Why Memorize?

My music history students would be surprised to learn that I am not a big fan of tradition. My class piano students would be shocked to discover that I am not a big fan of rules. My private piano students would be very surprised by my aversion to one tradition in particular—memorization—that has plagued pianists ever since Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt began performing large works in public without the score.

Memorizing is by far my least favorite part of the music-learning process. It has always been a struggle for me. I have never been an automatic memorizer. I am in no way one of those pianists who, at some point in the learning process, can simply play their music from memory.   Memorization has always been a process that I’ve had to force. Now, thanks to my teachers, back in school I learned some great techniques for memorizing, and they have certainly served me well. However, the time it takes to memorize a work is exponentially greater for me than the time it takes to learn to play it well. I’m willing to put in the time, but I’m not always sure of the point, particularly with the risks involved even after putting in all the time and effort.

As pianists, we have nearly all experienced the horrors of the memory slip. In recital, memory issues can crop up at any time unannounced, often in the spots where we feel most secure. Tomorrow, I go on stage for my first performance of the wondrous 9th concerto by Mozart. This extraordinary work is one of the highlights of the Classic Era—truly one of the great works in any genre. I would much prefer to use the music than to risk an entire performance (for myself, the orchestra members, the conductor, the audience) simply because of vanity and tradition. I’ve gotten to the point where I am able to let go of my own ego, and devote myself only to the task of presenting the beauty of this work to the audience. Furthermore, I like the idea of taking the spotlight off the performer, and putting it on the music itself. Rather than leaving an audience impressed my ability to remember (is that even the right word?) oodles of notes, it is my hope that they will experience a beautiful piece of music. Perhaps our audiences are focused on the wrong thing. Perhaps it is my job to turn their attention to the music, rather than the process.[1]

It is discouraging to have worked toward a performance and know that there will be those in the audience and in the orchestra who will have doubts as to my readiness. I feel guilty in some way that I’ve let people down. There’s such a strong expectation of experiencing the awe of watching this musical magic trick of memory that people are disappointed when they see a performer walk out to the stage, score in hand. The stigma for pianists (but no other instrumentalist, somehow) is that failure to memorize must indicate a lack of preparation on the part of the performer. Well, what if I play better with the music? What if, instead of fearing the possibilities that a memorized performance entails, I, as the performer, get to enjoy the performance just as much as anyone else in the concert hall simply by bringing along a book?

Somehow, historically, memorizing became a necessary element of what was considered a quality piano performance. However, in actuality, it is merely one of many tools that can be useful in achieving a successful performance. Memorizing does help in certain instances: performing arpeggiated Etudes by Chopin that span the entire keyboard, for example, are nearly impossible with the score, as are works with large leaps throughout; these are the kinds of pieces that are practically unplayable without looking at your hands. However, the jump from ‘useful tool’ to ‘necessary element’ has left countless pianists with an expectation that does not always match their performance abilities or the music itself.

I’d like to think that this is the case with my upcoming performance. So, tomorrow night, I will walk out on stage proudly, score in hand, and hopefully share a beautiful rendition of a sublime piece of music with an appreciative audience. I hope it doesn’t bother too many people that I’m looking at the notes. Maybe someone in the concert hall will have the same point of view as a gentleman in the audience at a children’s piano recital I once attended who exclaimed, after he listened to a performance by the only student on the program who did not memorize her piece, “Ooh! This one can read music!”


[1] See a similar sentiment in Anthony Tommasini’s Dec. 21, 2012 NY Times article “Memorization’s Loosening Hold on Concert Tradition: Playing By Heart, With or Without a Score.”

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