Memorization and Recitals

One of the easiest ways to insure a happy recital experience for all -- students, parents, -and- the teacher -- is to make memorization optional. I know there are people who will be totally horrified at this idea. "Everyone knows that recitals -must- be played from memory! How could you suggest otherwise?"

Easy. Because it's not beneficial or necessary for all students. And because students are my prime concern, not tradition or what my colleagues do (or -say- they do). How's -that- for heresy?!

"But don't students play better when their music is memorized?"

In my experience, often (I'd even say usually) the answer is no. Student recitalists are more concerned about forgetting the music and what would happen if that should occur than paying attention to the musicality of their piece.

Where did this tradition of memory playing coming from? Clara Schumann played without music, but probably the most important source of this tradition was Franz Liszt, who, on his concert tours and in other facets of his musical life, was always in a contest with all pianists and other musicians to out-do them in every way. One of Liszt's parlor tricks, if you will, was playing concerts without music.

Is this a tradition that is necessary in the private music studio? I don't think so.

I don't know about you, but I am statistically unlikely to train anyone who becomes a concert artist. Instead, I am training music consumers and college music majors.

A prospective music major -must- play from memory because that is what will be required of her in the degree program. To allow her to do otherwise would be a disservice. As soon as the student thinks she might want to study music at the college level, she should be pressed to perform from memory. If she finds it difficult or impossible, she should know this as soon as possible so she may choose another career track or work on her memory skills.

The student who will be an amateur pianist (and many of them are absolutely top-notch!) and music consumer should not be forced to play from memory. She may if she wants to, but she should not be -required- to do so. After all, she's doing this for her own satisfaction; she has nothing to prove to anyone. (A music consumer is one who supports local arts programs, squawks when music is cut back or removed from the public schools, and who makes sure her own children have private music study.)

Of course, the teacher should encourage everyone to -try- to memorize their recital pieces, but memory playing should not be a requirement for recital participation.

Memory playing adds another level of anxiety to the already-stressful public performance situation. Let those who wish to play from memory do so, but those who choose to use the music should not feel they have failed in some way. A good performance with the music is far superior to a shaky performance without it, both in the musical result and in growth of the student's self-esteem.

Therefore, memory playing for studio recitals should be optional. I encourage you to what is bests for your students rather than be bound by others' dictates or tradition. If you feel that memory-optional playing would work for your students, give it a try and then evaluate whether the recital was happier and less stressful this way.

You also may be interested in my thoughts on selecting a recital piece, particular problems associated with adults' fear of playing in public, and other assorted tips for a good recital experience. There is also a file on memory methods.

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Last updated October 30, 1997.