A few months ago I read a fantastic piece by Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times discussing whether musicians should perform from memory or not. This is a perennially thorny issue but it was refreshing to see this article take the stance that memorisation should not be a requirement of a good performance. It should be a choice made by the performer. Tommasini astutely pointed out that while Carnegie Hall would never think of forcing a performing artist to play from memory, competitions and auditions - that give student musicians an important first step in the profession - frequently insist that their repertoire be performed from memory.
This insistence on performing from memory is a short-sighted approach and one that doesn’t quite fit the mold of the modern music business; similar to the view that if a student works hard enough - 9 hours a day should do the trick - they’ll have a good career.
Almost all of my work is piano recitals with singers, and as is the custom, I perform from the music. I never get any criticism for it. In fact, if I were to perform a big Schubert song cycle like Winterreise from memory I’d probably be hailed as some kind of genius - give me some sideburns and a pair of Harry Potter glasses and I could be Schubert himself.
Yet, if a solo pianist turns up to a recital with their scores to give a recital of the same length, there can be a tacit assumption that they haven’t quite learned their music yet.
Playing from music is just as hard
I think it’s just as difficult to play from music as it is from memory; it is just a different skill. Playing from scores requires a level of learning that in some ways goes beyond playing from memory. There is this idea that there is a linear progression when learning a piece. First you learn it from the music, and then if you know it well enough you can play it from memory. But there is a special art to playing from a score and I play my best in these circumstances -when I have already learned the music from memory. In a way, it feels like using the score is actually a step beyond memorising a piece; memorisation being part of the process that helps me play from the score and interact with my colleagues fluently and with confidence.
One of the most frequent causes of train wrecks in chamber music is when a pianist has been playing from the music, but then looks down at their hands to negotiate a tricky passage. The most dangerous moment is when they look back up at the music as it takes a split second to find your place on the page again. Even if you know exactly where you are on the page, there is a momentary delay where you simply have to know the music by memory to cover it. Panic ensues, and after much flailing about and some dubious sounding harmony, the performance shakily gets back on track. But in performance you want to have the freedom to look down at your hands or the other musicians as much or as little as you wish. There are so many moments when eye contact between performers is vital.
It is important to define early on whether a performance will be from memory. I’m always uneasy when a student tells me that they are going to see how they are feeling on the day - deciding whether to perform a piece from memory, as if their confidence level when they get out of bed will determine whether they are going to get through the programme. Not even the luckiest pair of underpants can get you through a Rachmaninov sonata from memory without the proper preparation. The seeds need to planted months, not hours before. Performing from music and performing from memory require two different approaches, each involving meticulous work, but each demanding work of a different nature.
Make life easy
There is also an important but subtle difference between knowing a programme from memory and performing a programme from memory. Performing an entire two-hour recital without any music adds considerable pressure and a massive time-commitment in preparation. And this does not necessarily translate in to a better performance. Although I know my accompaniments from memory, that is not to say I could sit down and play the entire recital without the music, under pressure, perfectly, in front of an audience, live on BBC Radio 3.
But I certainly know them well enough not to be glued to the music. In a performance from memory, your mind can second guess you. Just one split second of thinking ‘what's the next note here?’ can send you off the rails and without a score it can be difficult to get back on track. You’ll often hear performers say that they spend only a week or so learning the notes of a piece, and then 4 months to memorise it. And when a performer has to make a living, this time can make a real difference
The curious thing is, when someone does actually have a catastrophic and earth-shattering memory lapse, and has to stop playing completely and have another go, audiences often go absolutely crazy with applause if the soloist manages to triumph over adversity a second time around.
A musical safety net
There is also the issue of damage limitation in chamber music performance. If something does go pear-shaped in a song recital, it would be extremely difficult to re-align and get back on track. It isn’t like forgetting lines in a play where it’s possible for whoever has forgotten their lines in a dialogue to improvise into the next line; in chamber music the lines are happening simultaneously and if something goes wrong, both partners need to jump to precisely the same spot. The fact that the pianist is using a score gives him the ability to jump quickly and decisively, and even act as a prompt to the singer should they forget their words. The very fact that a singer knows the pianist has the text in front of them and can feed them a line, often gives them more confidence and dramatically reduces the likelihood of them forgetting anything as well. The performer with the music in front of them is not necessarily the only one benefiting from it; performers are human (well most of them anyway!).
For me, when listening to a concert, the bottom line is always: does this musician have something to say and can they move me?
If yes, then I’m sold, whether they have the music or not.