Every so often, Anthony Tommasini, music critic at the New York Times, stirs the proverbial pot by penning an article suggesting that pianists stop playing from memory in performances already.

Predictably, this creates an uproar, with pianists on both sides taking up their pitchforks (tuning forks?) and storming the ramparts. Some insist memorization is a necessary measure of pianistic ability. Others say it is a meaningless burden.

Luckily, both sides can find common ground in Tommasini’s assertion that “What matters, or should matter, is the quality of the music making, not the means by which an artist renders a fine performance.”

One-hundred percent. Yet the cult of memory is strong. How many times have you poured out your heart on stage only to have someone come up afterwards and rave, “How did you remember all that?!”

Ultimately, I agree with Tommasini that how much you decide to memorize should be your choice. But it may help to have a reason to memorize, other than that it looks flashy, or that you feel you should.

Today, I’m suggesting that you should know how to memorize because it will make your life better. Bold statement? Perhaps, but hear me out. Here’s why:

  • Memorizing a piece means that you have gotten to know it so well that you cannot forget it.
  • When you cannot forget it, it becomes your lived reality.
  • Your lived realities are the enduring moments of your life.

What do I mean by lived reality? The best way I can illustrate it is to ask you to tell me your life’s story. Without any notes, you could rattle off places, dates, people and events because you were there and those things meant something to you. You might even be able to tell the story of someone else you know well, such as your favorite uncle or best friend, because their lived reality intersects with yours.

By contrast, think back to your last school presentation on a historical figure, let’s say Abraham Lincoln. Did you make a pilgrimage to Springfield, Illinois? Meditate on his speeches? Or did you use notes?

The same is true for music. If I cannot tell the story of the music (for instance, how the themes develop throughout a sonata), then the piece is not yet my lived reality. If I do not know the innate character of each part of the piece, then I may need to rely on score markings.

Lived reality is a very high bar, no doubt. But it’s also immensely rewarding. Personally, I find that my most gratifying work on a piece begins after I have most of it memorized, when it has taken residence inside my head. Only then can I form it into something that is my own, and once it’s there, it never goes away.

Again, I’m not saying you have to do this to be a great pianist. If, like the performers Tommasini cites, you’d like to follow the score in a performance because that brings you visual joy, be my guest. If you decide that putting in the time to memorize a particular piece is not worth it, then don’t. Plenty of the world’s greatest pianists play with scores to zero detriment.

But I am saying that you should know how to do this, choose when you want to, and reap the rewards.

There are few joys as a pianist greater than making certain beloved pieces your lifelong friends and growing old with them, knowing them so well and yet discovering new things all the time.

Think about it. And let Mr. Tommasini (or me) know your thoughts.

P.S. Stay tuned for a post with tips for memorizing!

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Dave McLellan

Concert & Chamber Musician

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