When we see professionals perform, they rarely have any sheet music with them. Not only can they deliver a flawless performance, but they have memorise a full hour of repertoire covering dozens of movements. How is it done? And is it really necessary?
If you watch a seasoned professional, their entire performance is focussed. It seems like they have no awareness of the audience staring at them. There is nothing around them that could distract them from the intensity of the music. They are completely immersed in their music and their musicianship.
Play a couple of bars from your favourite piece. Play it two or three more times. Now close your eyes. Feel the movement of your fingers, the power of your breathing. Hear the sounds of your instrument as you move, and the quality of tone from your playing. Shutting off all the distractions that we normally contend with can have a remarkable effect on our performance. Removing the need to read allows us to really listen. To play unhindered, try memorising the music.
Of course, many of us lead busy lives. We’re not professionals. We have school, jobs, families and other hobbies to fill our days. Music is a hobby. We may strive to better ourselves, but there isn’t the time to focus on memorising music as well as learning to play it. After all, it takes years of repetition to learn a piece by heart, right?
Wrong. Many of my late start students prefer not to read the score. They watch my hands play a phrase. They hear the phrase pitches and dynamic shading. And they repeat. They are learning primarily by ear. There may not even be anything to read if we’re improvising or composing. They then take the memories of what they’ve heard and played home. They’ll practice, and then come to their next lesson having polished the phrase.
If you learn a piece bar by bar or phrase by phrase, there is nothing stopping you from reading it once or twice, then repeating until it is polished. A photographic memory helps a lot. But it isn’t necessary. It might depend on the kind of learner you are. Some prefer visual prompts such as a score with rehearsal marks. Others prefer audio cues, like when I play a phrase for them. Physical memory is very important to musicians too. We learn by doing.
It’s important to remember that the main examination boards do not require you to memorise your pieces. Even at Diploma level, it’s not necessary to perform your recital without a score. Many professional soloists memorise their repertoire. But if trying to recall the details in a bar leads to distraction or even panic, why put yourself in that position?
Orchestras, consorts, and accompanists all perform with the score in front of them. But there is a lot to be said for the enhanced quality of performance you can achieve when you are unhindered by reading a score. Your eyes can meet with the audience. You can see more of your instrument. You have the freedom to move around the stage. Best of all, you can feel every second of the music.