Last month I staked out a position about memorization that went something like this: that asking students to perform from memory is not in any way a necessary part of asking those students to perform well, or to become fully competent or indeed great players; that in many or most cases, a focus on memorization is damaging to the student’s work because it is disproportionately time-consuming and it leads to increased anxiety—anxiety that is often justified, since the attempt to play from memory does indeed often lead to reduced security and thus less command of the music; and that any meaningful advantages that are sometimes ascribed to memorization—which can be summed up as “knowing the music really well, inside and out”—can actually be achieved better by studying the music extremely thoroughly in a way that is governed by the idea of studying the music thoroughly, not by the goal of then being able to play it from memory. A substantial amount of what I have written in this column in the last few years has been geared towards helping students and their teachers develop ways of studying music very thoroughly, in a focused and efficient way. Further aspects of this study will of course occupy future columns as well.
In this month’s column I will write about a few more aspects of the memorization issue, including a (very) little bit about the history of memorization, the relationship between memorization and sight-reading, and some of what I think that we and our students can learn from thinking about the concept of memorization, even without taking the step of deciding to perform pieces from memory. I will also focus more on the other two aspects of playing—or learning to play—that I have mentioned as being related to memorization, that is, sight-reading and looking or not looking at the hands and feet.
It is commonly said that Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt were the first keyboard players to play in public from memory. As far as I know, this is indeed true, although it is often the case that before the first famous person did any particular thing, there were less famous—or more-or-less unknown—people doing that same thing. In any case, when Schumann and, soon after her, Liszt began to play public piano recitals from memory, it was greeted as something new. It was also not greeted universally favorably. Both of these great performers were criticized for showing off, for putting their own displays of virtuosity ahead of the musical integrity of what the composers had written. (Apparently Clara Schumann came in for more of this criticism than Liszt, perhaps because she was the first, but, unfortunately, also because she was a woman.) It was probably largely the extraordinary popular success that Liszt enjoyed as a virtuoso performer—success that put him easily in the “rock star” category—that led to the spread of the practice of playing piano music from memory.
It is interesting to speculate for a moment about the relationship of memorization to the notion of authenticity to the composer. Of course, the most basic way to apply that type of “authenticity” to the memorization question would be to suggest that music should be memorized if the composer expected or wanted it to be memorized, and not memorized if the composer did not. It seems extremely unlikely that very many performers approach it this way. I have never myself noticed a pianist playing Liszt or other late nineteenth- or twentieth-century composers from memory, but not Beethoven, Brahms, or Schubert. Memorization seems as a normal matter to be associated with the identity of the performer rather than the identity of the composer. However, it is quite common for players who do regularly memorize their repertoire to report, as a matter of their experience, that older music is harder or in some way less natural to memorize than later music. On the whole, composers are probably more interested in having performers play their music promptly than in having them memorize it. It would make sense for composers to want good performers to be available routinely to learn new music rather than to spend their time on memorization. This, rather than any particular difficulty in memorizing the type of music, may explain why in the twentieth century there was an informal tradition against memorizing modern or avant-garde music.
Memorized works vs.
After the growth of Lisztian memorized performance in the world of concert piano playing, the historical situation in the organ world was mixed. It is well known that Marcel Dupré played from memory and expected his students to do so; Maurice Duruflé did not. Surviving photographs of Alexandre Guilmant playing all show him with scores on the music desk. Pictures of Joseph Bonnet playing are always devoid of music, as are those of Günther Ramin. Of course Helmut Walcha, Jean Langlais, André Marchal, and other blind organists played from memory. Judging from photographs, Charles Tournemire played from music.
That is, Walcha, Langlais, and many others played from memory, or Tournemire played from music, when they were not improvising. The place of memorization in the history of organ playing must be seen, in part, in relation to the importance of improvisation in the work of organists over the centuries. If much of what is being done at the organ is improvisation, then the relative importance of playing music that other people have already written is reduced. Perhaps the sense of whether or not it is worth the time to memorize that music is affected by this.
At the same time, in a different way, I believe that the phenomenon of improvisation has shaped our perception of the meaning or importance of memorization in the opposite direction. Improvisation is a directly creative art, more directly creative than playing music that others have written, though not necessarily more important to the listening public or to the world of music as a whole. Improvisation is done without music on the music desk. I think that there is a chance that when some people react to performance from memory—without music on the music desk—as being on a higher artistic level than performance from printed music, they are being influenced in that judgment by the image of improvisation. At least, I think that this may be true—probably subconsciously—for some people, and it may shape the nature of the discussion about the supposed advantages or merits of playing from memory.
Related musical skills
There are also other ways in which playing from memory shares outward forms with other musical skills that themselves are often admired. For example, playing from memory is clearly easier for those who have perfect pitch, and when an audience sees a performance from memory, some of that audience probably react to that performer as being more professional, more of a musician even, because the memorized performance seems to imply perfect pitch. Or, to put it another way, it looks a lot like “playing by ear”, a skill that is often admired. (In fact, playing by ear is another one of those skills that are sometimes used almost to define great musicianship: “When he was only five years old he could hear something once and sit right down and play it,” etc.) Of course, playing by ear is an impressive skill, and it has uses in music-making. Perfect pitch can also be impressive, though its relationship to making music is complicated and not always positive. It is important, however, not to confuse these various issues. The impressiveness of the feat of playing by ear does not address anything about whether playing from memory leads to better performances.
