For the musician, there are few pleasures greater than watching a world-class soloist give a stunning performance. It is always inspiring to see a performer at the top of their game, interpreting a piece of music with a grace and ease to which we all aspire. Such recitals are best seen live, but even through the barrier of a video camera they still have the ability to touch us.
What tends to make these performances even more impressive is the fact that they are often carried out with no sheet music for the soloist. Not only do they deliver wonderful music, at the same time they execute an incredible feat of memory, recalling every detail of their (usually substantial) part precisely and correctly.
For other musicians this might look as though the soloist has gone a bit over-the-top and perhaps even wandered into the dangerous territory of showing off. Anyone who has never tried playing from memory might question whether it really aids the performance to a significant degree or whether instead it is more of a party trick intended to awe the audience. If you are one of those people who think memorising music is merely a gimmick, or if you are interested in trying to play from memory but have yet to take the plunge, please do read on and learn about the benefits that such a practice can bring.
William Waterhouse, in his book 'Bassoon', writes: “My own experience serving on competition juries has convinced me that those who perform from memory consistently outplay the others. […] I believe that this enables their interpretation to reflect more vividly their artistic personality.” Indeed, that is probably the primary advantage of playing from memory: freedom from the tyranny of the printed page. In my previous article entitled 'Bringing Your Playing to Life', I wrote about how difficult it is to give a fresh and lively performance while concentrating on the notes written on the page in front of you. Memorising the music removes that barrier, giving you more freedom to interpret the piece, and resulting in a more expressive performance. You are able to connect with the music and the sentiment behind it on a much deeper level, and this brings a great sense of life and spontaneity to your playing which will be even more apparent to you than it is to the listener. In many cases I think this reason alone is enough to justify the effort of memorising.
That's not to say, though, that there are not other advantages to learning a piece by heart. You will no doubt find that you are also less likely to make mistakes, seeing as you will have trained your fingers to know exactly where to go almost automatically. Rather than having to rely on the laborious process of reading the notes, interpreting them and sending the instructions to your fingers, your brain can instead simply run through a well-rehearsed series of processes. Much of the time you won't even have to consciously think about what you are doing, it will be so autonomous. In comparison, playing from sheet music begins to seem more like the risky option.
It has long been my belief that learning a piece of music (even if not specifically from memory) is predominantly a process of memorisation. When you spend time practising a complex sequence of notes, you are in fact teaching your brain to execute them automatically as soon as you see that pattern written on the page. Of course this is more applicable to fast complex passages where it is near impossible to sight-read all the notes at full speed, and it is typically these passages that benefit most from intentional memorisation. So by making the deliberate effort to commit the music to memory, you are essentially cutting out the middle man and learning the piece in a more efficient way (even if it might not feel like it at the time).
There are also advantages to memorising slower, more lyrical sections of pieces. You may not realise it at the time, but when you play a slow piece from the music you are mainly concentrating on what notes to play, and relying on your subconscious to take care of more intricate matters such as airflow and embouchure. Play without music, though, and suddenly you will find yourself concentrating on how you are playing the notes rather than just which ones you are playing, allowing you to focus on achieving a more suitable tone and smoother articulation. Once you have committed the fundamental notes to memory you are left free to address the smaller details and bring your playing closer to perfection.
When I memorise pieces, I also find myself picking up on nuances that I had failed to appreciate when reading off the sheet music. I begin to make connections between different parts of the piece and get a better feel for how the composer put the work together. Instead of seeing just a sequence of quavers, I am forced to think of it as an Ab arpeggio followed by a Gb arpeggio, an E arpeggio and a D arpeggio – and lo and behold, I realise that what I am actually playing is a series of arpeggios that descend by a tone each time. Or I might be learning a later section of a long piece and find that one of the phrases seems familiar. Looking back over the music I find it is a variation of a phrase that occurred earlier in the work, and therefore I adjust my interpretation of the related phrases accordingly. In short, memorisation frequently empowers you with a much deeper understanding of the piece itself.
If you dream of being able to play by ear, memorisation can help you along the road to that goal as well. By playing without music you develop a much more acute sense of the relationship between notes. You are forced to really listen and learn what a minor third sounds like, or a perfect fifth, neither of which you would even think about if you were simply reading notes off the page. And the more you memorise, the more you will find yourself relying on playing-by-ear to help you along the way. Because in many cases it is easier to remember a tune and then recreate that, than it is to simply learn a list of pitches and durations.
On a more mundane note, you will also be able to forget about awkward page turns. We've all encountered occasions where nothing less than superhuman speed would be necessary to execute a certain page turn, and this added pressure is less than ideal in the middle of a performance. If it's all in your head, then there are no pages that need turning.
So if memorisation is all that great, why isn't everyone doing it? Why does it still seem to be reserved for those few who find themselves performing at the Royal Albert Hall, or being broadcast to an audience of millions?
