Must We Memorize? – Stephanie Heriger

There was an interesting article in The Guardian today:,,2060997,00.html

In it, pianist Susan Tomes of the Florestan Trio questions the need for all solo instrumentalists to play from memory.  For me, this is an issue that hits extremely close to home, as memorization was, for many years, the bane of my piano performing existence.  In fact, I once even prepared Brandenburg 5 for a concerto competition, for little reason other than, as a chamber piece, it allowed me to use the score with impunity.

Tomes goes on to relate a story that made my heart beat a little faster.  She says, “I recently gave two performances of the Schumann piano concerto.  For several weeks before the concerts, I privately played the piece by heart without problems at least once a day and felt very secure.  At the first performance, however, with an orchestra of 60 musicians and 2,000 listeners, I had several terrifying moments of insecurity.  Worse, they were in places in the piece where I’d never had trouble before.  So the following day I hammered those places into my memory.  At the second performance, I had another couple of nasty moments – but in completely new places.”

And it’s this insecurity that will get you in the end.  Tomes quotes pianist Charles Rosen: “With advancing age, memory becomes doubly uncertain; above all, what begins to fail is confidence in one’s memory, the assurance that the next note will follow with no conscious effort.”

Beyond the mental anguish that comes with preparing and performing a piece from memorization (not to mention the countless hours of practice needed to even get to that point), Tomes offers other reasons why these expectations might not be necessary – a slimming down of the repertoire performed, for instance.  She also mentions that, historically, memorization wasn’t always common practice.  Beethoven, for example, criticized student Carl Czerny for playing by heart, thinking it was a bit too careless (after all, there were detailed markings in the score that needed to be considered at all times).

Given all of this, I will say, that when a memorized performance goes well, the experience can be profound.  Released from the score, the freedom can be overwhelming – but you have to trust that your fingers will follow.

So what do you think?  As musicians, do you feel memorization is essential to solo performance or is it simply the nature of the beast?  As an audience, do we consider the sight of the score offensive?  I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

1 thought on “Must We Memorize? – Stephanie Heriger”

  • I’m delighted that my article has come to your attention in Pittsburgh! I’d say that there is a crucial difference between playing from the score because you haven’t finished learning the music properly, and having the score nearby as an aide-memoire, something to glance at now and then. As an audience member I know that when I sense one of those wobbly ‘memory moments’ happening on stage, it distracts us all from the flow of the music. You sense when the performer’s mind is on ‘keeping going’ rather than feeling the music. I feel that if you are one of those performers, you should at least have the option of having the score nearby.
    Rubinstein commented that he had no trouble with his memory until his fiftieth year, after which he had more and more dread of playing from memory onstage. In his case it was clearly not a question of ‘not knowing the music’ – simply a question of human frailty.

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