Memory: Brain vs. Body
I’d like to weigh in on this memory thing. I’ve read some pretty caustic posts over the years, mostly bemoaning the loss of discipline in piano study as evidenced by allowing pianists to play from the score in performance. Of course, others point out that you can discover a whole lot more repertoire if you don’t memorize it all, plus the fact that we need to be able to artistically play from the score in many situations—that playing from the score doesn’t mean you don’t need to learn the music thoroughly and deeply.
But, I’d like to take this conversation in a different direction. First of all, I am not addressing my comments to the nurturing of international concert careers. That is a specialized kind of training for a specific combination of talents and abilities. I want to talk about nurturing the gifts of children and adults with a wide variety of talents, aspirations, and physical abilities.
Most of you know that I have arthritis and that this limits what I can do at the piano as well as how much time I can spend at the instrument. I also have hyper-mobility which basically means that my connective tissue is too loose and stretchy. This results in joint damage because the joints can’t work properly. It also results in muscles that get angry because they must try to compensate for connective tissue that falls down on the job.
When I try to play from memory, everything is fine if my body behaves. But, if it’s a “loose” day and something slips, then I need to use all my attention to recover and deal with the technical problems that result. The end result is usually a memory slip or at least some intensely stressful moments. The physical becomes a distraction with the same consequences as inattention or the proverbial phone.
We and our students have a wide range of physical abilities. My issues started way back in my early 20s, although the damage was not visible until many years later. In Preston Sturges’ film, The Lady Eve, the lead actress says something like, “Oh he’s not inconsistent. It’s just that sometimes he plays better than other times.” That was me and it was a big clue that there was an underlying physical problem rather than a learning or musical problem going on. But, such things were just not recognized then. Thankfully, we are much more aware and able to help students today.
Do I encourage memory work from my students? You bet. My own ability to work and learn is due to that discipline. Do I perform from memory or require all my students to perform from memory? Absolutely not.