Bridging the Memorization/Reading Gap

For much of my performing career, I have been an avid memorizer. My reading skills have always trailed my chops, and as such I’ve always felt eager to memorize a piece of music as quickly as possible, thus freeing myself from the constraints of reading notes from the page. In a way, that has served me well: most of my undergraduate and graduate work required the memorization of pieces for juries and recital, and my quick memory turned out to be an asset in those situations. Even though I couldn’t necessarily keep all of my repertoire under my fingers, having a strong memorization base allowed me to brush things back up to performance standards quickly and efficiently.

From a performance standpoint, I still believe that having a piece memorized means knowing that piece in an intimate and profound way—a desireable springboard from which to undertake any sort of interpretive work. I’ve also encountered a couple of psychological studies that showed how an audience reacts more positively to performances from memory—even when they just believe they’re witnessing one, as in the case of a group that was shown a video of a cello performance framed in such a way to leave the music stand (from which the cellist was reading) out of the picture. My own audiences have expressed their appreciation (and sometimes downright amazement) after hearing hour-plus long programs of intricate music performed entirely from memory. Up until a few months ago I would have just shrugged and told them “that’s the only way,” but more recently my perspective has been changing.

To cut to the chase—I’ve gotten busy. The intense dedication to practicing and memorizing new repertoire I could afford while working on my Master’s is a thing of the past. At the same time, I still keep an active performance schedule (easily more active than when I was in school), and I make it a point to perform something new as often as possible.

As my first performance of the year approached and the venue kept asking for program specifics for an outgoing press release, I was forced to make a decision. I really wanted to present a new piece, Toshio Hosokawa’s haunting Serenade, but its fifteen minutes of slow, microscopic development was proving impossible to memorize in time. I could play the piece, but not from memory.

As I kept practicing with the score, I decided to give it a go. I would focus my practice on performing the piece while reading it. I sent off the program with the Hosokawa on it, crossed my fingers, and kept practicing my page turns.

That performance was a real eye-opener for me. Not only could I program and play a new piece, but the experience of performing from the score was fresh and positive in an unexpected way. Having the music in front of me allowed me to relax and really be “in the moment”, not having to worry about what was coming next, and letting the music unfold at its own pace. The sheer presence of the score seemed to irradiate a feeling of security, giving me a solid ground upon which to build a lighter and freer interpretation.

I have been reading a few new pieces on pretty much all of my concerts for the year. This new practice has also enabled me to work faster and better in learning new music, leading to fresher and more diverse programs. Furthermore, as some of the music I am playing is undeniably complex, it makes sense to focus on more exquisitely technical and interpretive elements, rather than racking my brain trying to remember which crazy chord follows that other, slightly different crazy chord.

As with so many things in life, virtue is somewhere in the middle—in my case, a memorization-only approach was putting the brakes on learning and presenting new repertoire. Whatever your performance level and situation, consider re-evaluating your memorization paradigm to see if there is room to shake things up a bit. You may be positively surprised by the results.

Posted on in Musical Interpretation and Musicianship


  • Sam Desmet

    I especially agree with the last paragraph. Currently, I’m in the opposite situation: I’m a European student who did his masters in Belgium, and now his doctorate in the US. Now I’m required to play everything from memory. I did my very first recital ever from memory this week, and it gives a different perspective for sure.

    Like you said: depending on the situation, you should experiment with both… Thx for sharing this!

  • Cheryl Peper
    Cheryl Peper

    Very interesting! I am more of a reader than a memorizer, but this might be just what I need as motivation to takle your journey from the other direction.