate learning, memorization, and secure performance.

    Nonetheless, I share your view that pianists shouldn’t feel compelled to memorize every solo, and I riff on that idea further in my recent article, “Should Soloists Always Perform from Memory?” http://musiciansway.com/blog/2013/01/should-soloist-always-perform-from-memory/

  3. Meg Wilhoite

    Thanks for reading, Gerald, and for passing along your own take on this topic!

  4. [...] I don’t remember much from my diaper-wearing days (but we’ve already gone over how terrible my memory [...]

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