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The Weekend Vote weekend vote: memorized, or with the music?

March 22, 2008 at 12:02 AM

I started thinking about this issue years ago, when faced with the question of whether or not to play the concerto by memory for an audition. Behind a screen, you are not generally required to play by memory. The biggest concern is simply whether or not you are comfortable. As much as using the music can seem like a good security measure, I realized that, as well as I knew the piece, I played it better without the music. In fact, having the music there was a bit of a hindrance, just one more distraction.

As a teacher, I've run across the occasional student who has never been asked to memorize anything, and the idea of doing so -- and especially of performing without the music -- is very uncomfortable. Then there's the complete opposite, the Suzuki student who has learned everything by rote, plays everything from memory, and has a very difficult time gleaning anything from a page. (By the way, these days, the good Suzuki teachers DO teach reading.)

Both extremes are problematic, and I would argue that true fluency on the instrument demands both the ability to play it freely, without music, and the ability to read very well.

If you had to perform your best piece (which is not necessarily your current piece) tomorrow, though, would you perform it with the music, or without? And what are your thoughts on the matter? Would you ever break the conventions, and play a sonata without the music? or a concerto with the music?

From Ben Clapton
Posted on March 22, 2008 at 11:28 AM
At the moment, I would say if I was to go for an audition in two weeks, I'd want the music, even if it was with a piece that I was very comfortable with. That's because I haven't had good experiences with memorisation, so I'd be more comfortable with the music.
However, I'm hoping to change that and be more comfortable with music. I'm entering a Concerto competition at uni, which has its auditions in June, and I hope to have my concerto memorised by then.

Personally, I'm a traditionalist, and prefer to see concertos from memory, and sonatas with the music because it's chamber music. But given the right occasion, I wouldn't mind seeing a sonata memorised (it's been done before), and possibly even a quartet memorised!

From Liana Goldsmith
Posted on March 22, 2008 at 12:44 PM
I was raised on the Suzuki method and my mother was a piano teacher, so I was very lucky and have strong reading skills thanks to the hundreds of group theory classes I was always around for as a child. While I love to play without the hinderance of dragging my books around, I do use the music for sonatas and other chamber works. However, works like the Bach partitas and sonatas feel better when their memorized :)
From Laurie Trlak
Posted on March 22, 2008 at 5:50 PM
I voted "memorized," but I would add a small exception: I agree that memorization aids performance tremendously, but I don't trust my memory under pressure, so even having memorized a piece, I prefer to have the music there in front of me. Call it a crutch, but it helps to know it's there! Case in point: last year I performed Bruch's Kol Nidrei (transcribed for violin), and though I had memorized it, I still used the music. Memorization kept stage nerves at bay, because I knew exactly what I was going to do and when; having the music there ensured that my memory wouldn't fail me at a critical moment.
OTOH, for Ash Wednesday services at my church, I performed the Largo from Vivaldi's Concerto in a minor from memory. But this is a piece I know so well that I could play it in my sleep! And it's not hard.
From Josh Cohen
Posted on March 22, 2008 at 7:33 PM
Although personally I find it dreadfully difficult to memorize a complete work (particularly if it is more than just a sonata movement), I also feel that playing with the music hinders the full expression-ability of the player and provides a very different experience for the audience as well.
From Neil Cameron
Posted on March 23, 2008 at 12:20 AM
Oh 'eck, if I was forced to play a piece from memory about the only thing I could come up with would be a Cmaj scale. :)


From Blake Newman
Posted on March 23, 2008 at 1:38 AM
Speaking of memorizing a quartet, My quartet and I memorized the 2nd movement of the Ravel String Quartet. It was ok . . . . but it is much, MUCH better with the music
From Amy Nemecek
Posted on March 23, 2008 at 3:33 AM
Even though I know I play better from memory, it's reassuring to have the music in front of me. Usually I don't even look at it, but to know it's there is comforting. This stems back to my college days when I played the menuets from the Bach E major partita from memory for juries. I played so well, my fingers just sort of took over. And then it happened...I blanked only 12 bars from the end, and I just couldn't figure out how to fix it. So I just cadenced and walked off stage. Embarrassing! Since then I just can't bring myself to perform without the printed page in front of me.
From Rita Livs
Posted on March 24, 2008 at 8:45 PM
I'd definitely play it memorized. If it is chamber repertoire (quartet, trio, sonata, etc.), I'd put music on, it is tradition. Anyway, still I am playing it by heart. But it is me... All cases are different. I know some great musicians (don't want to mention really famous names) who feel more comfortable and secure with music on. It doesn't destroy their interpretation at all. In the Suzuki school I work we have a rule for students not to use music on stage. Don't know how other teachers manage with it... I'd like to be more experienced to teach students how to memorize. It is my weak spot in my teaching... What I do: for more advanced students I explain form, or structure, harmony, analyse melody itself, etc. For less advanced- make just observation of finger/bow patterns, repeatings, differences between repeated fragments, dynamics, etc. What else should I do? My beginners play by heart. But after a while they grow up, start using music and some of them stuck to music only. Sometimes I feel that it is not a big "crime" to let them look into music during performance...
Thank you, Laurie, for putting this thread.

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