“What’s up with this memory thing?”, asked one of my new transfer students. We talked about different levels of knowing and understanding and the fact that committing something to memory allows us to interact with it on a deeper level. “You don’t necessarily have to perform it from memory”, I said, “but you need the depth of study that comes by way of the process.”
I was reminded of this earlier in the week when reading a post by Brad Leithauser entitled Why We Should Memorize. Brad was discussing poetry in his post but what he has to say applies to playing music as well. You can read the entire post here.
The best argument for verse memorization may be that it provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen. Robson puts the point succinctly: “If we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat.”
Do I require that everything be memorized? Absolutely not. Much depends on the pianist’s goals for study and their prior experience. My piano majors are required to memorize. When they transfer to 4 year institutions they will need that skill. As professionals, they will need that skill. My very young students all memorize as a matter of course. Once the habit is formed, the task is not so onerous. Unless there is a real learning difficulty, I encourage my avocational students (adult and younger) to memorize at least some of their pieces even if they have never done so before.
In our yearly evaluation program, students may play 2 of 4 pieces with the score without penalty. They are held to a high standard whether a piece is memorized or not. I embrace the opportunity. Pianists must be able to play from the score as artistically as they perform as soloists. Obviously, to be a top ranked concert artist, you must memorize because grit and determination plus brain power are part of the skill set needed to form a strong enough musical character to stand up to the demands of concertizing. But, I have a friend who maintains that the average pianist (professional or avocational) spends much more time playing with the score than from memory and I tend to agree.
My undergraduate teacher once regaled us with the tale of a friend who was in a complete panic. He was playing his Master’s Recital in a week and still had a passage in Beethoven’s Op. 111 in which he just couldn’t remember the RH figuration. The rest of the entire program (in fact, the rest of the sonata) was polished and artistic- completely up to snuff. He told my teacher he simply didn’t know what he was going to do. Despite hours and hours of work using all the tricks he knew, every time he got to those few measures he completely lost the RH. In desperation, he took a long, narrow strip of paper and wrote out the recalcitrant figuration. Before the recital he affixed the strip of paper to the top of the fallboard where it was invisible to everyone but him. Sure enough, my teacher said, when his friend got to that passage in the sonata, his nose tracked right along the fallboard from left to right. The recital was a complete success, unmarred by obstreperous figurations. And yes, he managed to remove the strip of paper before anyone noticed.
As Tim Gunn would say… “Make it work people.”
I once heard a famous concert pianist (sorry, it was so long ago I’ve forgotten who exactly) say that it was ridiculous to memorize everything because it was more important to explore the vastness of the repertoire than to memorize the small portion that our brains are capable of storing. I would add creating music through improvisation and arranging, as well as collaboration to the list of important musical endeavors which should balance memorization.