Updated: Dec 3, 2020
Why performing from memory? Advantages and disadvantages.
Irina Kurilova, professional training student at WKMT, rehearsing Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 -from memory -
In the European concert tradition, the practice of playing from memory, appears to be a relatively recent development. It began in the second half of the nineteenth century, when Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann created a novel sensation in the salons and concert halls of Europe by playing without a score. Today, the ability to play from memory is a central feature of the concert soloist’s professional competence (Chaffin & Imreh, 1997) and has inevitably become regarded as a measure of excellence (Williamon, 2002).
When playing the piano, in particular, the demands placed on memory are remarkable, sometimes requiring the production of over 1000 notes a minute for periods of up to 50 minutes (Chaffin & Imreh, 1997). This is why memory lapses are not uncommon. As musicians, we must deal with varied aspects of music (i.e. learning, memorising and playing in public) on a regular, perhaps daily basis and what we do is very intertwined with performance. It could be argued that the better a musician functions under performance conditions, the more likely they are able to achieve their goals -i.e. a convincing and effective rendition (Gordon, 2010). The requirement of playing from memory is a source of tremendous anxiety for pianists. More than one concert artist has argued that playing from memory should be abolished (Williamon, in press). No pianist today could have a successful career without extremely well-developed memorisation skills. Amongst the multitude of books about piano technique and piano pedagogy, few have much to say about memorisation in general (Chaffin, Imreh & Crawford, 2002) and memory failures in particular. For instance, many manuals on the subject seem to explain memory slips simply blaming the amateurs and their lack of expertise, as opposed to world-class artists who would have such highly developed memorisation skills that they are beyond thinking or worrying about how they do it. I would rather agree with John Browning, who states that memorising is an issue for every pianist. Thus, it would be enlightening to investigate further the hidden reasons behind the preference of using or not the score on the stage.
Ascertained that in the mid-19th century performing long pieces of the piano literature from memory represented a pinnacle of human achievement, as well as a remarkable accomplishment, this sensational innovation soon became a norm. The new feeling of performing without a score added yet another source of stress to the performer’s life, as to use a score implied that you didn’t know the piece properly and began to suggest a lack of professionalism. Today memorized performance is a standard endeavour (Chaffin, Imreh & Crawford, 2002). Indeed, most musicians are unable to make a living as performers; furthermore the stresses associated with becoming a professional musician are immense (Salmon & Meyer, 1992). In light of the above, as a pianist, a simple and naive question seems almost inevitable to me: why should a pianist perform from memory? The well-known British pianist and composer Stephen Hough, tried to list the pros and cons related to the practice of playing from memory:
1) As performing on stage is not just about hearing, but also seeing, using the score could spoil the theatrical event like a script in an actor’s hand.
2) There are many practical disadvantages involved, i.e., insufficient light to see the pages, the need for a page turner, the actual inability to look at the score during a virtuos passage when the eyes are required to guide the fingers on the keys, the visual distraction for the audience, the sound-blockage of the music desk.
3) When we perform something for an audience, we have to learn it in detail; if we can sight-read well and the notes are not complicated there is always the danger of presenting something which is not properly prepared.
Nevertheless, there are possible advantages:
1) Taking away the fear of forgetting, liberating the mind to concentrate on the music itself.
2) Enabling the musician to play what is really there, constantly uncovering anew the message left in code by the composer.
3) Allowing for greater variety of repertoire.
(S. Hough, 2011).
The reasons behind using or not using the score seem to be both psychological and practical. Personally, I have always been sceptical about the possibility of using the score while performing. In fact, this doesn’t seem to offer me a great freedom of expression and, as Hough puts it, it could also represent a limitation when it comes to facing virtuos and tricky passages. At this stage, regardless of my own personal experience, I do not think it would be appropriate to state that all pianists should not use the score during a public solo performance.
Aiello R & Williamon A (2002), “Memory”, in R Parncutt & GE McPherson (eds.) The Science and Psychology of Music Performance: Creative Strategies for Teaching and Learning (pp. 167-181), Oxford University Press.
Chaffin, R., Imreh, G., & Crawford, M. (2002). Practicing perfection: Memory and piano performance. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum Associates.
Chaffin, R. & Imreh, G. (1997) “Pulling Teeth and Torture”: Musical Memory and Problem Solving. Thinking and Reasoning, 3 (4), 315-336
Hough, S., (2011) ‘Liszt: The man who invented the stage fright’, The Telegraph.
Gordon, S., (2010) Mastering the Art of Performance: A Primer for Musicians. Oxford University Press.
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