On Saturday night I gave a solo recital in Cambridge. It was unexpectedly enjoyable because of the audience’s warm response. Even in this season of coughs and colds, they kept utterly silent while I was playing (which has not always been the case elsewhere this winter). Every audience has its own character, and this audience had a particularly likeable one.
I played the programme from memory, with the exception of one piece. And though I was really happy with the evening, I found afterwards that I was brooding on what an enormous amount of my preparation was taken up with the effort of memorising. If I had not been aiming to play from memory, I could easily have performed the recital months ago. I’d estimate that at least half of my total preparation time has been taken up with the long task of embedding the music in my memory – which for me (as I suppose for everyone) means activating several different methods of remembering, from visualisation of the score to muscle memory. Understanding the structure of the music is a vital thing for me as well, when photographic memory or muscle memory lets me down.
But it takes so long before you get to the point where you can play a recital programme from memory. And I can’t help wondering how important it really is. Some players feel freer when they play from memory. I sometimes feel that way too, but just as often I’m a little anxious, as I play, about whether my memory will hold firm. To play from memory is a way of proving to the audience that you have taken your responsibility very seriously. But how important is it to them that the performer plays without the score? Would they have minded if I didn’t?