Sight reading is, in a way, the opposite of playing from memory. It by definition requires the printed music, and the better a player is at it, the less he or she has to have studied the music before playing it. Good sight reading is a useful practical skill, especially for the most practical situations: the moment in church when the minister changes the hymn (to an unfamiliar one!) at the last minute, or the sudden request to participate in a vocal or chamber music recital. Ideally we can all choose our own repertoire in plenty of time to learn it the right way. In real life that does not always happen, and good sight-reading skills can come to the rescue. Good sight reading can also play an important part in the process of learning a piece carefully and well. Of course, learning any piece starts with reading something, whether that is a series of separate contrapuntal voices, or separate hands and feet, or a whole texture in small increments. The more accurate and comfortable that reading is, the more smoothly and, probably, the more quickly the process will go. That process can work perfectly well as long as the player can read music at all, but the earlier the reading is the faster the process will normally be.
However, really great sight reading—the kind that permits a player to sit down and perform a piece without having looked at it previously—can be a trap that leads to artistically unconvincing performances. This is because it allows players to short-circuit the process of really studying the music, discovering what is going on in the music, what the patterns are, what the overall shape is, what the rhetoric of each section or passage is about. Of course, this trap in its full form only lies in wait for a few of us, the most elite sight readers. (It is not a problem for me, for example.) However, it is a reminder of the major caution that I or any of us who do not practice or advocate memorization must give to ourselves. Since we allow ourselves to rely on the printed music in performance, we have a solemn responsibility not to use that music as a crutch propping up an inadequately prepared performance. This is what leads to the claim that un-memorized performance exists at a lower artistic level than memorized performance. I have been arguing that any suggested advantages to memorization in the realm of artistic quality of performance can actually be attributed to thorough study of the music, not to memorization itself. Obviously, in order for a non-memorized performance to express the fruits of thorough study, that study must have taken place. Over-reliance on reading ability is a threat to this, and we who do not memorize must be conscientious and honest with ourselves about this, and teach our students—and then expect them—to do the same.
Pros and cons
Although I have outlined reasons for not expecting our students to memorize or, certainly, requiring them to, I do not believe that memorization and performance from memory should be expunged from the life of the student and teacher. To start with, if a student wants to memorize pieces, I have no particular interest in discouraging that, let alone trying to forbid it. Some students, of course, come to their first organ teacher having already learned to memorize repertoire from the experience of studying piano. Some students do indeed find that they memorize fairly easily and naturally. However, just as we who perform from scores have a responsibility to be honest about the pitfalls of that approach, any student who wants to play from memory must realize the pitfalls of that approach. The first of these that can affect even very willing and successful memorizers is the time that it consumes. Is that worth it? The same time could be spent learning more music. Would, for example, learning all three Franck Chorals rather than memorizing one of them add to a student’s musical understanding of the Choral that the student might otherwise have memorized? Would the time spent memorizing the Bach “Dorian” Toccata be better spent learning a couple of Buxtehude Praeludia so as to understand better the background to Bach’s work? This particular question is less relevant the faster and easier a memorizer a student is, but it is of some relevance to anyone who expresses a preference for memorization.
Here’s another pitfall: Is a student memorizing only because he or she feels the need to look steadily at the keyboard? If so, then the time spent memorizing is clearly being misdirected. That student should, as a matter of overall security and reliability, learn to play with much less looking: the occasional glance rather than the eyes glued. After this has been accomplished—or indeed while it is being worked on—the commitment to memorization can be re-evaluated. Perhaps there will be other, better reasons for that student to continue to work on memorization, perhaps not. (Incidentally, learning to play with very little looking at the keyboard will greatly improve a student’s relationship to sight reading and to the early stages, at least, of working on a piece.)
Also, a student who chooses to memorize must be honest about whether that memorization work is really—really—correlated with thorough study of the music. It is certainly true that the process of memorization involves going over the music a lot in a way that can be short-circuited by those of us who play from score. However, to the extent that that repetition is training the muscle memory to react correctly and carry out the gesture that is supposed to come next, it isn’t necessarily about musical understanding at all. Also, if memorization is mostly physical—if the student would not be able to write the piece out from memory, or even to know and be able to describe away from the keyboard most of what comes next as the piece unfolds—then it is notoriously unreliable. In particular, it is subject to falling apart in the face of any distraction and then being very hard indeed to put back together.
Even a student who is not committed to memorization might be intrigued by trying it out as a special project or challenge on an occasional piece. I have no problem with this, as long as it is kept separate from an expectation that memorization will become the norm. It might make sense to start with a short piece—an Orgelbüchlein chorale, perhaps, or one of the short Vierne pieces. And this would be a particularly intense and interesting challenge if it were approached—at first—away from the keyboard. If, for example, a student memorizes each separate voice of a short chorale prelude away from the instrument—so that he or she could write it down—then brings each voice over to the console separately at first, and then puts those voices together from memory, that constitutes an intense and challenging mental workout. It is also a version of the kind of separate-voice study that I would recommend in any case.
Looked at this way, memorization has something in common with, for example, learning to read from seventeenth-century tablature, or making one’s own organ transcription of a song or a string quartet. It is a mental and musical exercise that might well be interesting and challenging, and that might yield some insights or unexpected results.
This topic of memorization is one about which I would particularly welcome feedback—ideas, anecdotes, reactions to anything that I have said. I will include some of that feedback in a future column.