Playing from Memory

The issue of memory playing has haunted musicians for centuries. For some, it comes naturally; for others, it is an eternal struggle. Is it necessary to play from memory in order to give a professional, musical and convincing performance? Absolutely not. In fact, it was not the norm to perform from memory in Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven’s times. It was Franz Liszt, the 19th century composer and virtuoso pianist, who was the first performer to present an entire recital by memory. (In recent years other musicians have been credited with that title, too, but Liszt was the most influential.) Yes let’s all blame him!

It has become standard practice for pianists and vocalists to perform from memory in solo recitals, although the British pianist Dame Myra Hess almost always performed from score, and all musicians have suffered from memory slips of varying degrees in their lifetime. It is every musician’s nightmare to forget halfway through a performance. But should this fear stop us from making music and trying to perform our best? Absolutely not. Playing from memory has many advantages, but certainly is not required in order to make beautiful music. The ultimate goal for any musician should be to make and share beautiful music, and if that can be done through playing from memory, it is just a bonus! Today, most recordings are done with the score, to ensure the utmost attention is paid to every detail indicated by the composer, while in recital, playing from memory often helps the performer to concentrate on the music and not be distracted.

I am inspired to write this blog entry because most of the adult students I have taught have great fear in performing in recitals because they do not trust their memory. When I tell them they can play with music they then fear they will ‘look stupid’ not being able to play from memory, while most of the kids can play from memory with ease. The fact is, we grow more and more self-conscious as we get older, and our memory deteriorates with age. Kids are less likely to have memory slips because they do not walk onto the stage with a preconceived fear; they are innocent and naive and they don’t plague their minds with questions such as “What if I forget? What will I do? What will others think of me?” As we get order, we store more and more information, knowledge, and life experiences in our memory bank, so of course it is much harder for adults to memorize new material and avoid memory slips.

If memory playing is not necessary in order to make beautiful music, why is it that memory playing is required in music auditions/exams/competitions? First, not all music exams require candidates to memorize their pieces. The ABRSM, one of the world’s leading music exam bodies, does not require students to play from memory. The National Guild requires memory playing for its formal programs, but also offers Hobbyist auditions for people that have a hard time memorizing. The nature of music competitions is to select “the best”, whether that is a healthy trend in society or not, it is part of our existence, not just in music, but in every profession.

Lizzy Stietzle

Do I believe in making students memorize? Yes. I believe there are many benefits. Do I require that all my students memorize or I will not teach them or let them play in recitals? No. I believe in the merits of memorization because although not all music students will become professional musicians, they will all most certainly take the skills they learn in studying music and apply them in other subject areas. Let us look deeper into what actually happens when one learns a piece of music and then later attempts to perform it from memory. First, one connects what exists on the score to a specific physical gesture (looking at a note and pressing down a finger). Then, a specific aural image is created in the brain associated with the above act. This process of “visual images-prompting physical gestures-creating aural images” is repeated until the whole score is learned, and then rehearsed over and over until the sequences are integrated into the nerves and muscles system and become an automatic response. Now, while one performs a piece from memory, the above process is reversed. The performer first has the aural image in their head (they know what the piece sounds like), they then allow their body (fingers, wrists, arms, feet, indeed entire body) to respond to that aural image with the sequence of pre-rehearsed physical gestures, which in turn create the original score in their mind’s eye. In order to give a perfect performance without memory slips, this reversal process must happen without any breakdowns. So what causes the breakdowns? Well our mind contains billions of thoughts, most of them unconscious, but when any one of them surfaces (prompted by the slightest noise in the audience) and we instinctively listens to it and our body inevitably responds to it, we loose track of that reversal process of recreating the composer’s score through our aural image. The successful performer is not necessarily the one that “blocks out” those billions of thoughts, but the one that has learned to discipline their mind so that it remains focused on listening to the aural image and is determined to not let other body responses get in the way. This skill is so complex that even if only partly mastered, is so beneficial in the learning and development of an individual, especially for children. That is why musicians are often multi-talented people with a variety of skills, and music study is proven to improve study scores in students.

In another blog post I mentioned about setting higher and higher standards for my students. Memorization is highly encouraged in my students, especially if they are younger and show talent and promise. But I also understand that some students study music for fun, and most adult students have a busy life outside of music. My goal is to help everyone make beautiful music. Everyone can learn from trying to memorize a piece (I believe it can help combat old-age forgetfulness!), but not everyone is required to perform from memory at all. What about myself? I can honestly say that I memorized like a charm when I was younger – I never worried about forgetting, but now as I get older, it takes me longer and longer to memorize something new, and half of the pieces I can comfortably play from memory I learned in my student years. Have I ever had memory slips? You bet! Am I a little nervous now about forgetting when I perform? Yes. Do I still want to make beautiful music and learn new works and try to commit them to memory, no matter how long it takes? Always!

I will talk about how to memorize effectively in a future blog.

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