Controversial Things We Don’t Discuss: Memorizing Music
Okay, I’ve been thinking and wrestling with a controversial idea about memorizing music for years now and have decided that I’m just going to have to confess what I decided. Now I know that I may risk harsh criticism from some, but I’m hoping that this will simply open up a healthy discussion.
My confession about my students memorizing music:
For the last two years, I have not required my students to play their recital piece from memory!
There. I’ve said it and feel slightly better. But before you stop reading, I need to tell you a few things and then you can help me decide whether not memorizing music is a good or bad thing for your students. (And I also need you to read to the end where I cite an opinion from a much more authoritative source like Stephen Hough.)
- First, you should know that I’m being bold about this subject because of this recent article that I read.
- The week before our recital, each of my students is required to play their recital piece from memory for our state music evaluation, called Music Progressions. So, they do have to memorize it.
- I speak frankly about memorizing with my students who are involved in competitions. They know that playing from memory at the recital will only help them be a better performer at a competition. So, most of the competition students choose to play from memory at the recital.
- I still frequently have my students memorize pieces in the middle of the year so that they can have a AAA piece (A piece for Any time, Any where, for Anyone).
Why might you allow NOT memorizing music?
You can see from these points that I still value the skill of playing from memory. Why then would I allow my students a choice about memorizing music?
- For every student who wants to be a competitive music major, there are at least 10 students who just want to learn the piano for fun. (I just made that last statistic up, but I think you’d agree that the number of non-music majors to music majors is probably much, much higher than 10:1. Perhaps even as high as 100:1 though this depends on your studio).
- For those students and even for the competitors in my studio, a memory glitch in front of family and friends can be emotionally devastating! Some students even quit after a harrowing event involving failed memory. On the other hand, I’m also a mother and I realize the growth in character that can come from such an experience. But I figure embarrassment and failure will happen to every child at some point or another. Why should I be the one to provide a great opportunity for this? 😉
- It is very uncomfortable for both the student and the audience when a student struggles with memory at a recital.
- I want my students to enjoy playing at their recital.
- I want students to look forward to their recital.
- I want all of my students to enjoy sharing music with others and not to dread it.
- I don’t like crying at my recitals.
Stephen Hough and others on memorizing music:
Here are a few more reasons to consider this option. Stephen Hough says,
…It goes against history to perform works of early eras from memory. It was only when Liszt, partly out of showmanship, began playing everything, including monumental Beethoven sonatas, from memory that the mystique took hold.
I like what the Anthony Tommasini (chief classical music critic fo NYT) says here:
Over the years I have observed that the rigid protocol in classical music whereby solo performers, especially pianists, are expected to play from memory seems finally, thank goodness, to be loosening its hold. What matters, or should matter, is the quality of the music making, not the means by which an artist renders a fine performance.
The quality of music making is what we should love, not whether a student can get through a piece by memory regardless of its musicality. If all of your students can play musically AND play from memory, then I think you should continue to require memorizing music. But, if you need permission to consider an alternative, then I humbly give you my permission. It’s not worth much, but sometimes it’s nice to know that another teacher has struggled through the same problem of memorizing music and come out with a non-traditional solution, even if she risks being ostracized.
I’m being a little dramatic about being ostracized. I think you all will be kind and simply have a great discussion about this. So, let’s hear it…what are the pros and cons of this decision of mine? What do you think? What do you do? Have you ever struggled with this?