How important is it to perform from memory?

1st March 2017 | Concerts, Musings | 1 comment

I still have mixed feelings about playing from memory. I find that the memorising is the part of my concert preparation which takes the longest. Even after I’ve worked out exactly how I want to play something, there’s a long extra stage which is mostly concerned with memorisation. Memorising cannot be done quickly, or at least, if it’s done quickly it is not reliable. In a two-hour solo programme, ‘reliable’ is what you most definitely need to feel. For me, it requires the co-operation of several kinds of memory: aural, intellectual, photographic, muscle. Only when all these have been tested and found secure can I feel calm on stage.

Why do I play from memory? To be honest, I think it’s largely a matter of not being able to jettison the attitudes drummed into me when I was learning the piano as a child. Although I now see other perspectives, and realise that there are lots of varying attitudes out there, I still feel (rightly or wrongly) that playing from memory is something the audience expects.

I am not one of those who feel that performing from memory is ‘liberating’. Playing from memory, yes – but performing from memory is a different matter. As for ‘liberating’, I probably feel freer in chamber music, where I can have the music in front of me and glance at it if I feel like it. I usually know things more or less from memory anyway, whatever type of music it is, but if the printed score actually isn’t there, it feels different.

In the run-up to my recent Queen’s Hall solo recital, I performed the programme from memory to several different audiences in different cities. My memory was 99% secure every time, but on each occasion I had a terrifying moment or two of ‘blankness’ – and always in a different place! There was no knowing where it might happen. Once it was in Debussy. Once it was in Schubert, and once in Beethoven. The moments were tiny, but enough to make my heart skip a beat.

On the day before my Queen’s Hall recital, I played the whole programme through at home from memory. This time there were half a dozen moments where the dreaded ‘inner voice’ whispered to me, ‘You don’t know this!’ I was rattled. I had to give myself a stern talking-to.

In the event, all went well. The final concert was more secure than all the rest and I enjoyed it.

At drinks afterwards, I mentioned to someone how pleased I was that my memory had functioned securely. She did a ‘double-take’, looked surprised and then said, ‘Oh yes, you did play from memory, didn’t you? It’s only now you say it that I realise there wasn’t any music on the desk. Well, how amazing!’

Perhaps her response wasn’t typical. But amongst all the nice feedback, I don’t think anyone even mentioned the fact that I had played from memory. They took it for granted, I suppose. But it did make me wonder how important it is to do it.

1 Comment

  1. Martin White

    As a pianist (not a professional) I find I can play very little of quite a large repertory from memory but with a score in front of me I am reading it and playing it much faster than I could ever sight-read it. It’s as though the score triggers a hidden bit of my musical memory. Equally ‘odd’ is that I can picture the score pages down to the level of knowing if a slow movement is on the recto or verso but not at the detail of the notes.

    As an organist I find a score is essential as I need to mark up the pages with the registration, which is of course different for every organ. There are some organists (notably Olivier Latry, Notre Dame) who can play recital programmes from memory and that is very impressive. Famously Marcel Dupre memorised the complete organ works of Bach and played them over a series of seven (I think) concerts on at least four occasions.


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