Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Performing from Memory...or Not

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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
I've still got a lot to learn myself, but these are the things I most want to teach my students. With all of these skills vying for our time in a 45-minute lesson which is embedded in the life of a very busy kid, I'm find it very hard to justify spending their time or mine on learning to perform from memory.

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.

11 comments:

Kathy said...

Laura, I couldn't agree more! My experience as a pianist has been similar to yours, though I do not transpose or improvise readily. For the last several years I have downplayed memorizing for the sake of memorizing, but there are still situations where memorization is required: Junior Festival being a big one (we do not do Guild here). Our state MTA has a fantastic 10 level syllabus that includes repertoire, keyboard skills, ear training, rhythm and notated sight reading, etc. Thanks to the wisdom of those who originally put together our syllabus, there are three options at every level: 1. 'full' evaluation -- three (or four depending on level) memorized pieces + full skills .... 2. 'demonstration' + full skills but only two keys, two repertoire pieces with memory optional .... or 3.'audition' which completely customizable by the teacher -- any combination of theory, skills, repertoire, etc. I am so thankful to have this flexible program for my students.

Laura Lowe said...

Thanks for your comment, Kathy, and wow - that is a great flexible set-up for an evaluation! What state are you in? And, full disclosure - my improvisation skills are only very basic. But, even these basic skills have proven to be more useful than my memorizing ability.

lynnkie said...

I couldn't agree more about the lack of being called upon to play from memory. I feel so strongly that there is an infinite amount of music to be played in a finite amount of time-- why sacrifice precious time? In the 63 years I've been playing piano, I've only scratched the surface, I know. And I don't have another 63 years to fiddle around!

John S. Hord said...

Perform your music with your whole heart, soul, and mind. With score or not, matters not.
John S. Hord

Carol Payne said...

You make excellent arguments, Laura! I recently saw Richard Goode in recital, complete with score and page-turner. The occasion was a music teacher conference, and the audience mainly consisted of piano teachers. If anyone objected to his lack of by-memory playing, I certainly didn't hear it. All the teachers were raving about the performance!
I think memorization is a separate skill to playing the piano, and object to the memory requirements in use at NASM schools. Most other instrumentalists have no such restrictions anymore. Why are "we" putting road blocks up for possible piano majors? Beats me.

Leila Viss said...

Hi, Laura. Your list of the skills that you use the most now are why I teach the way I do. Out of reaction to a masters degree that taught me on the page skills only. Thanks for a great article and I believe many feel the same way--you gave us all a voice :-) Bradley Sowash and I are doing something about this and paddling upstream with our 88 Creative Keys Camp where we help pianists and teachers build and teach creative skills beyond the page. -Leila Viss

Jamapak said...

Excellent article! Thank you for saying what I've tried to say albeit I allowed my feeling of inadequacy to taint my words. I found myself putting the blame on myself rather than realizing until much later in life that understanding the structure of the music and expressing it musically was far more important than being able to do it off page. I think teaching good memorization skills are important but I don't think all of these evaluations should require so much. To your point, kids are so busy anymore than making them memorize many pieces just keeps them from experiencing more music! Curiously enough, once I started focusing more on the structure and theory of a piece I've found memorization to come more easily although it still sucks the joy out of performing for me!

Jan Tuttle said...

I appreciate this article so very much! I have been pondering this question myself this past year in my striving to meet the expectations for various festivals, and my own perceived standard that if I am a good teacher, my students should all have their songs memorized for each recital, and if they cannot, I have somehow failed. Trying to balance this with the things I value and use most as a pianist, sight reading, improvisation, creativity, have been at war. So glad to hear I'm not alone in my thinking!

Laura Lowe said...

Thank you all for your comments! John Hord, I'd like to have someone write yours in calligraphy so I can frame it in my studio. Jan Tuttle, yes! I feel that having my students do those things is what makes my teaching a success, but I'm starting to define success differently.

crk said...

I have never required my students to memorize for studio recitals. If they choose to be in an event where memorization is required, I give them a few lists I have compiled over the years about memory and memorizing. I DO teach sight reading, ear training, improvisation, composition, and such because they are the things the students can use all of their lives. Even if they don't play much, they would be able to play for a sing-along if given a melody and chords! Knowing chord structure then gives them the added ability of transposition (to some degree). What fun!

Jan Fulford said...

Here, Here!! I totally agree!! I have always struggled with memorization. As an organist, my recitals are never memorized. Freedom and expression are felt in a stress-free manner. The minute something has to be memorized, I freeze and feel that I am less of a musician than others that can memorize easily. What a shame that pianists are placed under this pressure. I will definitely rethink memorization in my piano studio this year! Great article!!