Questioning the Tradition of Memorizing a Score
For nearly 200 years, soloists have been expected to memorize their performance pieces. But not everyone thinks that's such a great notion
It's 1970, and Vincent P. Skowronski, a young violin teacher at Northwestern University, travels to Moscow to do something both brave and foolish: He enters the first round of the Tchaikovsky International Competition playing from a printed score rather than from memory. Competition rules specify that all music must be memorized, but Skowronski has recently come out of a two-month layoff during which he has been unable to practice because of the treatment of a cyst under his chin. He knows he'll be too old to enter the next Tchaikovsky Competition, so he resolves to play for the judges—including the legendary violinists David Oistrakh, Arthur Grumiaux, and Joseph Szigeti—even if he has to break the rules. "I did not come to win, but to play," he tells a reporter.
The audience gasps when Skowronski walks onstage with his music stand. He plays two pieces before he is stopped and reminded of the memorization requirement. Oistrakh decides to let him finish his set. Only after that is Skowronski disqualified.
Today, Skowronski has no hard feelings about being bounced from the competition— after all, he knew the rules, and the judges were gracious enough to hear him through. But for the past 30-some years, he has quietly campaigned against memorization requirements in most situations.
Obviously, he hasn't made much headway among competition organizers.
"Memorization is one of the criteria, and it's how many mistakes you don't make that takes you to the finals," the Chicago-based violinist says. "Nobody cares if you can play or not. I've seen a lot of fine players get blown out of major competitions because they have a minor memory slip or they missed a couple of notes."
Memorization remains an expectation elsewhere, too. But it's difficult to sort out when a player is supposed to memorize the music, and when it's OK to play from the score. Concerto soloists almost always play from memory—except when they're doing new music. For instance, Yumi Hwang-Williams, concertmaster of Marin Alsop's contemporary-music showcase the Cabrillo Music Festival, impressed composer Christopher Rouse not just by playing his violin concerto well, but by doing it from memory, a real novelty for Rouse.
String quartets almost always play from the music. But in sonata programs, the string player may memorize the part—or not. Toward the end of his career, Isaac Stern would often open a recital with a Mozart sonata, the music on a stand in front of him. Then he'd play the rest of the program, usually involving much more difficult scores, from memory.
Meanwhile, his pianist would play the whole program from music.
Memorization is a contentious issue, but the practice isn't likely to be abandoned anytime soon. However inconsistently it is applied, memorization has been a tradition among soloists at least, for nearly 200 years.
It was in the 1820s that the fabled Genovese virtuoso NiccolÃ² Paganini began playing entire concerts from memory. This was initially regarded as just another of the violin showman's stunts, or further evidence that he'd made some sort of pact with the devil.
Violinist Anthony Marwood of the Florestan Trio notes that there was strong resistance to playing from memory, even in the showy early Romantic period. "Beethoven got very annoyed when people played his music from memory, and called it a circus trick," he says. "Once, Mendelssohn forgot to bring his music to a concert. He knew his own music through and through, but he asked someone to put a score on his piano so no one would know he was playing from memory."
Even so, more and more soloists began playing "by heart," including the serious-minded pianist Clara Schumann.
"I think it's wrapped up with that whole virtuoso-performer tradition, showing off that you know the music supremely well," says violinist Mark Rush, a professor at the University of Arizona. But Rush believes that memorization is valuable for musical reasons, too.
"You listen to yourself playing the piece in a different way," he says. "When you play from memory, you're liberated from the printed music, so you can pay more attention to the sound and expression."
Cellist Nancy Green, a recording artist whose former teaching posts include London's Guildhall School, agrees. "Memorizing a piece gives me a sense of freedom and gets me into 'the zone' and completely into the music, rather than having a part of me deciphering little black dots."
Of course, Green is a bit of an extreme case; she plays everything from memory, even chamber music. "My goal is to feel like the piece is flowing out from within the depths of me, and to make it sound completely as if I'm making it up at the moment so it's sounding completely spontaneous," she explains. "I don't want to be looking at some reference notes. Memorizing gives me a much higher level of comfort, to walk out on stage with that level of confidence in my preparation."
Skowronski counters, "Either you can play it or you can't play it. That's the artistic endeavor, the thrill of it all, not whether you can do it without the music."
He points out that just because he performs with the music in front of him, he doesn't have his eyes glued to the page. "It's just there as a prompt in case I lose my concentration for a second. It's like the guy in the prompter box at opera houses. I have not known one singer that ever sang an opera without the prompters."
He believes that the hectic pace of contemporary touring, coupled with the teaching load carried by all but a few elite soloists, will soon make music stands a more common sight in front of concerto soloists. "We no longer have the luxury that the Heifetzes and the Elmans had, where all they did was practice and perform," he says.
Rush, who generally believes in playing concertos and solo pieces from memory, notes that some major artists of our time have elected to perform with the printed page in front of them. "Sviatoslav Richter, toward the end of his career, often played major solo pieces with the music, because he felt that memorizing it didn't really serve the audience's experience of the music in any way," he says. "Gidon Kremer, one of my favorite violinists, uses music for certain concerti because he feels more comfortable playing that way.
"No one can say of a player of that caliber that he's less of an artist because he plays from music."
Interestingly, students in American college-music programs are held to a higher memorization standard than the seasoned performer Kremer. In general, they are encouraged to play solo works (notably Bach sonatas, partitas, and suites), concertos, and virtuoso vehicles from memory, though not chamber works and contemporary music. "I don't know that that's a formal standard," Rush says.
"It's just the way that most of us were trained, a tradition that's carried on. "There's an unsaid expectation of that among people who are in the profession."
For auditions and juries at the college level, Rush says, memorization is an asset. "It shows the student's commitment. Memorization means extra preparation to become comfortable with the piece. It indicates a certain level of seriousness."
Says Green, "I would encourage students to memorize solo pieces and concertos for juries and recitals, but if a student was really apprehensive, I would say go ahead and use the music if you feel more comfortable."
Green entered college feeling apprehensive about memorization. But during the year she spent studying at Ithaca College, her teacher, Jeff Holm, turned her around. "Jeff made me memorize every exercise, etude, concerto, everything," she recalls. "By the end of that year I was so used to memorizing that I've never stopped."
Her commitment to memorization increased when she later studied with Leonard Rose, who insisted that she spend time away from her cello, going through every piece from beginning to end in her head. "You have to get rid of that whole kinesthetic part of it, where your body just does it even if your mind has forgotten the notes," she says. "Memorizing, going through it note by note in your mind, takes away that physical part and will expose any moments of weakness in your memory, where your body may remember it but your mind is not totally clear about some of the details.
"This Leonard Rose technique brings to a conscious level what the notes really are. That can help you get relaxed on stage. You don't tense up and start secondguessing every note and every shift. It never fails me to hear in my mind what the music is going to do, and not just trust my body."
Marwood, though by no means doctrinaire about memorization, says, "I enjoy the challenge of memorization. In Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale, I played the soldier, who is also a violinist, and because these were staged performances I had to memorize the music as well as the choreography. It was completely appropriate and essential to that part.
"On the other hand, I'm perfectly comfortable playing concertos from the music and watching others do so, too. It's whatever makes you feel free and able to communicate at your best."
Rush agrees: "It's an individual thing. Everyone should learn how to memorize, but I don't think it's the measure of a person's artistry."