Does performing a piece from memory result in better musicmaking? Yes, has long declared the consensus among classical musicians. So much so that soloists are, with a few exceptions, expected to know what they’re about to play or sing by heart.
But this consensus is beginning to break down, at long last. And this should be good for many artists’ sanity.
The tyranny of memorization was the bane of my life as a piano student. Suffering from horrible stage fright, I would not be able to remember the opening notes to whatever piece of music I had to play after walking out on stage for a recital.
I would sit down on the piano bench, fingertips growing slick with sweat, staring at the keyboard, hoping to summon enough muscle memory so that my hands would land more or less properly on the keyboard.
A sort of panic would overtake me if my mind wandered even for a nanosecond during a performance, and everything would go blank.
(I can still summon most of that terror when I think back on this, so many years later. My fingers are sweating as I type these words.)
Collaborative piano work was comparative bliss, because it allowed me the luxury of a score on the music stand. Singing and playing the organ in church was equally rewarding, because I could focus on making music rather than remembering it.
New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini took on the issue of memorization in his paper yesterady, using French pianist Alexandre Tharaud — who was in Toronto before Christmas — as an example of why it really shouldn’t matter whether a soloist plays from memory or not.
It’s an excellent article that you can find here.
Tharaud took the very brave step of performing from a score nearly two decades ago because his sanity depended on it. He suffered from horrible stage fright and never felt he could fully trust his memory to get him through to the end of a piece, much less a whole programme.
Despite being surrounded by dozens of technically accomplished and musically expressive pianists who play everything from memory, Tharaud has held his own as one of the world’s best, thanks to his fine artistry.
The thing is, he does learn the music by heart. He absorbs and digests it and shapes it according to his vision. The score that sits in front of his eyes is a crutch, not the limb itself.
I find our annual Messiah performances to be a fine showcase of degrees of musical preparation. Some soloists are dependent on their score, others merely glance at it from time to time. You can hear the difference — and it has nothing to do with the presence of the sheet music itself.
A great concert experience is about the result, not the means — for the performer as well as the audience. And we shouldn’t confuse deep preparation with memorization.