I would say that there are two disadvantages to memorisation which tend to dissuade people from adopting it. The first of these is that it takes a long time. Memorisation is inevitably a lengthy, laborious process which must take place gradually over a long time period if it is to be really effective. This means that it takes a lot of effort to commit a piece to memory. Quite how long it takes depends on a number of factors, the two most obvious being the length of the piece and how 'predictable' it is. A long piece will take more time to memorise than a short one. A piece that features lots of repetition or is based upon common patterns of notes (such as scales and arpeggios) will not take as long to learn as a more modern work which is atonal or has a more disjointed, illogical pattern of notes.
There is good news, though, and that is that memorisation does get easier the more you do it. When you start out you may be able to learn a line or two in a practice session, but you will soon find that as you progress you are able to learn larger and larger chunks in shorter periods of time. So don't be discouraged if it seems to take forever for you to commit sections of music to memory – things are likely to improve if you persevere. And let's not forget that all this memorisation is sure to be a good workout for your brain, which can only be a good thing.
At this point I feel I should also mention that memorisation need not apply to entire pieces – it is also useful for small sections that you may be struggling with. So if you don't have the time to learn an entire concerto by heart, just pick the bits that you feel are trickiest and memorise them. You will still benefit from all the advantages detailed above, just not over the entire piece. I would suggest that this is a good habit to get into for learning orchestral parts as well, where it would be lunacy to memorise every note seeing as most of them are unlikely to be heard distinctly above the sound of the rest of the ensemble. Instead, pick out any solos or especially challenging sections and commit them to memory. You will find that doing so will serve you well not only for that one performance but also whenever you find yourself playing the same part in future. It's amazing how long these memories can last if they are created properly.
So that's the first disadvantage to memorisation: it takes a long time. The second is, in my opinion, the greatest, and the one that puts most people off the technique. It basically stems from fear.
Because let's face it, there is a lot that can go wrong when performing from memory. It is almost like a tightrope walk, with the performer gingerly walking along a narrow wobbly line of the correct notes while on either side of them there open up great chasms of forgetfulness, ready to be fallen into at any moment should they make the slightest stumble and lose their place in the music. It's a terrifying prospect, and one that is likely to give many sleepless nights to anyone planning to perform a substantial work without the printed page to keep them from falling.
My answer to that concern is a simple one: Don't perform without music. This may sound contradictory seeing as I've just spent nearly 1800 words encouraging you to play from memory. However, just because you intend to play from memory does not mean you can't have the music there as well. You might not need to look at it, but at the very least you should have it there, on a low down stand by your side, to be referred to should you experience a momentary memory lapse. In this way the music acts as a safety net, to catch you if you should begin to slip off your tightrope and to save you from crashing to an untimely death on the circus floor below. I personally would never perform a classical piece in concert without any sheet music at all. I may not need to refer to it, but having the part there with me is an invaluable insurance policy which I feel I would be truly foolish to abandon.
If that still sounds a little scary to you, fear not. For you can also read directly from the music as you perform and still enjoy many of the benefits of having memorised it beforehand. You may imagine that it is pointless to memorise a piece if you are going to read from the music anyway during the performance, but that is not the case. You will still enjoy greater security, a deeper understanding of the music and more freedom of expression even though you are reading off the page. Don't believe me? Try it. You may be pleasantly surprised.
Whether you don't refer to the music at all, occasionally glance at it to check some detail, or read every note as it is written, memorisation can be a great help. I think it is now appropriate for me to say a few words about the process of memorisation and how to go about it, seeing as I have spent so long extolling its virtues.
Unfortunately I cannot offer any hugely detailed words of advice regarding how to go about committing things to memory, as I believe different people find different techniques helpful. What I can do, though, is offer a few general tips and a brief summary of how I go about it.
The most important thing to remember (apart from the music, that is) is that what you are aiming to do is fix the notes into your long-term memory. As a consequence, you should refer back to it consistently over a long period of time. It's no good learning the whole thing in a day and hoping that you'll be able to recite it a month later. You must start by learning a small section, then building up the piece over weeks or months. It is widely accepted that recall is the most valuable tool when memorising information, so you should make a point of trying to play it from memory even if you get it wrong. The fact that you have made an effort to recall it means you are lodging it more and more firmly in your head. Another general tip is to refer back to it at ever-lengthening intervals. Learn a section one day, then see if you can recall it a few hours later. Then try again the next day. Then after a couple more days see if you can remember it still. Then recall it a week later. By going through this sort of long-term process you will fix it in your long-term rather than your short-term memory, and your efforts will have been well spent.
Personally I find a useful way of memorising things is to start by learning the first bit (e.g. the first bar). Once you can do that from memory, memorise the second bit. Then memorise the first and second bits together. Once you can play the entire first-and-second section without music, memorise the third bit. Then memorise the first-second-third section as a whole. Keep going like this until you feel you've exhausted your memory abilities for the time being. In this way, the earlier sections will be the ones you have done the most work on (so will be better memorised) and the later sections, having been learned more recently, are also easy to recall.
And there you have it. Memorisation. I hope I have been able to persuade you that it is not a showing-off technique, but a really valuable tool that you can use to greatly enhance your performance. There are many benefits to be gained, and really nothing to be scared of. So go on. Memorise some music. Memorise some music today.