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Does playing without the music free the musician to give a more musical and sincere performance through a deeper and more intimate knowledge of the score? Or does it not matter?
Ever since Franz Liszt astonished audiences by performing his recitals from memory, a fairly obligatory memorization protocol has been established. A soloist must memorize a concerto, unless the work is contemporary, while the orchestra and conductor use the music. The parts of the show must be memorized by the soloist, although the accompanist reads the music. After all, most good pianists are so busy they barely have time to skim through the music before the first rehearsal – although if they’ve recently played the same repertoire with a different soloist, they should remember to annotate the score with the nuances of the new. A sonata can be played with music, the argument being that it is a duet; therefore chamber music, and most chamber ensembles and all orchestral musicians use parts. Recordings are usually made with everyone involved using music.
If musicians and audiences yearn for the most expressive, communicative and emotionally engaging performance, which of these concerts will be the best: Anne-Sophie Mutter playing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto without music or the Quartet Alban Berg playing Beethoven’s op.131 with music? Is this an arbitrary set of double standards?
Mitchell Stern, violin and viola teacher at the Manhattan School of Music and SUNY-Stony Brook and former principal violinist of the American Quartet says: “If I go on stage to perform the 17 minutes of Berio’s Sequenza VIII, I could have four of the music desks lined up on the stage. But both for me and for the audience, music is more believable if it is perceived as not being read, but felt.
Phyllis Young, a cello professor at the University of Texas and author of two books on string pedagogy, believes that playing a stringed instrument is very visual and a player should keep their eyes on the work. She asks, “Would we trust a tennis coach who allowed us to glue our eyes to an instruction manual while our hand guided the tennis racket to the ball?” In a way, I think of printed music as an instruction manual. It tells us what note to play next – and maybe how fast and how loud. Of course, there are reputable soloists who maintain the opposite and regularly perform with the score in front of them. Gidon Kremer being just one example.
The anxiety of playing from memory does not come from a fear of memorizing but from a fear of forgetting in public. Practicing can be hard work, but it’s probably not stressful. A gig blackout, however, can happen to the inexperienced player as well as the seasoned performer. We have all had personal experience or heard of disaster gigs by other artists. Once I played in an orchestra accompanying a famous pianist in Beethoven’s Emperor’s Concerto. She got so lost in the opening cadence that the conductor finally decided the only salvation was to bring in the orchestra.
“For those who are constantly in battle with demons that interfere with their memory, the resulting fear, stress and humiliation can render the most intelligent and profound musician into a state of paralysis on stage”, confirms Stern. “For many, failure in the seemingly insurmountable process of memorization is often an exercise in some torturous, self-fulfilling kind of prophecy. The harder we try, the more pressure we put on ourselves, and the inevitable intrusion of self-doubt stifles our senses. Our first obligation is as artists. We actually have a unique role. Like the actor who gives life to writing, you have to take a set of notes and breathe air into them, give them meaning. Playing music requires Zen clarity of mind. If we’re too busy worrying, thinking, and talking to ourselves, how can we really listen to our creative voice? »
With sets, however, it could be argued that focusing too much on trying to remember what comes next could make a performance feel like an endurance test. Stern concedes: “In the case of a quartet, the need to use music is inherent in the amount of repertoire that must be retained by the musicians. How many soloists must hold twenty concertos to their credit during a season?
Musicians use four types of memory: auricular (the sound of music), visual (what the music looks like on the page), tactile Where kinesthetic (muscular memory – the sensation of where the fingers go and the movement of the bow) and intellectual (analysis of the structure, intervals and patterns of the work).
For some, the easiest type of memory to acquire is tactile. The muscles get so used to the repetitive motions that they work even though the mind may wander dreaming of the evening dinner menu. A student from Oistrakh told me that the Russian virtuoso practiced watching American westerns on television. True or not, this is an example of muscle memory. Relying entirely on reflexes is generally not entirely safe. A rush of adrenaline or other distractions could cause dangerous hyperactivity in your brain. suddenly you wonder about the capacity of your fingers and you are lost. A story of Kreisler and Rachmaninoff comes to mind. The two legends were performing a Beethoven sonata when Kreisler had a memory lapse. Improvising, he leaned over to Rachmaninoff and asked, “Do you know where we are?” Came the dry answer: “Yes. On the stage at Carnegie Hall.’
Auricular memory is the ability to hear what comes into your head next. Linda Cerone, violin teacher at the Cleveland Institute of Music recommends as part of memory preparation to practice singing through a work in your mind’s ear. “I’ve never experienced boredom in waiting rooms when preparing the repertoire, even if I had to cut this practice short while driving because of a few near-misses! Being able to remember what comes next is obviously valuable. If you have trouble playing by ear, you may not be able to find the correct notes.
A secure memory should rely heavily on the intellect. Irene Sharp, cello professor at Mannes College of Music, says, “If you know the inner workings of a piece, you know it better. You have to do all your homework anyway; memorization is not a plus. According to Cerone, the process starts early. ‘Although I used to ask a student to memorize a concerto or sonata movement before putting it on the piano, now I have reversed that order. For some students, I recommend reading a movement or working three times and then breaking it up into small sections, working on memory while perfecting the techniques required for a clean and precise performance. I also have memory exercises involving the playing of scales and arpeggios in all keys with the metronome, in which the success of the execution depends on the order of a series of accents: relaxation, mental perception pitches, left hand finger patterns, rhythm, vibrato pulsation, bowing. Each week, I make the challenges a little harder. It is often a concentration that is neglected that causes a memory problem. If the student has no problem, I leave him pretty much alone. If there is a difficulty, we analyze whether it is the form, the harmony or a simple interval. I believe knowing the bigger picture, like what’s being played by another instrument at any given time, is extremely helpful for memorization.
Since learning to play fast actually means playing fast, learning to memorize requires putting music away. Leaving the music open on the rack is a temptation to peek – so close the book. Divide the music into small sections. Trying to memorize too much or two little at a time is ineffective. In case of failure, do not return to the beginning. The next day, start working a new section so that the hardest practice is done when you are freshest. Thoroughly learn the bridge passages between sections. Stern suggests, “From the first day you learn a new piece, walk while you practice. Play a line while watching the music, turn away and see if it sticks. Go back, replay it, look for clues. Don’t push him. To be patient. This is not a contest. It’s about an intimate relationship between you and the music.
Focus is the key. mental exercises can help develop the necessary concentration. Practice counting out loud, away from the instrument. Ask a teacher or colleague to play several bars or phrases and stop; then you go on and stop. Practice away from the instrument, imagining the fingerings and bowing, phrasing and dynamics while hearing it in your mind’s ear. If tactile memory is lacking, the intellectual can take over. Stern’s final piece of advice: “If a musician’s fear of playing from memory outweighs their ability to communicate effectively with an audience, then it’s not worth it!”