To memorize or not to memorize
By Meghann Wilhoite
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.
Meghann Wilhoite is an Assistant Editor at Grove Music/Oxford Music Online, music blogger, and organist. Follow her on Twitter at @megwilhoite. Read her previous blog posts on Sibelius, the pipe organ, John Zorn, West Side Story, and other subjects.
Oxford Music Online is the gateway offering users the ability to access and cross-search multiple music reference resources in one location. With Grove Music Online as its cornerstone, Oxford Music Online also contains The Oxford Companion to Music, The Oxford Dictionary of Music, and The Encyclopedia of Popular Music.