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The events of my last several days have been staggering. In the space of about a week, I've learned of the deaths of several friends and friends of friends. These events plus the news of terrorism and the devastating Nepal earthquake have me doing some ruminating. I've been evaluating whether or not I'm really attending to the things that matter the most, or devoting time and energy to things that I do mostly out of conformity to tradition or a fear of being different. In short, I'm asking "where are my aspirational values not coinciding with my practiced values?"
Where my studio is concerned, I'm thinking about how much mental energy and lesson time I am devoting to helping my students memorize music for performances, particularly evaluations that require a lot of memory work. As a piano student in college, I memorized music for juries and recitals, but I have not been expected to play from memory even once since then. After graduating in 1987, I have been active as a church musician, played for community theatre, played with a small amateur chamber group, and I've performed a couple of times with a local orchestra - not one performance from memory. Later, I went back to school for a masters in organ - and of the dozen or so organ recitals I've played, not one has been from memory. If the musicality of any of those performances suffered, I do not believe it was for lack of being memorized.
What skills have I most needed since graduation?
- Ability to read and respond to all of the details of notation - at sight, during practice time, and in performance after practicing
- Ability to interpret and express the music's essence, not merely the notes
- Ability to quickly recognize harmonic structure and form
- Ability to improvise, whether embellishing existing music, covering mistakes, or inventing original music
- Ability to collaborate with other musicians
- Ability to read the score in my head - ear-training
Joy Morin wrote a good blog post about the pros and cons of memorization where she distinguishes between using it as a tool for learning as opposed to memorization for the purpose of performing without the score. Memory work can certainly be a great tool for learning a piece to full mastery, but I can't convince myself anymore that performing from memory deserves the sacred cow status it has acquired. The requirement always to perform without the score is actually a fairly recent development in the history of Western music. Prior to Franz Liszt, audiences would have been shocked by it. Stephen Hough writes in "Liszt: The Man Who Invented Stage Fright:"
Chopin would not have approved; he chastised a pupil once for playing a piece from memory, accusing him of arrogance. In the days when every pianist was also a composer, to play without a score would usually have meant that you were improvising. To play a Chopin ballade from memory might have seemed as if you were trying to pass off that masterpiece as your own.Consider this: there was no expectation to perform from memory placed on Bach, any of Bach's sons, Scarlatti, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, or Mendelssohn, or any performer at all prior to Liszt's first audacious, memorized performance in 1841. If any of them could be a fly on the wall in my studio, I suspect they would all be very puzzled by how much time we devote to checking on the accuracy of memorized pieces as opposed to the time we spend learning functional keyboard harmony and improvisation. I'd like to teach my students to do so much more than just "recite" music - to be able to form ideas and speak in the musical language on their own! But, that takes a lot of lesson time, and I still have a lot to learn about it myself. This means teaching "outside of the box" - at least according to today's box - and learning some new teaching skills.
If memory is a tool for playing more beautifully, and the stress doesn't sabotage the performance, then I'm all for it. Some of my students memorize easily and prefer to play that way. But, I believe memorization should only be a tool to create beautiful music and a good performing experience - not the goal in and of itself. If if the stress of performing from memory sabotages the quality of the performance or your enjoyment of performing, why do it? I've heard a lot of people say that playing from memory is freeing, but that's only true for some people. I've performed recitals at the piano from memory and at the organ from the score, and I know that I can reach that sensation of feeling free either way - it's really just a matter of being fully prepared. More importantly, being able to reach that state with the score has been a far more useful skill in my everyday life as a working musician than has memorization.
Every student learns music differently, and some never make their peace with memorization but still play beautifully with the score. It seems that our culture is saying to them, "Well, if you don't feel happy to be liberated from the score, YOU SHOULD, and your excellent, yet non-memorized performance is substandard." I disagree. It all comes down to the final question - why do we make music in the first place? The answer is simple - because we enjoy it and it enriches our lives. The pursuit of excellence is, in my opinion, another good reason to study music. But, to suggest that a performance can only be good when it has extra requirements pressed on it beyond actual musical excellence is troublesome to me.
I like doing evaluations, especially when they are flexible enough to meet the variety of needs of my individual students and let students progress at their own pace rather than a predetermined one. Our local MTA festival requires only two memorized pieces, which is usually easy enough for my students, although a few do struggle with the requirement. We also do Guild exams, and it's a great motivator at the end of our school year when sports, spring musicals, and school projects threaten to overtake piano. Some of my students choose to do the 10-piece program, while some choose with my wholehearted blessing to do only 4. Some don't participate at all. Ironically, sometimes those students who choose to do the smaller program could excel at the useful skills of sight reading, scales, ear training, transposition, or improvisation categories, but Guild limits them to testing in only one of those categories unless they play more memorized repertoire. (Sigh.)
I no longer require memorization for recitals, and I see many teachers admitting on message boards that they don't either. This trend is not limited to those of us who teach school-aged children, but is catching on in the performance world as well. Anthony Tommasini in The Guardian, quotes Peter Serkin:
''Memory is a strange thing,'' he added. ''It can happen by itself; it does not have to be the result of an arduous process of study. But many people do it to make a big point, or out of some kind of vanity. It's become orthodoxy, which is unhealthy and restrictive.''If a student finds performing from memory stressful, I am ready to go on record as saying that I find the stress completely unnecessary. I doubt that many (if any) of my students will pursue careers as solo performers. They will play for their churches, play for community events, and maybe play with a band or ensemble for pleasure. They may even pick up some side income in the process. They can learn classical literature, jazz improvisation, sacred solo pieces, accompaniments for choirs and soloists, and even learn to create their own music without being required to memorize. In light of that, I just don't think that working on memorization is best use of our lesson time, their practice time, or of myself as a resource for my students.
So, this is a case where my aspirational values are not aligning with my practiced values. There will be some changes in my studio next year. I'm still trying to decide exactly what those changes will look like, and I'm interested to know what you do in your studios. We may choose to do more duets at Festival because they don't require memory. I may send fewer students to Guild. I will definitely devote more time to sight reading and improvisation next year. Please join the conversation and comment, and feel free to disagree with me if you can phrase it with grace and good will. I'm really interested to hear what other teachers think.