Pianist Andre Watts performs a concerto from memory

Andre Watts performs from memory

“Performing from memory can be a beautiful thing.”
The Musician’s Way, p. 82

As someone who has performed countless solos, I know the upsides and downsides of playing with and without a score.

We musicians often debate whether to memorize or not, so let’s consider some of the issues.

Pros & Cons of Memorizing

Pianist Stephen Hough thoughtfully examined the pros and cons of memorizing in a 2011 article in The Guardian.

For me, the main downside of memorized performance is the time required to memorize securely. Many musicians point to another pitfall: the anxiety brought on by the possibility of forgetting on stage. But we can free ourselves from that fear with deep memorization strategies.

Nonetheless, the upside is that I find performing from memory is worth the effort – it allows me to experience a hard-to-describe expansiveness because I’m untethered from a score and my brain isn’t processing so much visual information.

There can be a visual benefit for listeners, too, in that their view of my playing isn’t obstructed by a music stand. And many listeners prefer not seeing a stand, as researcher Aaron Williamon described in his paper “The Value of Performing from Memory.”

Even so, I still feel great soulfulness playing with a score, and I can commune with listeners regardless of the music stand being there. The quality of my playing is the same whether I’m performing from memory or not, although my personal experience differs. What’s more, I can position my stand unobtrusively.

So, when memorization isn’t practical due to time constraints, the nature of a piece, or individual preferences, are our performances somehow 2nd-tier because we bring music or an electronic display on stage?

I think not. And for a simple reason.

What Really Matters

In The Musician’s Way I wrote, “Every audience prefers an exquisite performance from score over a mediocre one from memory.” (p. 93)

Performing from score isn’t 2nd-tier because what really matters is that we do justice to a composition and offer each audience the best musical experience we can given our circumstances.

We might dream of memorizing every piece we present, but that personal wish doesn’t pertain to the repertoire we perform, our co-performers, or the audiences who hear us.

Let’s reject inner voices telling us that we should memorize every solo, and set aside opinions from critics, teachers, or others regarding whether to perform from memory or not. Let’s make our own decisions and perform enthusiastically either way.

In a New York Times  article, “Playing by Heart, With or Without a Score,” Anthony Tomassini wrote, the following:

“The rigid protocol in classical music whereby solo performers, especially pianists, are expected to play from memory seems finally, thank goodness, to be loosening its hold.”

Yes. Thank goodness.The Musician's Way book cover

See Part I of The Musician’s Way for in-depth practice and memorization strategies.

Related posts
The Benefits of Accessible Music
Feeling Ahead
The Four Stages of Memorization
Mental Imaging
Practicing Performance

© 2013 Gerald Klickstein